Crazy Like a Fox

In a fit of anger, Hamid Karzai axes his director of intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. But is there method to his madness?

The puzzling resignation on June 6 of President Hamid Karzai's two security chiefs -- Amrullah Saleh, the director of intelligence, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister -- has left many Afghan hands wondering about what was behind their brusque departure.

The ostensible cause for their resignation is that Karzai was furious that the Taliban were able to fire rockets inside the peace jirga last week where he and 1,600 delegates were meeting to discuss negotiations with the Taliban. In the aftermath, he took Saleh and Atmar to task, but was apparently dissatisfied with their explanations for how this happened. By all accounts, the meetings were volatile and everyone left angry. At his news conference announcing his resignation, Saleh hinted that there were other reasons for his leaving.

Yesterday, I received a letter from a well-placed Afghan insider that sheds some new light on the bizarre series of events that led to Saleh and Atmar's departure:

"You are not going to believe this but Karzai believes that ISAF [NATO] was trying to scare or warn him by lobbing rockets at the Jirga tent on June 2. He believes that once ISAF was assured of him not making an anti-Western statement the rocketing stopped.  He then went on to accuse his two security chiefs (Amrullah Saleh and Hanif Attmar) of colluding with ISAF.  

Amrullah rejected this outright arguing that if they wanted to get Karzai they would not have used an old rocket! He also declared that he could no longer work for him (the President).

He then walked out and resigned in a press conference later in the afternoon. Atmar followed suit an hour later.

A number of issues you need to bear in mind:

The Pakistani's second condition (following the closure of the Indian consulates) was the removal of Amrullah Saleh as Intel Chief (whom they saw as anti-Pakistani).

Amrullah's removal will have regional implications given his thorough understanding of both Afghanistan and the region (Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran). He was very, very efficient and probably one of the most intelligent individuals I have come across (with a photographic memory). More importantly for the government, he delivered.

Within the NDS (National Directorate of Security) he was seen as fair, charismatic, honest and hardworking -- someone who despised nepotism and nationalism (ethnic). He also led from the front and did not shy away from speaking his mind both publicly and privately (with the President).

I believe that his loss will be a tremendous blow to Afghanistan not just vis a vis terrorism but also in relation to crime (theft, kidnappings) and corruption (where he played an important role albeit one that was ignored more often than not by the President).

Security will be a major challenge for both the Kabul Conference (later this month) and September's elections (campaigning is due to commence within weeks). How the hell will the government deal with this challenge?"

The loss of Atmar and Saleh will certainly be felt in the coming months. But what this letter really offers is perhaps the best, recent insight into Karzai's increasingly puzzling behavior.

In 2009, I published a profile of President Hamid Karzai in the New York Times Magazine called "Karzai in His Labyrinth." The title said it all. Although Karzai may have entered office as a charismatic, able politician, over the last few years he has grown more and more isolated, suspicious, and paranoid vis-à-vis the United States, Pakistan, and Britain. He is constantly accusing his ministers of treachery and berating them in public. Several times of late, he has turned on Saleh and accused him of conspiring against him. The Taliban rocket attacks on the peace jirga were evidently the final straw.

Saleh belongs to the Tajik ethnic group and was close to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik Northern Alliance leader assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001. This affiliation has unnerved Karzai, who since 2005 has been convinced that an array of Northern Alliance power brokers are out to unseat him. In 2007, he turned on his chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, and his then minister of education, Hanif Atmar, accusing both men of plotting against him and of being British agents. They both resigned. Karzai apologized the next day, but the damage was done. Ludin went off as ambassador to the Nordic countries and now Canada. Karzai and Atmar did not speak for months, but eventually Karzai agreed to bring him on as interior minister -- under heavy encouragement from the West.

Many have accused Karzai of being mad or paranoid when he lashes out and threatens to join the Taliban or when he pulls his crazy face and loses his temper. But it is worth remembering that the mad act has its benefits. It gets him what he wants without him having to take full responsibility for his actions. And, with the U.S. talk of pulling out next summer, Karzai is planning for his future, a future that will inevitably depend on good relations with Pakistan and the Taliban.



What We Got Right

Against terrible odds, the foreign media did a remarkable job covering the last year's turmoil in Iran.

Ten days after last summer's presidential election, I received a call from a sympathetic member of the Basij, the pro-government militia force, warning that I would be shot by snipers if I continued going out. Sixteen agents were already outside my apartment building, where they stayed for three days until I finally decided to leave the country. Those threats and intimidation were part of a concerted campaign by the Iranian government, as chaos descended after the election, to prevent information from leaving the country and reaching the outside world. Visiting journalists were expelled; resident journalists were barred from stepping outside their offices. Those who disobeyed, as I did, faced frightening consequences. All of us watched as our sources -- the roster of sympathetic Iranian analysts and insiders -- were rounded up and jailed. And the regime spared nothing in amplifying its own propaganda, declaring the post-election protests a plot masterminded by outside enemies.

But despite those all the obstacles put in its way, the media has done a remarkable job in properly identifying the enormity of the past year's events. The Green Movement has, indeed, shaken the very core of the Islamic Republic. The country is polarized and the regime's legitimacy has been compromised. All of this, the Western media -- at least, those of us who had any real experience covering Iran -- got largely right.

We managed to do so because so many of the most important developments were observable from afar. For instance, when former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani openly allied with top candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrobi (and against incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his backer, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) in the run-up to the election, experienced reporters knew to pay attention.  Rafsanjani, a man described by a fellow regime insider as "one of the two owners of the revolution, along with Ayatollah Khamenei," has long had the reputation of being one of the most reliable barometers of Iran's prevailing political winds.

When Rafsanjani, at the Friday prayer services he lead in July, withheld his condemnation of the protests, to the delight of the Green Movement and in defiance of Khamenei, the Western media knew this was a sign of a deep division in the ruling establishment. (Rafsanjani has subsequently faced the wrath of regime hard-liners, who have issued an arrest warrant for his son, summoned his daughter to court, jailed other members of his family, and threatened to dismiss him from his post atop the Assembly of Experts, the council that has institutional authority over Khamenei.)

The unprecedented cracks in the rulings elite revealed themselves in other ways, if you knew where to look. Informed Iran-watchers knew that Khamenei had reason to harbor deep personal antipathy for the Green Movement. He and Moussavi, the movement's ostensible leader, had a bitter rivalry throughout the 1980s, when Mousavi served as prime minister and Khamenei was president. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic founder of the revolution, often intervened in their disputes to support Moussavi. He even blocked Ayatollah Khameni from ousting Moussavi in 1985.  Both before and after the election, outlets like the Financial Times and the Economist explored the tension and rivalry between the two men.

Of course, Iran's ban on on-the-ground reporting -- and its jailing of veteran analysts -- meant that certain important aspects of the burgeoning Green Movement were inaccessible to the Western media. The Western media was often late or absent in reporting on the positions of and discussions among senior clerics, which are often shrouded in secrecy. The foreign media did report the increasing gap between senior moderate clerics in Qom with Ayatollah Khamenei. But it failed to report a February trip by Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Moussavi Ardebili, a senior cleric and head of the judiciary after the 1979 revolution, from Qom to Tehran to visit Ayatollah Khamenei. Persian language websites later reported that Ardebili himself emphasized it was the first time in 17 years that he had made such a trip. "Your failure is the failure of the revolution, Islam and the Shiites," Ardebili was quoted as saying. Ayatollah Khamenei's refusal to accept the grand ayatollah's two requests -- to release the political prisoners and to distance himself from the hard-liners around Ahmadinejad -- was understood among clerics as a rebuke to moderates in Qom and an endorsement of the arrests of nearly a dozen of the children and grandchildren of senior clerics there last summer. By contrast, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, one of the most influential clerics in Qom, has hosted dissident clerics repeatedly in recent months at his home. These were important testimonies to how critical the political situation had become, but the Western media missed them.

Going forward, the West should try to avoid making a final misreading. The movement's lack of ability to muster large protests as it did last summer does not mean the movement is dead. Yes, the movement lacks leadership and a political agenda. But it has retained its vitality in the past year in the face of increasing brutality. Even if the government manages to end the protests, in the same way that it suppressed the student protests in 1999 and 2003, they will only emerge again on a larger scale.

In this way, Western commentators should not be so dismissive of all the Iranians around the world trying to make a difference. The Iranian diaspora, for the first time in three decades, has become politically engaged. Many of these Iranians are in contact with relatives back home and get important first-hand information. And they have raised funds to help activists who were forced to flee the country and have formed networks like United4Iran to publicize human rights violations by the government. In the long term, these are things that can make an important difference.

Western journalists were right last summer in insisting that the events in Iran were a momentous event. They would still be right if they claimed the same thing today.

Getty Images