How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless puppet.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has blasted Western governments, which have long supported him, and accused them of interfering in Afghan affairs by pushing hard for reform amidst widespread corruption. Worse, Karzai has threatened to join the Taliban, which he said would then become a legitimate resistance movement if Western meddling in Afghan affairs doesn't stop. Late Tuesday, the White House indicated it, too, could play hardball, saying it might cancel Karzai's trip scheduled for next month, if there are any more anti-Western outbursts.
To paraphrase Lord Alfred Tennyson: ours is not to question why. Ours is but to do for Karzai and die. More than 900 American deaths and more than 5,300 wounded (as of last week) buys the United States and other nations that have contributed treasure and lives to eradicating Afghanistan of the Taliban the right to have some say in the way Karzai runs his government.
Does Karzai mean it when he threatens to cross over to the other side, or is he bluffing, hedging his bets in the wake of President Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next year? Only he knows for sure, but with the intrigues common in that region of the world, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him switch sides if it suits his interests and those of his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who allegedly maintains links with drug dealers and insurgents in southern Afghanistan. President Karzai recently met with Iran's apocalyptic madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What do those two have in common? We can only tremble at the prospect of "more than it appears."
The Obama administration has brought some of Karzai's erratic behavior on itself. When Obama was on his way for a surprise visit to Afghanistan, he reportedly criticized the Afghan president and bragged that he would read Karzai the riot act. Worse, his remarks were leaked to the media, which reportedly infuriated Karzai and resulted in the threat to join the Taliban.
For a policy or pronouncement to have credibility it must be attached to a credible threat of action. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said repeatedly -- including four times in one recent speech -- that it is "unacceptable" for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But her threats -- if that's what they are -- have no teeth. Even if the administration gets some form of sanctions, they will not be enough to stop Iran from acquiring nukes. And who believes this administration would order air strikes on Iranian nuclear centers as Ronald Reagan did to Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor or to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's compound?
The same is true when it comes to Karzai. What can the U.S. ultimately do to persuade Karzai to clean up corruption in his government, other than jawboning? He might ask us to get the log out of our own eye first by reforming congressional corruption before we concern ourselves with the speck in his eye.
The U.S. has had a history of backing some unsavory characters out of necessity and not always from conviction. There probably is no one better than the current Afghan leader to run the country, however poorly. There could be people who are much worse, including the Taliban, which once ran things and used Afghanistan as a launching pad for the terrorist attacks on America. They would love to do so again. The U.S. is fighting to make sure that does not happen. We must succeed, because, to invoke the cliche that is never truer than in Afghanistan, failure is not an option.
In the pursuit of success, the United States might have to swallow hard and deal with the questionable leader we know so that it doesn't have to deal with the Taliban leaders whose goals we know all too well.
Meanwhile, if Karzai visits the U.S. next month, he might try bringing an olive branch and some solid promises to clean up his act, given all that America has done for him. That seems a small price to pay in exchange for our dead and wounded troops who have tried to help him stabilize his country.