Karzai's Two-Handed Grab

Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted Monday that his administration regularly receives "bags of money" from Iran, confirming an earlier report in the New York Times that Kabul had previously denied. Karzai apparently doesn't see what the big deal is, since he said he had already told former-President George W. Bush about the Iranian payments and, besides, "the United States is doing the same thing. At least the Afghan president said the money from Tehran was for a good cause: he reportedly uses it to pay "special expenses" and to help people, and in return the Iranians have asked for "good relations . . . and for lots of other things."

But getting it all off his chest and out into the open apparently did not make him feel any better. Earlier in the day, the Times and the Washington Post report, he stormed out of "an unusually tense" meeting with U.S. commander General David Petraeus regarding private security contractors. Karzai wants them all out by the end of the year, threatening civilian development projects for whom the contractors provide security (the "build" part of that whole counterinsurgency "clear, hold, build" mantra). And Karzai's not just angry at the U.S. government. He also took the Times to task for reporting the initial story, urging Afghanistan's news media to "defame The New York Times as they defame us."

The Wall Street Journal reports that Karzai is nervous that the United States is getting ready to leave before finishing off the Taliban, prompting him to seek closer relations with his neighbors, including Russia, China and Iran. The Journal also says it's not the first time Karzai's tried to influence how his country's media reports: his "government banned a popular TV channel" earlier this year that was criticizing Iran. 

Juan Cole finds the saga "full of ironies," demonstrating "that the US and Iran are de facto allies in Afghanistan." Steve LeVine also notes the U.S.-Iran partnership but doesn't see what the "melee" is about, noting that "the strategic payoff is how power operates in Afghanistan." But Jihad Watch thinks Iran is double dealing to Kabul as well as to the Taliban. Max Boot says that Karzai taking cash "is hardly a shocker," and not all that different from what the CIA is doing, although the incident is "yet one more reason why it is important to prevail in Afghanistan," as long as it takes. Les Gelb agrees that the United States will be in Afghanistan well past the July 2011 date, but he's not happy about the extended stay, calling it "devastating." 

In a New York Times online discussion, George Gavrilis says, "Iran has been a better neighbor to Afghanistan than Pakistan"—and that's where the focus should be anyway. Anne Marlow thinks the payoffs are more proof of the "venality" of Karzai, but, thankfully, probably doesn't influence his policy decisions. Tamim Ansary writes, "Pardon me if I don't die of surprise." Amin Tarzi isn't surprised either, but wonders what message the Afghan leader was trying to send to Washington by admitting the payments to the media. Whatever he was trying to do, Kori Schake responds, he likely only succeeded in alienating those who want to be his allies.