In Bed with Warlords

Drop the phony outrage over the CIA hiring a suspected drug dealer in Kabul's first family. Walter Russell Mead on why saving Afghanistan means cutting nasty deals with shady people.

As news stories go, it’s not much. As a window into the American soul, it’s more interesting.

The New York Times story Wednesday on the “revelation” that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghanistan’s embattled president Harmid Karzai, is of the “dog bites man” variety: prominent Afghan warlord behaving as prominent Afghan warlords behave.

Amazingly, he’s involved in drug trafficking and he’s getting money, allegedly, from the CIA.

Amazingly, in a country that’s been involved in chaotic civil and international conflicts for thirty years, the people who have scrambled to the top of the bloody heap are unsavory.

And, equally amazingly, American officials desperately working in this wretched country to stave off military defeat and political collapse find themselves cutting dirty deals with nasty people.

Is there a thinking person in the United States who didn’t realize at some level a long time ago that there were “dark forces” in our Afghan coalition? Did somebody really think we were working with the Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters over there?

The shock and the pain and the hand-wringing are fascinating to observe. Is there a thinking person in the United States who didn’t realize at some level a long time ago that there were “dark forces” in our Afghan coalition? Did somebody really think we were working with the Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters over there?

I doubt it, but Americans hate it when somebody rubs our noses in the reality of the choices we sometimes have to make. We’d rather pretend that all is well until we are shocked, shocked by the news that there’s gambling taking place in our casino.

The real truth is that in Afghanistan there are bad guys who, maybe, we can work with, and bad guys who, definitely, don’t want to work with us. If we could afford to leave the crummy place alone and let it go to hell in its own way, we would have done that long ago.

But we can’t. It’s not that the Taliban, a horrifyingly ignorant and pigheaded group of religious nut jobs will condemn generations of Afghans, especially women, to ignorant and barbarous misinterpretations of Islamic law. That we could live with – though we would need to wring our hands many times and pass lots of deeply serious and moral resolutions about it in order to make ourselves feel better.

Christopher Buckley: It’s Time For Us to Leave AfghanistanMichael Smerconish: Musharraf on Fixing Pakistan and the Afghan SurgeIt’s not just that the last time the Taliban could do what it wanted they made an alliance with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, refusing to hand them over to us after 9/11. It’s that they have built alliances with terror groups focusing from Chechnya to western China, and that a Taliban-run Afghanistan would be an even worse exporter of drugs and violence than it is under the despicable frères Karzai.

If we now jettison the Karzais the way JFK once jettisoned the corrupt and incompetent Diem family in South Vietnam (and remember how happy that made us), we’ll end up working with other Afghans who’ve clawed their way to the top in the same murderous scrum that gave us the Karzais.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m for putting all the pressure we can on the people now wretchedly misgoverning Afghanistan in order to get them to be a little less sickeningly corrupt and incompetent. And if big headlines in The New York Times can do the job, let the ink run like rivers through the poppy fields of spring.

But there are two things we can’t do in Afghanistan, alas. One is to walk away; the other is to deal only with good guys. Whether President Obama sends more troops to Afghanistan or not, we are stuck in Afghanistan for a long time to come. And whether we stick with the Karzais or find another clan to back, we are going to be forking out a lot of money to a lot of shady types.

In fact, the fewer troops we have in Afghanistan, the more we are going to have to rely on money – to get the intelligence we need for the airstrikes that the vice president hopes can substitute for boots on the ground, and to boost the slightly-less-horrible factions and warlords to resist the completely monstrous ones.

Inevitably, that money is going into the pockets of bad guys.

And inevitably, there will be Americans who are shocked, shocked, shocked!! by this horrible and completely unexpected state of affairs.

Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. He writes a blog at The American Interest.