The vanity contest – again

I can’t believe it. They did it again. When will the Americans ever learn?

Senior Afghan officials have announced that the much-awaited peace jirga scheduled for May 2 has been postponed until after Afghan President Hamid Karzai returns from his Washington trip next month.

All very well. Except that once again, a senior US official had announced this important piece of information BEFORE the Afghan government.

At a briefing in Washington on Monday, April 22, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke rolled out the following dates at a press briefing. “President Karzai will be here [in Washington] May 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and leave on the 14th,” Holbrooke told reporters before adding that the peace jirga is “now scheduled for May 20th”.

The US had jumped the gun again, irking Afghan officials who said they had not taken any decisions a peace jirga postponement nor did they set a new date until Wednesday.

The message is clear: guess who calls the shots in Kabul.

They’ve done this before. In 2005, I was at a press briefing when then US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad, also known as the “Viceroy of Afghanistan” blurted the date of the much-awaited 2005 parliamentary elections before giving Karzai the opportunity to at least look like he’s calling the shots in his own country.

Why can’t the Americans learn some basic diplomatic niceties?

Even the biggest supporters of the US-led mission in Afghanistan are squirming with this lack of finesse. In an amusing column titled, The Ugly American in Kabul former Indian Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar wonders why Holbrooke usurped the Kabul government's prerogative to release such details.

“There can be two reasons,” Bhadrakumar writes. “One, Holbrooke is aging fast and has a failing memory and he genuinely slipped up…Two, he cleverly undercut Karzai to make the latter look very foolish in the Afghan bazaar.”

Bhadrakumar goes on to dismiss the senile Holbrooke argument, which leaves him to conclude that the US envoy is waging an “exasperating vanity contest”.

This comes weeks after Karzai himself threw a hissy fit about his Western backers, accusing the international community of “vast fraud” in the flawed Aug 2009 presidential poll. In a meeting with aides and Afghan parliamentarians, he even threatened to join the Taliban.

All this led to renewed speculation about Karzai’s mental health. His loudest enemy abroad, former UN Number 2 in Afghanistan Peter Galbraith, even suggested Karzai might be an opium addict.

It was followed by a round of categorical denials by senior US officials.

But seriously, quite apart from whether Karzai is a bong-fan or just plain flighty, when you have a local partner to work with - and you have no other option but to work with him or her – what’s the sense in getting your local partner’s underwear in an unnecessary twist?

Ah, the feather-light delicacy of the Holbrooke diplomatic touch! At this rate, I’m starting to miss Zalmay Khalizad.


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