Bags of Cash from Iran
I keep thinking about these bags of cash Hamid Karzai has been getting from Iran lately. The news has scandalized Washington, and the chatter just goes on and on, But to me, most of this chatter misses the point.
For example: a few days ago, on NPR, Terry Gross interviewed the reporter who broke this story. I’ve forgotten the guy’s name, but he works for the New York Times or maybe the Washington Post, I can’t remember which. Terry Gross introduced the interview with a remarkable little statement supposedly putting the news in context—letting her listeners know why this act was so scandalous. According to Gross, here was the United States defending Karzai and his government from the Taliban, and here was Karzai taking money from Iran, which arms, funds, and supports the Taliban who are killing Americans.
But in fact, there is no solid reason to suppose that Iran is supporting the Taliban. Yes, a cache of weapons was intercepted in Nimroz province a few weeks ago, supposedly moving from Iran to some Taliban group in southern Afghanistan, but no one really knows where they originated or where they were going.
And that’s just one episode.
On the other hand, in 1998, the Taliban massacred 11 Iranian diplomats, whereupon Iran massed some 250,000 troops on the border and acted like they were about to invade Afghanistan with the aim of toppling the Taliban. The Iranians shortly had second thoughts about getting mired in an Afghan war and pulled their troops back, but there was no love lost between them and the Taliban, and by all accounts, the mutual hostility has continued.
What’s more, along with the well-publicized horror of their gender-policies, the Taliban’s worst outrage was the genocidal ethnic-cleansing they visited upon the Shi’a Hazaras of central Afghanistan, who are Iran’s main clients in the country.
In short, the casual conflation of the Iranians with the Taliban takes one’s breath away.
But there is a foreign power actively supporting the Taliban—funding them, arming them, endorsing their ideology at its worst. That power is Pakistan! Leading figures in the Pakistan military and especially in its military intelligence agency (Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI) barely bother to hide their alliance with the Taliban. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan continue to describe the Haqqani network as the most ferocious element of the Talibanist insurgency, the most dangerous to American troops, the people who are killing Americans in Afghanistan right now.
Yet the United States continues to treat Pakistan as a valued ally in the Afghan war. Three days before the story of Iran’s cash payments to Karzai broke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was going to give Pakistan two billion dollars in military aid over the next five years. Some of that money and some of those arms will almost certainly be spent killing Americans.
There is a scandal in here somewhere, but Iran is not at the center of it.
Paper or Plastic?
In that Terry Gross interview, the conversation kept circling back to one striking detail revealed in the story, or at least a striking phrase the reporter used: Karzai’s aide apparently brought the cash back to Kabul “in bags.” In bags! What kind of bags, Terry wanted to know in titillated horror. Were they plastic bags, she asked. How big were these bags? Were the bags filled to the brim? Only halfway? Or what?
Only a month or two ago, if you were following the news from Kabul, you knew that well-connected Afghan businessmen were taking cash out of Afghanistan in suitcases, to deposit them in banks in Dubai and to buy real estate there. The cash was in their carry-on luggage.
Separate stories happened to reveal that these businessmen acquired their wealth from contracts with the U.S. military and with private and public reconstruction projects funded by Western sources. What we have here, then, is American taxpayer money going to elements in Pakistan, who use it kill American soldiers, and to well-connected private entrepreneurs in Kabul, who siphon it back out to Dubai and use it to speculate in money-making schemes.
Still other stories recently revealed that of the billions spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan, the agencies and companies involved cannot explain where most of the money went.
But there are other issues wrapped up in this bundle of scandals. What America wants and needs, frankly, is a President Karzai who operates by American rules and serves American interests. Which is fine: America’s interests in Afghanistan, if achieved, would be good for progressive Afghans.
Karzai is useful to the United States only if he has some real authority in Afghanistan. What’s the point of getting a firm grip on the handle, if the handle is no longer attached to the pot?
But Karzai’s legitimacy as a leader in Afghanistan depends on his having at least the appearance of independence. If he looks like America’s puppet, Afghans will disrespect him and he’ll have no ability to govern the country; and then he’ll be no good to America. Recently, Karzai stood up and squeaked that the U.S. military should stop busting down doors of private homes at night to arrest suspected Taliban. General Petraeus immediately eviscerated him and dropped hints that he might quit if this sort of criticism didn’t stop. Officials in Washington D.C. scolded Karzai, too, forcing him to semi-apologize. Think about it: how does the leader of a country look to its citizens if it can’t even tell a foreign power to quit knocking down doors of private homes at midnight?
Along these same lines, American policy makers shoot themselves in the foot when they cast Karzai’s cash payments from Iran as “wrong.” Technically, they have no standing in the matter. If Afghanistan is a sovereign nation and Karzai its sovereign leader, he’s accountable to the citizens of Afghanistan for his deeds, but not to the government in Washington D.C.
But of course, he’s not the sovereign leader of a sovereign country. That’s what the controversy about Iranian cash dramatizes, though no one wants to come right out and say it.
What’s more, America has good cause to be concerned about the president of Afghanistan getting clandestine cash from Iran. It’s not because Iran supports the Taliban but because Iran would like to replace America in fighting the Taliban. Iran has the same interest as America does in a stable Afghanistan—except that when the smokes clears, it wants Afghanistan to be Iran’s client rather than America’s.
Karzai’s interests are not those of Iran or the United States. He surely wants to secure his own power within Afghanistan and the independent power of Afghanistan within its region. He can’t do that by becoming any single power’s client. He can do it only by letting all relevant powers think he might be their puppet, thereby positioning Afghanistan where it has always been when it’s been independent—as the buffer zone between competing forces, each of whom holds the others at bay.