At a press conference in Kabul earlier this week, President Hamid Karzai not only confirmed a New York Times story saying that he routinely received bags of cash from Iran, he boasted about it. He was "grateful" for Teheran's generous support, he told reporters, describing the funds as the Kabul equivalent of Chicago's "walking around money," the cash was intended to buy friends and influence. Iranian pay offs ensured "good relations" and paid for "lots of things," he said vaguely.
Today, he tossed America a small bone – a three month delay in his August edict disarming and shutting down the private contractors who safeguard Western diplomats, military supply convoys, and the humanitarian groups trying to save Afghan lives.
Karzai has downplayed Iran's cash payments. America, too, has given him cash, he crowed. But America's $100 billion investment in military and civilian aid to Afghanistan this past year has usually not been delivered in brown paper bags through his chief of staff, now the proud owner of several homes in the Gulf, and Afghans say, numerous foreign bank accounts.
Apparently concluding that the best defense is a good offense, Karzai also accused the U.S. military of having leaked the Iranian "baksheesh" story to The New York Times. He also bashed American payments to the security companies that have provided the protection that his army and police can't, won't provide, by likening the companies to the Taliban and accusing them of killing innocent Afghans.
While too many innocent civilians have died in the nine-year Afghan war, Karzai's blast at the contractors is apparently motivated not by genuine concern about his citizens, but rather, by his desire to have his greedy clan monopolize this business sector in addition to those it already controls.
Karzai reportedly stormed out of a meeting this past weekend with Gen. David Petraeus convened to discuss Kabul's edict that all private security companies be disarmed by December 17.
"Our ally on the scene has gone rogue," scholar Fouad Ajami bitterly lamented in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
What explains Karzai's treacherous, seemingly irrational behavior? There are at least two explanations, neither of them edifying.
The first is that Karzai does suffer from manic-depression and has gone "off his meds," as Bob Woodward famously reported in his new book on the Western view of the dapper Afghan president's repeated anti-American tirades.
The second possibility is that Karzai is crazy, but like a fox – well aware of Obama's apparent lack of commitment to the time-limited surge of forces in Afghanistan. For while the U.S. is focused on scoring tactical victories thanks to its "surge" of forces and added aid for Afghanistan, Karzai is fixated on the start of America's drawdown of forces, which Obama has openly set for the mid-2011. If you were Karzai, would you not want to use the time remaining to boost relations with your neighbors, even with a country that killed your father? Especially if its envoys bear gifts of green?
How has Washington responded? To annoy the Iranians, State and Pentagon officials have been referring with growing frequency to the "Arabian Gulf" rather than the "Persian gulf." That will teach them. And U.S. military officials in Kabul recently announced that Afghan women would challenge an American women's team this Friday – in football. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to leave soon on an extensive tour of Asia – her 7th since taking office.
If you can't explain to the American people why 1,300 Americans have fallen in Afghanistan to keep Hamid Karzai in office and his country safe from Taliban rule, changing the subject may well turn out to be your only other option.