The rise and [impending] fall of two Pashtun celebrities

Whether it’s in nation-building, nation-ruling, poppy-growing, culinary enterprises or sartorial affairs, it’s Pashtuns from Afghanistan that are leading the way these days. Pride must be running high in and out of Kabul . And much of this world-wide celebrity status centers on two genteel men: Zalmay Khalilzad and Hamid Karzai.

Ambassador Khalilzad has come a long way from the time he arrived in the US as an exchange high school student to his present position as Bush’s “enforcer” in Iraq … his diplomatic rank falling short of the stature he truly commands.

For all his denials of being Bush’s bagman in Baghdad to force a quick resolution for Iraq, Dr. Khalilzad is exactly that… even if he portrays himself as a facilitator or option provider to Kurds, Shia and Sunni alike in their drafting of a constitution. Unfortunately, no matter what skills, or gift of persuasion, he brings to the table; his mission was doomed from the start.

Let’s be real for once! The moment Bush decided on Saddam Hussein’s fate; he was deciding Iraq ’s fate as well. Not as a hoped for democracy, but as a tripartite mess. Not that the dweller of the White House, or his retinue of incompetent advisors, wanted it that way… but any serious student of the peoples and cultures of Iraq would have easily predicted the current outcome: the logical reaction to an illogical action.

Willingly or not, Khalilzad, as agent for the Bush administration, has made America a partner in drafting a constitution that promotes the rights of groups and religion above those of the people… as if more interested in affirmative action [to redeem Baath era crimes of the past] than in creating a forward-looking document having a united purpose for all Iraqi people. A “switch in power” from Sunnis to Shiites and Kurds… without an acceptable central civil code for all. It would seem unreasonable in the eyes of the free world to end up with a constitution which takes steps backwards in human rights, women’ rights and secularism… yet brandish US ’ imprimatur!

Truth be said, Khalilzad has been a disappointment… unable to predict failure a second time around. (The first time he was a principal proponent in getting the US to invade Iraq … so that the US “would not lose the moment.”) This Pashtun-American’s inability to predict failure again, renders him “inexpert” in the operational theater that now includes Afghanistan and Iraq… and to which he would like to add Syria and Iran. Bush might wish to ponder… that acting on further advice from his friend Zalmay could set the entire area ablaze (from Damascus to Kabul) and bring about a Trillion Dollar Mess- not to minimize the predictable loss of life, and eventual withdrawal “a la Vietnam.”

Evidently, Zalmay Khalilzad has spent too much time- actually most of his life- in non-Pashtun lands, and his ability to “do pakhto” has atrophied. And for all his neocon virtuosity, he lost his virgin Pashtun talent to blend two themes, Islam and pashtunwali, which could offer an outlook more consistent with reality. He missed the point when not heeding a Pakhto proverb on cooperation: “When they take their meals apart, their aims and objects become separate.” Which is to say that when men cease to eat (or work) together, they fall out… as have the Kurds, Shia and Sunni in Iraq .

It’s quite a different story with the other Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, who has kept intact his ability to “do pakhto” although the skill may not prove sufficient to consolidate his rule over people who by their nature do not easily accept union, or concord. To be known as the “Mayor of Kabul” is less a derisive nickname and more of a sad reality, for his influence does not extend beyond the capital, even if democratically elected as president of Afghanistan .

For all of Karzai’s compromises to prevent the alienation of powerful warlords- including a refusal to allow Americans to eradicate poppy production via the use of aerial spraying of chemical herbicides, the gentleman from Kandahar appears as no more than a well-educated and affable spokesman for his nation; and, of course, as a great dresser… and super-model for capes and fezzes. And although he genuinely seems as an advocate for Afghans’ interests, his future in politics is predicated on America ’s presence there. After all, another Pakhto proverb has it that you are known (and judged) by the company you keep, and “that company” wears the stars and stripes.

For much of the world, regardless of his demeanor and sartorial elegance, Karzai is seen as another drug kingpin, indirectly controlling one-third of the world’s opium supply. So, no tears are likely to be shed if he is gone.

Karzai’s brothers, who make their livelihood in the US , have done well with their culinary enterprise. As a personal aside, I’d like to add that although I am palatable-intolerant to dishes having a pumpkin base (an apparent Afghani kitchen must), the way lamb is prepared in their San Francisco restaurant is unparalleled.

For all the help that Karzai and Khalilzad have afforded the Bush administration to secure a stronghold for the United States in the Middle East and Southwestern Asia, one might suspect that this Pashtun novelty act will crumble… and soon. As to the ultimate fate of these two gentlemen, fear not. Karzai can always co-manage the affairs of his brothers’ bicoastal Helmand restaurant chain; and the neocon fraternity can reward Khalilzad for past services (failures all) by endowing a chair of “Hegemony Studies” for him at some high profile university; or, perhaps, by placing him in one of the existing ultra-right think tanks.

The sun may be setting on these two Pashtun men… but not on the determined 25-30 million Pashtun who populate the Afghan-Pakistani region. They are likely to survive and prosper… for they know how to “do pakhto.”