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Bags of Cash: Are Iran, Karzai Playing All Sides?

October 26, 2010 at 7:51 PM EDT
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Jim Lehrer gets perspectives on the Iranian payments to Afghanistan officials from former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali and Steve Clemons of The New America Foundation and The Washington Note blog.
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JIM LEHRER: For contrasting views of this, Ali Jalali is a foreign — a former Afghan interior minister, now a distinguished professor at National Defense University here in the U.S. Steven Clemons is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, and publisher of a blog, The Washington Note.

Mr. Clemons, what do you make of all this new discord, I guess you would call it, between President Karzai and the U.S. government?

STEVEN CLEMONS, senior fellow, New America Foundation: Well, I think as your commentary showed earlier, it’s really not so new. It would be naive to…

JIM LEHRER: Let’s say a new episode.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Right. I think it would be naive to think that President Karzai in Afghanistan wouldn’t be finding ways to cut deals with all of their neighbors. We’re not a monopoly. The United States’ position is not a monopoly. And we need to stop acting as if it is.

That said, there’s just no doubt that President Karzai is willing to play one side off another, to take influence. And we should be concerned about that. It’s just I think that we go in with a very naive picture that we can somehow control all the pieces of the game, and we work through that, that portal.

I think President Karzai is an undependable ally. I think he’s doing what he needs to do to survive, but that’s not necessarily furthering U.S. national interests in Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Jalali, how do you feel about the Iran thing specifically? Is it OK for the Iranians to give bags of cash to the Afghan government?

ALI JALALI, former Afghan interior minister: Well, Afghanistan faces so many challenges, so many problems. Afghanistan is a taker. And not only Iran, but many countries help Afghanistan.

As far as the cash assistance is concerned, I think it is not a secret. Many times, I heard it from President Karzai in the Cabinet meeting, that he said that, and he used it for certain projects, and as well as the United States helps Afghanistan, not only the government, but even some, you know, power brokers with cash and money.

Afghanistan is a very difficult situation, a very complex situation. In that situation, there are so many hands in the jar. So, therefore, it’s not surprising.

JIM LEHRER: So, what is Iran getting in exchange for this money? What are they buying? Or are they buying anything?

ALI JALALI: I don’t think Iran can buy Afghanistan with that kind of money. President Karzai and all Afghans, I think, believe that the magnitude of the United States’ investment in Afghanistan, in the presence of so many troops of the United States and the commitment of the United States, is beyond the imagination that somebody will undermine that with some money.

However, Afghanistan has to live with its neighbors. It has to deal with neighbors. And I don’t think the dealing with the neighbors is something that will undermine the commitment of the international community to Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that, whatever he’s doing, taking money from Iran or whatever, isn’t going to undermine the basic relationship with the United States and its allies?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, I think it depends on how we go. You have to remember that we’re spending now, just in military terms, $100 billion a year in a country with $14 billion of GDP. This number is not widely known by people. There’s…

JIM LEHRER: One hundred billion dollars?

STEVEN CLEMONS: One hundred billion dollars is what the U.S. government is spending right now on the military dimensions. That doesn’t include the non-military dimensions. It doesn’t include allies. It doesn’t include Iran’s bags of money.

JIM LEHRER: Does it include aid to the government itself, beyond…

STEVEN CLEMONS: No, not the non-military aid.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

STEVEN CLEMONS: So, the GDP of Afghanistan is $14 billion. And in that equation, you have a massive amount of capital and bags of cash pumping into Afghanistan. And much of it leaves as soon as it gets in.

Karzai and many of his fellow associates — I would say his associates, rather than him — have allegedly pumped about $8 billion of capital out of the country recently. And so this is where the concerns about…

JIM LEHRER: You mean they have stolen it? You’re talking about they have stolen it?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, they have stolen it. They have come by it. And that money is moving out. And that’s not healthy. It’s not healthy for Afghanistan. It’s not healthy for the United States. And it actually — in my view, yes, Iran is a problem. It could be a partner to the United States, if in fact you were able to build a broader scheme in a deal with Iran dealing with various aspects of the region.

But my sense is that Iran is giving money to Karzai to buy its own influence there, just like Iran is giving money to the Taliban to buy money from the Taliban. And the Taliban is supposedly an enemy of Iran. Iran is playing all sides.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s go specifically to President Karzai. And Mr. Clemons’ point a moment ago was that Karzai is not a dependable ally for the United States. Do you buy that?

ALI JALALI: No. I think the Afghanistan — President Karzai is an elected leader of Afghanistan. And it’s a partnership. You have to work with that government. There’s no other alternative. The — I believe that there are some misperception, distrust, unfortunately, developed between the Washington and Kabul in the past two years.

It started with the election. And at that time, the — President Karzai, you know, somehow perceived that the Washington is against his winning reelection or something like that. Particularly some of his rivals actually pretended or give the impression that they are groomed by Washington, that…

JIM LEHRER: They were trying to get rid of him. They were trying to get rid of him.

ALI JALALI: Yes, right. This was the beginning. Later on, some other issues, unfortunately, caused this misperception, suspicions. And some neighbors of Afghanistan, some enemies of Afghanistan, and both Afghanistan and the United States, actually tried to use this and drive a wedge between Afghanistan and the international community.

JIM LEHRER: What about that point, Mr. Clemons, his earlier point that, hey, like him or not, he’s the elected president of this country, and if the United States is going to deal with Afghanistan, they’re going to deal with Karzai, and we have no choice?

STEVEN CLEMONS: I think there are legitimate issues about the legitimacy of President Karzai and two fraudulent elections.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

STEVEN CLEMONS: I also think that whether or not he is the person we came up with in a process through the Bonn agreement, we have tried to develop a constitutional order.

I think Richard Holbrooke’s people are doing a very good job trying to — trying to inject civil society into the equation, but not getting very far. And when you look at the time allotted and you look at how we personalized this around Karzai, anyone who is a student of U.S. foreign policy knows we need to step back and begin letting the system begin to digest the possibility of other leaders, and not get so committed to one game and one person that we undermine both our own interests and the success.

And I think we have made ourself, we have convinced ourself that Karzai is the only answer. I think we have also failed to see the fact that Afghanistan as a whole is becoming not something where American power and capability in the region is being leveraged, but, rather, is being contained. And you see a hemorrhaging of American power in the region. And that’s helping countries like Iran, rather than deterring them.

JIM LEHRER: You read it the same way?

ALI JALALI: No. I believe that Afghanistan is not a place that the United States went to help Karzai or somebody in that country. There’s security issues at stake. The United States went to Afghanistan…

JIM LEHRER: Security issues for the U.S., you mean?

ALI JALALI: For the U.S., yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

ALI JALALI: So, therefore, I think, yes, the way out will be to work together between the Afghan government and the — unfortunately, instead of enhancing understanding between the two sides, I think these — sometimes these media reports, you know, do not help. And Karzai and his advisers believe that there is a concerted effort to pressure him or to discredit him.

JIM LEHRER: What about these reports, the personal reports, like that we had in the setup piece, where I reported what was in Bob Woodward’s book? Does that — that can’t go down very well within the Afghan government and the Karzai world, can it?

ALI JALALI: Well, I was with Karzai when he was reading that book recently.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, is that right?

ALI JALALI: And, unfortunately many of the, you know, things in that book are not true.

I have known President Karzai for 30 years now. And I have never sensed that he is on med or off med. And, therefore, I think many of these issues in that book, unfortunately, do not help defuse this tension.

JIM LEHRER: But that kind of thing was attributed by name. That wasn’t one of these source stories in Bob Woodward’s book. It was attributed to Ambassador Eikenberry.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, I think, in this case, with President Karzai, I have known Karl Eikenberry since he was a defense attache in China. And I trust his judgment.

I also think that there are lots of other players in this business who have had the same — similar kinds of concern about President Karzai’s leadership. Of course, during the Bush administration, we had Steve Hadley and others with equal concerns.

And when the Bush administration actually began to wash their hands of Karzai — it wasn’t under Obama — it began under Bush — it was at that point that Karzai reinvented himself and actually began to distance himself from the United States, in some ways as a political tactic.

And what we have seen since is that President Karzai has become a balancer among a lot of other players, the Taliban’s interests, his own interests, Iran’s interests, Pakistan, et cetera.

But what he hasn’t done in the nine years that we have been at this is come up with a construct for political inclusion in that country that will solve the deep internal divides and really what is a civil war beneath a regional contest of other powers. They have got to do that. And he’s been unwilling, and he’s been winning in the process of not solving this problem.

JIM LEHRER: Just have a few seconds left. Generally, do you agree with that, right, that things are not going well?

ALI JALALI: Things are not going well. There’s no doubt about that. But I think, unfortunately, instead of trying to solve these problems, defuse these tensions, the — this Karzai-bashing is not going to help.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Thank you, Jim.