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Remember How We Got Into Kabul

Should it really surprise us that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the suspected druglord and brother of President Hamid Karzai, is, as The New York Times reported last night, on the CIA payroll? Remember how the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001. It wasn’t with infantry and air strikes. It was with CIA operatives meeting with Northern Alliance commanders and warlords, bearing briefcases and duffel bags full of cash to rent their allegiance for a strike down into Kabul and Kandahar to dislodge the Taliban. And, at the time, it was viewed as a fantastic success: the Taliban essentially had its back broken at Mazar-e-Sharif in November, and by December, the U.S. and its allies had installed Hamid Karzai as interim president.

But once you start paying warlords with dubious human rights records, it can be very difficult to cut off or phase out the payments, particularly when the political structure necessary to keep the Afghan governance enterprise that supports the U.S. presence in business is essentially held together with baling wire. And when the resources of the United States are tied up, for years, in *another *war a few thousand miles to the west, perhaps there aren’t better practical options than to keep making those payments. Who wants to risk an eruption, or a political collapse, when the eyes of the Bush administration are on the chaos in Iraq? And since the military and intelligence priority during that period is to hunt terrorists, but you don’t have a robust intelligence network in-country and the Pashtun population isn’t going to tip you off because you don’t do anything for it, wouldn’t it make more sense to keep renting your politically connected warlords?

When the Obama administration says that it inherited an absolute mess from its predecessor, perhaps this might be an element of what it means.

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