October 25, 2010

Karzai and Iranian money - who can blame him?

DOD photoOver the last few days, there have been "revelations" in the press that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has received millions of dollars (actually paid in euros) from the Iranian government. Karzai has acknowledged these payments, claiming they were used to run the presidential palace and his office, and not paid to individuals.

The Iranian government has said that it is not involved in paying money to buy influence in Afghanistan. First, the claim is laughable; many governments do this. When the United States gives money to foreign governments, is there not some expectation that it will have more influence than if there had been no payment? Of course there is.

Second, the Iranians have a long history of providing large sums of money, as well as weapons and training to governments and groups they feel advance their interests (as do all countries). For example, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps routinely supports Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Sadrists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan in this manner. Now Iran is paying money to the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

Iran is providing money to both sides of the Iran equation, so whoever emerges as the power in Afghanistan, the Iranians will be well-positioned to exercise influence. Of course, the Taliban is going to accept the money and weapons; they need them to continue the fight against the Americans and NATO forces in the country.

That said, why is the Karzai government accepting money? The easy answer is that Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is likely to remain that way, given the rampant corruption and ravages of decades of warfare. There is also a religious affiliation between the two, since both countries are Islamic republics, albeit one predominately Shi'a and the other predominantly Sunni. More importantly, though, Karzai is taking the money because there is no indication that American money or military support will continue past President Obama's arbitrary deadline of July 31, 2011 to begin the withdrawal of American forces.

Karzai is trying to make the best of what he likely considers a confusing situation. Commander of American (and NATO) forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus claims that the July 2011 deadline is the point at which the Administration will review the situation on the ground and determine if it is possible to withdraw troops.

Those words are in direct contrast to Vice President Joe Biden's: "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." That does not sound like conditions-based analysis of the situation, it sounds like a political promise. What we need to hear is the President and Vice President talk about victory as a strategy. What we need is a commander in chief, not a politician, but I digress.

President Karzai is trying to do the best he can based on the conditions he faces. He does not know if he can rely on the United States after July 2011. He probably has assessed the current Administration as more interested in formulating a withdrawal strategy than a victory strategy. If the United States withdraws its troops before the situation on the ground warrants, and that is not a far-fetched idea, the Taliban will have a chance to seize power. Karzai will not be withdrawing with Petraeus, he will still be in the country and has to figure out a way to survive.

Can you blame him for maintaining good relations with his Iranian neighbors to the West? If the United States deserts him, Tehran may be willing to fill the void.