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[Heart of Empire]

The Long Shadow of a Neocon

Reassessing a primary architect of Iraq and Afghanistan’s current misery
Zalmay Khalilzad ©© Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

Zalmay Khalilzad ©© Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

As jihadists everywhere celebrate their stunning victories in Mosul and Tikrit, as well as the abject retreat of the United States from Afghanistan, we can only hope that they accord due credit to a man who was indispensable to their success. Now an obscure businessman seeking crumbs from the table as an “international consultant,” Zalmay Khalilzad was in his day an imperial envoy sent by the United States to decree the fates of Afghanistan and Iraq. His decisions, most especially his selection of puppet overseers to administer the conquered lands, were uniformly disastrous, contributing in large degree to the catastrophes of today. To be sure, many others among the neocon clique and their liberal-democrat interventionist allies deserve a place on the jihadist honor roll of useful idiots, but few contributed as much as Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former academic who selected Hamid Karzai and Nuri al-Maliki as suitable leaders for their respective countries.

Initially promoted up the ranks of the national-security clerisy by Albert Wohlstetter, the dark eminence of neoconservative theology who also mentored neocon godfather Richard Perle, Khalilzad found a useful niche in such company as the only Muslim any of them knew, ready to spout their militarist nostrums at the flutter of a grant check. I myself got an early intimation of Khalilzad’s tenuous grasp on military reality in 1981, when he assured me in all seriousness that the Afghan mujahideen were enjoying great success in disabling Soviet tanks by thrusting thick carpets into their treads. During the administration of the elder Bush, he worked in the Pentagon under Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. In 1992 he wrote the initial draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, which became an iconic neoconservative text.

Khalilzad’s leap out of relative obscurity came with the post-9/11 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, an Afghan Loya Jirga assembly indicated by a clear majority that they wanted their aged king, Zahir Shah, to return from his long exile in Rome to preside over the government. This was not to the taste of presidential special envoy, and later ambassador, Khalilzad, who importuned Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi to prevent the Shah from leaving Rome as he meanwhile brusquely informed the Loya Jirga that their leader was to be Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun of modest reputation.

Afghan politicians of all stripes concluded that Khalilzad had purposefully picked someone with little internal support in order to ensure that his own authority remained unchallenged. This authority he exercised by operating as supreme warlord, rewarding or threatening the lesser strongmen who had emerged in various provincial power bases with grants of aid or threats of airstrikes from the bombers and Predator drones at his command.

Afghans who could foresee the inevitable consequence of this laissez-faire policy toward the universally hated warlords did their best to persuade Khalilzad to change course. One of them later related to me that he suggested that Khalilzad put “ten of them in handcuffs and ship them off to the International Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity.”

“I’m going to bring them in and demobilize them,” countered Khalilzad confidently.

“No, Zal,” replied the Afghan sadly, “you’re going to legitimize them.”

So it transpired. While Karzai presided, in his self-designed costume of furry hat and cape, over a regime of staggering corruption, large swaths of Afghanistan fell under the control of characters like Hazrat Ali, a ruffian of pliable loyalties who used American support to gain control of the eastern city of Jalalabad and installed himself, with Khalilzad’s approval, as security chief of Nangahar Province. He then began vying with fellow warlord Sher Mohammed Akhunzada for the title of world’s leading heroin trafficker (a practice both men denied engaging in) while delivering hapless victims labeled “high value targets” to the torture cells of Bagram or the oubliette of Guantánamo. In inevitable consequence, disgusted Afghans rallied to a resurgent Taliban. The rest is history.

Resolutely failing upward, Khalilzad became the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2005. His signal accomplishment came in 2006, when, searching for a suitable candidate to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, he summoned Nuri al-Maliki, a relatively low-ranking Dawa Party functionary who had spent much of his adult life in exile in Damascus (with an intervening spell in Tehran), where he subsisted on the earnings of a butcher shop he’d opened. Maliki’s party activities were largely related to security, and his experiences imbued him with a generally paranoid attitude to the outside world — not the best preparation for reconciling Iraq’s disparate sects and factions.

Nevertheless, Khalilzad thought Maliki was just the man to make piece with the Sunnis, crack down on Moqtada al-Sadr (whom the American government mistakenly believed to be an Iranian pawn), and stand up to the Iranians. Summoned by Khalilzad, Maliki was abruptly informed that he was to become prime minister. “Are you serious?” said the astonished erstwhile butcher. The British ambassador, William Patey, had been invited to attend the meeting but when he started to object to Maliki’s anointment, Khalilzad promptly kicked him out of the room.

True to form, all of Khalilzad’s presumptions about Maliki turned out to be wholly in error. So far from reconciling with Sunnis, Maliki went out of his way to alienate them, combining paranoia about the possibility of a neo-Baathist coup with an opportunistic calculation that heightened sectarian tension would bolster his support among Shia. He showed no sign of serving as the wished-for bulwark against Tehran, and, most importantly, evinced little interest in building a responsible administration. Instead, Iraqi government, never a model of probity, devolved into a midden of corruption in which every office, including those in the military, was for sale. By 2014, the going price for command of an Iraqi army division was reported to be around $1 million, payable over two years as the purchaser recouped his investment via fees levied at roadblocks and other revenue streams. Little wonder that when called on to fight the disciplined and ruthless ISIS, the Iraqi army has melted away.

Meanwhile, Khalilzad’s other choice, Hamid Karzai, has overseen a reign of pillage similar in scale to Maliki’s, opening the way for a Taliban restoration and rendering futile the entire American investment in Afghanistan. Defeat is an orphan, they say, but it would be a shame if this particular parent of America’s twenty-first-century humiliations were to be totally forgotten.

(@andrewmcockburn) is Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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