Fouad Ajami, in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal, on "Afghanistan and the Decline of American Power." He notes the recent, hostile rhetoric from Afghan President Karzai is a reflection of President Obama's declining influence in the region. A few particularly salient paragraphs:
President Obama's "war of necessity" in Afghanistan increasingly has to it the mark of a military campaign disconnected from a bigger political strategy.
Yes, it is true, he "inherited" this war. But in his fashion he embraced it and held it up as a rebuke to the Iraq war. The spectacle of Afghan President Hamid Karzai going rogue on the American and NATO allies who prop up his regime is of a piece with other runaway clients in far-off lands learning that great, distant powers can be defied and manipulated with impunity. After all, Mr. Karzai has been told again and again that his country, the safe harbor from which al Qaeda planned and carried out 9/11, is essential to winning the war on terror.
Still, this recent dust-up with Mr. Karzai—his outburst against the West, his melodramatic statement that he, too, could yet join the Taliban in a campaign of "national resistance," his indecent warning that those American and NATO forces soldiering to give his country a chance are on the verge of becoming foreign occupiers—is a statement about the authority of the Obama administration and its standing in Afghanistan and the region.
Forgive Mr. Karzai as he tilts with the wind and courts the Iranian theocrats next door. We can't chastise him for seeking an accommodation with Iranian power when Washington itself gives every indication that it would like nothing more than a grand bargain with Iran's rulers.
In Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East, populations long in the path, and in the shadow, of great foreign powers have a good feel for the will and staying power of those who venture into their world. If Iran's bid for nuclear weapons and a larger role in the region goes unchecked, and if Iran is now a power of the Mediterranean (through Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Beirut), the leaders in Kabul, whoever they are, are sure to do their best to secure for themselves an Iranian insurance policy.
All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America's enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. Witness the hapless Lebanese, once wards of U.S. power, now making pilgrimages, one leader at a time, to Damascus. They, too, can read the wind: If Washington is out to "engage" that terrible lot in Syria, they better scurry there to secure reasonable terms of surrender.
The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.
In his op-ed, Ajami relates a particularly telling analogy from the late Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, who was a key U.S. ally until he died in a suspicious plane crash in 1988. Zia said an alliance with Washington was the equivalent of sitting on the bank of a great river, where the land is lush and fertile. The only problem, he observed, is that America--like the river--changes course every four to eight years, leaving former "friends" in a barren desert.
The thrust of our foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia, leaving many strategic partners feeling isolated and vulnerable. No wonder so many are trying to curry favor with Iran. In this latter-day version of The Great Game, the tilt from Washington to Tehran is both evident and disturbing.
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Ralph Peters, in his recent New York Post column. Here is Colonel Peters' take on how events play out in the region:
Coming perhaps as early as this year (certainly within the next few years), the Karzai Compromise will at first look like this:
* Karzai remains the titular head of the Kabul regime.
* Iran "owns" western Afghanistan.
* Pakistan replaces the United States as the Kabul government's security guarantor.
* NATO grabs the excuse of "national reconciliation" to dash for home.
* The United States won't be far behind NATO, although we'll continue to pour in aid to "avoid destabilizing the situation."
This being the Greater Middle East, the deal won't last. Karzai holds too weak a hand; national ambitions are in conflict; the hatreds go too deep. Here's what will come next:
* The Iranians and Pakistanis will struggle for influence. The next phase of the endless Afghan civil war will be a proxy fight between Tehran and Islamabad (alongside the internal factional warfare).
* Al Qaeda will align with Pakistan, gaining clandestine sponsorship.
* Karzai will be replaced by a tougher ruler backed by Pakistan, while the Iranian side elevates its own contender for power based in Herat.
* India will side with Iran. China will support Pakistan.
* Pakistan will find itself unable to control its Afghan proxies, after all. Another military regime will take power in Islamabad, as Pakistan finds itself bogged down in an Afghan morass and violence spreads at home.
* The Taliban will fight everybody and outlast everybody.
As our troops surge slowly into Afghanistan to save the inept Karzai government, they may already be irrelevant. We're no longer in on the deal. Everybody knows it but us.
We agree with all of Peters' points except the last one. Mr. Obama and his national security team know exactly what the "deal" is. They're more than willing to wash their hands of Afghanistan (and Iraq), allowing them to slash the defense budget and free up more money for nationalized health care and other progressive schemes. That's why our troop surge in Afghanistan came with an expiration date.