Sharper than the serpent’s tooth, goes the saying, is a thankless child.
As Hamid Karzai howled to the heavens one last time, taking names and seeking redemption, the world shrugged. They had heard it all before: for 13 years, Hamid Karzai had a sad song to sing — either at America’s feet, or at its throat. Now departing the scene, hat in hand, the president’s voice cracked.
A farewell address is a statesman’s swansong: to admit to past mistakes, to point to new horizons and, above all, exit the stage with grace and gratitude. But that would be unfaithful to Mr Karzai and the themes that define his presidency: a mob movie of bombs, drugs and dollars since 2001. In its own way, the speech was classic Hamid — the gentle accent, the petty tones, and the scrub-scrub of hands covered in blood.
But it was also a final hurrah: one last swipe at the America that fed him; one last salvo at the Pakistan that sheltered him. ‘Today, I tell you again that the war in Afghanistan is not our war,’ pleaded Mr Karzai, “but imposed on us and we are the victims. No peace will arrive unless the US or Pakistan want it.’
Worthy sentiment, one would think, coming from the average Afghan citizen; an 18-year-old with the world’s lowest life expectancy, who was born in war and may possibly die in it. But it sours coming from Mr Karzai, who has lived on the charity of his countrymen’s killers.
The latter seems hard to believe now that the president’s rebranded himself an opposition leader of sorts — one hilariously against his own government. The sympathetic among us would make room for Mr Karzai’s split personality disorder; after all, few would own an administration best-known for legalising marital rape, rigged elections and dead children.
And yet even for the president, this latest yelping and yowling is unseemly. Mr Karzai and his late brother — formerly Kandahar’s most eligible drug peddler — were largely sustained by piles of CIA ‘black cash’, a cute expression the Western press trotted out last year.
As for the Brother Neighbour, Mr Karzai has much reason to find fault with Pakistan (even as Mullah Fazlullah hangs out in Kunar). Though the president spent the ’80s in Quetta — terrified of the Soviets next door — that means little today. From what we know, it was an idyllic time: while fellow resisters were tortured by Dr Najibullah, Mr Karzai whiled away his exile roaming the hills and contracting for the CIA.
Yet despite Mr Karzai’s anger, history tells us America’s minions-in-war often suffer separation anxiety — South Vietnam’s Thieu comes to mind. With the Viet Cong closing in, Thieu memorably screamed, ‘You Americans with your 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam! You were not defeated! You ran away!’
But before they run away again, would we remember how the Ballad of President Karzai began in the first place? Even after the Taliban fell, the Afghans never wanted weedy old Karzai as president. That would have been Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. Having detected something of a spine in the ex-royal, the Americans ran interference. As the loya jirga prepared to elect Zahir Shah, Bush Co.’s Zalmay Khalilzad bullied the king into withdrawing his candidacy — via written statement prepared by Mr Karzai’s staff.
One thousand of the 1,500 delegates left for their villages in disgust, with the rump voting whichever way the Americans pointed. And Mr Karzai would go on to be president until last week (around the same time we found out the Justice Department was investigating Zalmay Khalilzad for money laundering).
But it’s 1996, not 2001, that worries the West. As Mr Karzai nears the end of his trials, references to another Afghan stooge — the late Dr Najibullah — are pouring in thick and fast. Mr Karzai has long been compared to the good doctor, but it is a comparison that’s wearing thin.
For one, Najib wasn’t afraid of commitment. Conservatives called him ‘the Bull’; a human giant that, egged on by his red-and-gold backers, literally stamped on the heads of dissidents (Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane could be a nickname more current).
On some level, Mr Karzai is aware of the dead bear in the room. ‘Why are you building prisons in Afghanistan? Isn’t that what the Soviets did?’ he asked Senator Graham in 2008. Besides, Mr Karzai has a natural advantage over Najib: he’s still breathing, and his most important parts are intact.
Of course, that may be down to logistics: as Fred Kaplan put it, the US military presence has been the sole barrier between Karzai’s neck and a rope tied to a lamp post.
Might the president save himself instead? Asked about his retirement plans, Mr Karzai said, ‘I will be 56-and-a-half, and I will be no longer the President. So I will have plenty of time, and if God gives me a life, to go around, visit the country and enjoy myself and go to cafes, visit London during Christmas, and see the lights, visit places, work on Afghan education and be with the Afghan people.’
At best, Mr Karzai can be another Karmal — the only commie boss that wasn’t butchered — dying in Moscow after a long, lonely exile. Mr Karzai would do well to seek solace in Washington instead, the land that coroneted him king.
It’s a quaint Americanism: the actor Cary Grant saying, ‘I made up the name Cary Grant, and then I became him.’ But then all of Mr Karzai is a quaint Americanism — the exoticness that so charms Western observers — the karakul hat, the purple-and-green chapan, the way he glides around his broken, screaming country like the last son of a fringe aristocracy.
In his farewell address, the president may have mentioned the US and Pakistan; he didn’t mention the state’s involvement in drug trafficking, or in its death squads. He didn’t mention General Dostum, or Brother Wali. He didn’t mention his fondness for Don Rumsfeld, or the 15,000 Afghan troops dying in a war he feigned believing in. Yes, in the end, the president mentioned nothing.
He was, after all, looking at a lifetime of London Christmases.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2014.
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