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Why Are We Still Backing Hamid Karzai?

“The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen.” Thus spoke Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday to the loya jirga, his country’s traditional council of elders and notables. He warmed up to the theme and the image. “They should not interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest. They are training our police. Their assistance is good for Afghanistan.”

Dependence and hucksterism have rarely spoken with such confidence. The “they” in this astounding piece of oratory are of course the American backers of this most brazen of “allies” and clients. American and NATO forces bleed in that hopeless land, Al Qaeda fighters who pulled our soldiers into the Hindu Kush are mostly gone by now. Yemen, with a treacherous coastline and a proximity to the oil wealth of the Arabian Peninsula, is a more hospitable place for the brigades of terror. There is nothing of value in Afghanistan, America’s longest war has lost the rationale it had a decade ago, no American fortune hunters with shovels and pickaxes are on their way in search of gold in the bleak Afghan hills. Yet Karzai, a brazen and ungrateful client, speaks with unbounded confidence. He offers us the most peculiar of gifts—the right to stay on indefinitely, shore up his regime, and pour our scarce treasure for his family and retainers. That Afghan lion doesn’t make its own kills.

American policy has emboldened Karzai. Great wealth came to his impoverished country, and the opportunities for banditry have fed into a culture of dependence and corruption. Truth be known, neither the Karzai regime, nor the Taliban warlords, want the Americans out of Afghanistan. The treasure we pour into that country sustains the ruling cabal and the Taliban alike. We are the straight man at the bazaar, the stranger fleeced by the locals. The protection money we pay for our convoys wends its way into the pockets of the Taliban. Long ago, Afghan society had lost the ability to provide for its own people: There is no economic life to speak of, the pillars are the drug trade and the foreign handouts. It is in the interest of the Afghans that their country be seen as a dangerous land. Were we to head for the exits, the Afghans are certain to block our way with reminders that Al Qaeda is there, or could make a quick return. This is an odd kind of nationalism, one that wants to keep a foreign military presence—and deride it at the same time.

Our predicament in Afghanistan is self-inflicted. We drove up the strategic rent of Afghan real estate. President George W. Bush flattered and indulged Karzai aplenty; the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan added to the Afghan president’s insolence.  Afghanistan became the good war of necessity, a rebuke to that bad war of choice in Iraq.  Iraq had been the “stupid” war, so Afghanistan must be, by default, the “smart” war. We could never discipline Karzai, nor ask of him the minimum of public decorum. He could belittle our sacrifices and get away with it. “They do give us bags of money—yes, yes, it is done. We are grateful to the Iranians for this,” Karzai said last year in a typically audacious way. The big money came from the Western democracies; Iran was next door and could buy influence with a small amount of baksheesh. After all, the Iranians have bazaars of their own and they can price things at or near what they are worth. Bags of cash, the reports from Afghanistan confirm, are hauled out of Kabul to Dubai, and there are eight flights a day to the casino and tax haven that Dubai has become.

So we are to remain on that Kabul hook. We are to do so without a serious debate, and our electoral calendar being what it is, we are not to take up the question and the costs of Afghanistan in the run-up to our presidential contest. Karzai will be what he has been—unrepentant and unreformed. A cable from Kabul, in 2009, by then U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry remains unchallenged in the truth it spoke about the Afghan burden—and Hamid Karzai. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” Ambassador Eikenberry wrote. “He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

Say what you will about Hamid Karzai, the man knows what he wants. The ways of Karzai are of course no mystery to our leaders. In Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, the president asks, and answers, the central question: “Why should Karzai change?” Why indeed? Mr. Obama laid out the consequences. The Afghan ruler had no incentives for reform, and the “U.S. would be stuck tending to the country for him.”

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.