A neo-con Yankee in Karzai's court
By M K Bhadrakumar
The neo-conservatives have all but been vanquished. But the Barack Obama
administration in the United States is making a solitary exception in the case
of Zalmay Khalilzad. He is back on the Washington circuit, repeating an amazing
trapeze act which has few parallels in the chronicles of political opportunism.
His life and times have been exciting, on a constant upward graph ever since he
migrated from the dusty ancient Silk Road town of Mazar-i-Sharif on the Amu
Darya in northern Afghanistan to the United States in search of the American
"Zal" (as he is popularly known) has crossed the American political divide with
abandon. Branded as a neo-con who contributed to the New American Century
Project under former US
defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's watch, he was indeed destined to occupy key
positions in the US establishment during the George W Bush era, which he did,
steadily rising from the position of under secretary in the Pentagon, special
envoy to the Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq,
finally, to cabinet rank as Bush's representative to the United Nations.
Now he is reportedly negotiating his way back to his old hunting ground in
Kabul. The New York Times newspaper's ace Washington correspondent has broken
the story quoting senior American and Afghan officials that Zal could assume a
"powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government". Such a position, a
senior US administration official has been quoted as saying, involves Zal
serving as "a prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn't be
responsible to a parliamentary system".
That's one hell of a cute way of putting a complicated matter in real
perspective. Cooper reveals that officials in the Obama administration wouldn't
admit they are behind the seamless idea, but apparently Obama, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton and Af-Pak representative Richard Holbrooke are all
seized of it and have been plain decent about it, leaving it to President Hamid
Karzai "to decide whether to proceed".
Karzai, apparently, is mulling over what is undeniably a most dicey situation -
the Obama administration wants to insert Zal into the Kabul power structure but
will not be upfront about it. He must be wondering that it's a bit like what
the Chicago mafia would have done to him.
Karzai can make out from a mile that the immaculate conception of Zal's return
is all about Obama choreographing a design for bypassing him. Obama has made no
bones about his contempt for heads of state living in "bunkers" and refusing to
come out. But Obama doesn't want to get rid of Karzai outright for a variety of
reasons - because he is unable to do so, because the time is not opportune to
do so when the war is almost at a touch-and-go stage, and finally, because
Karzai won't easily walk into the sunset.
So, the "smart" thing, which is the hallmark of the Obama administration, is to
let Karzai be in his presidential robe, to pamper his vanity while neatly
sidestepping him, ignore him gradually and eventually transact all real
business of state through Zal. Cooper reports, "A plan that puts Khalilzad near
the top of a Karzai government would provide the Obama administration with a
strong conduit to push American interests in Afghanistan."
Obama, Clinton and Holbrooke - they must be holding breath and waiting and
watching "whether Karzai remains willing to bring Khalilzad aboard". The
problem is not only that Zal had a bumpy relationship with Karzai when he
served in Kabul as the American viceroy. Times have changed.
The old Karzai is no more the current Karzai. Zal cannot ride roughshod over
him and expect him to take it in his stride, as he used to. Today, Karzai truly
believes he is the leader of the Afghan people. Therefore, Zal must undergo a
veritable metamorphosis himself and evolve into an altogether new butterfly.
Karzai would like to be certain that Zal doesn't begin to dictate once he is
ensconced in power in Kabul.
Obama, on his part, cannot hold out any assurance to Karzai in this regard,
either. It has to be left to Karzai and Zal to work out between then, which
they are reportedly doing at the moment in Kabul. Nor can Karzai depend on the
Afghan constitution to ensure that Zal will scrupulously function under his
For, the real catch is that Zal will be an extra-constitutional authority, not
accountable to the Afghan constitution or parliament or people or, arguably,
even to Karzai himself. Karzai would apprehend that ultimately, Zal is Zal and
from the time he hit the ground, he would be sprinting and it would be
impossible to match his stamina for outpacing his peer group.
To be sure, Zal will report only to Washington. All the same, Clinton, too,
needs to be watchful. To quote Cooper, "While he was working for the Bush
administration, Khalilzad often brushed up against other officials, including
secretary of state Condoleezza Rice." Now, that's formidable dexterity - to
bypass Condi and deal directly with Bush.
The million-dollar question, however, is what the Obama administration is
hoping to achieve by inserting Zal into the extraordinary pack of hugely
ambitious American high-fliers who are hovering around the Hindu Kush already.
As things stand, Holbrooke by himself has a reputation as a "bulldozer".
Then there is the legendary commander with the Roman name, Central Command
chief General David Petraeus. At the field level, Petraeus has just put one of
his favorites in as the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan so that he
has a total grip on what is going on - General Stanley McChrystal. The American
media estimate that apart from top-notch soldierly qualities, McChrystal has a
knack for maintaining excellent chemistry with politicians.
Taking all factors into account, Karzai cannot be faulted if he draws the right
conclusion that the raison d'etre of Zal's insertion into the Kabul power
structure is to incrementally eject him out of it. It is all a bit Kafkaesque -
the Obama administration expects Karzai to cooperate to commit political
But Zal's insertion is also about geopolitics. The regional powers will take
note the timing of his return to Hindu Kush when the Great Game is accelerating
in the Caspian and Central Asia. Zal has it all mapped out in his brain from
his Rand Corporation days - oil pipelines, containment of Russia, regime change
But Moscow and Tehran won't be the only regional capitals to feel uneasy about
the return of the thousand-pound guerilla. Islamabad too will have a vague
sense of disquiet. One thing about Zal is that he never tried to hide his
contempt and antipathy towards the Pakistanis, when he served in Kabul as
Arguably, Zal had a personality problem at that time with president General
Pervez Musharraf and that doesn't have to necessarily extend to General Parvez
Kiani, the present chief of the army. But then, Zal's problem with Musharraf
was about the shenanigans of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Afghanistan,
and Kiani was the agency's chief at that time.
That brings us to the Taliban. Zal is just the right man to handle the brief
when the US begins direct talks with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah Omar
would recollect that Zal wrote a hard-hitting article in the Washington Post 10
years ago impressing on the Bill Clinton administration to grant diplomatic
recognition to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Zal's thesis was, "you can
deal with the Taliban if you know how to deal with them". Zal argued
persuasively in his article that the Taliban were an eminently reasonable lot
with which to get acquainted.
By now Karzai would have begun to sense that Zal is being dispatched by the
Obama administration to Kabul primarily for dealing with Mullah Omar. As a
native Afghan and Pashtun, Zal can be much more effective than any of the
experts in Holbrooke's team in dealing with the Taliban.
One great quality about Zal is that he is a highly flexible diplomat. He
criss-crossed the ethnic and tribal divides in Iraq with amazing skill. Nothing
deterred him when a job had to be done. Obama seems to have decided that Zal
could just be the right man Washington needs at this point to bring the Taliban
The hard core of the Af-Pak strategy is finally unfolding. The influential
Washington columnist David Ignatius couldn't have put it better:
understand Petraeus' basic approach, try to picture in your mind a horizontal
line that charts the level of militancy of insurgent groups. On the left are
the hard-core "irreconcilables" who could never be co-opted by the US. But as
you move right along the line, the groups become more pliable and join the
"reconcilable" camp. What Petraeus did in Iraq was to move groups from one
category to the other - transforming hardcore insurgents into members of tribal
militias on the US payroll. The remaining fanatics became targets for special
forces' "capture or kill" operations, which were overseen in Iraq by
McChrystal. It was a "hard-and-soft strategy" - using kinetic firepower to
clear an area, and then gentler counter-insurgency tools to hold it and build
through economic development.
As Petraeus envisages reconciliation with the Taliban, it will happen village
by village, across Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts, rather than in a big
sit-down with the group's leader, Mullah Omar ... Petraeus wants to restore
tribal authority, as he did in Iraq, and meld it with the power of the central
government and a US-trained army.
To be sure, there is no one
in Washington today who can match Zal's impeccable credentials, having seen it
all in Iraq, and knowing like the palm of his hands the ethos and traditions of
the Pashtun tribes. Certainly, he will take his stance to the right of
McChrystal. When the tough special forces commander hits the Taliban hard,
rubbishes them and makes them "reconcilable", and when the "chameleon
insurgents" - as Petraeus calls them contemptuously - begin to peel away, he
will pass them on to Zal.
Zal will carefully roll up his sleeves, sit down with them over a cup of green
tea, and talk some sense into their dazed minds. And then, he will make a
mental note as to the fastness of the color of the "chameleons" facing him and
looking at him with their watery eyes, before short-listing them for future
assignments. That is, until a job falls vacant for Zal himself - in the
presidential palace in Kabul.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.