The street had been closed to traffic, the lines were long, the security was tight, the place was packed, and the joint was jumping. No, I was not at the airport or attending an event at the Israeli Consulate–although, these days, more and more places have been forced to adopt Israeli-like security measures. It always starts with the Jews but it never ends with us.
Anyway, I, and my friend from Afghanistan, were at the Asia Society to hear President Hamid Karzai speak. A warm and colorful carpet had been invitingly placed on the stage. And then suddenly, there he was, in his karakul cap and vaguely Indian, but western attire. Karzai has a slight, whimsical charm. His English is absolutely impeccable.
Karzai thanked the United States for our help–many, many times. But he also said that fighting the “symptoms” of terrorism is not enough, that the “root causes” must also be fought , and fought regionally, not just locally, that Pakistan and India were suffering just as much as Afghanistan. But he was charmingly, infuriatingly vague about what those “root causes” might be and how one might root them out.
He did mention Wahabi-style madrassas which prey on vulnerable, impoverished boys, turning them into suicide killers at very young ages. But he did not say that therefore, Muslim countries should “diplomatically engage” with Saudi Arabia to get them to stop funding the madrassas. That idea is solely an American concept and is now enshrined in the Report released today: “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World.” If Obama wins, it will surely become the cornerstone of our foreign policy towards Muslim countries. But Karzai did not suggest sanctions, or armed intervention in the matter of Saudi funding of the radical madrassas.
While Karzai did keep repeating that it was important to “end support for radicalism” and “extremism,” he did not say “Islamic radicalism.” That elephant remains in the room. I wonder what he has in mind in order to accomplish this supremely worthy goal. He did not say. I am not a mind-reader.
When Karzai mentioned that he had just met with Governor Sarah Palin and that he had found her “very capable,” that she had “asked all the right questions about Afghanistan”–the audience, the majority of whom were women, erupted into laughter, as if he’d told a dirty joke, or had conveyed inside information in a cool and clever way. Karzai had been sincere.
Karzai said that it would be very nice indeed if Muslim countries considered sending troops to Afghanistan to labor alongside of NATO troops. He was grateful that Jordan had sent some troops.
He then answered some written questions from the audience about the coming harsh winter and food shortages (America is sending wheat, Saudi Arabia has yet to be heard from); about corruption (it is a serious problem and is probably, in my view, harder to root out than “radicalism”); about the drug lord problem (“The poppies will not go away,” and without security, an infra-structure, and a reduction in demand for opium”–how many arrests will make a difference?)
Karzai did not respond intelligibly to the many written questions about the status and plight of women in his country. Vaguely, he said that everything was improving for them, including the maternity care. What??? In my view, he displayed more instinctive sympathy for the young, male, would-be suicide killers whom he had personally pardoned than he did for Afghan girls and women.
But I quibble.
And then–he was gone as suddenly as he had appeared. It was a gorgeous autumn day in Manhattan and so we slowly walked to a small Afghan restaurant where we sat over tea and rice for a few hours and I heard more about life in Kabul before the Soviet invasion and about how toxic and pandemic corruption in Afghanistan really is, yes even today: especially today, and how it blocks all possible progress.
Perhaps Karzai plans to bribe everyone into resisting “radicalism.” Why not create a Ministry of Bribes?