In defense of giant bags of cash

Worries about geopolitical bogeymen can overwhelm good sense. Case in point: today’s melee over the discovery that Iran has been regularly handing Afghan President Hamid Karzai fistfuls of cash. Just who is Tehran endangering by keeping Karzai lubricated with pocket change? For one, the fellows U.S. troops are fighting: the Taliban. Karzai calls the payments ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Worries about geopolitical bogeymen can overwhelm good sense. Case in point: today's melee over the discovery that Iran has been regularly handing Afghan President Hamid Karzai fistfuls of cash. Just who is Tehran endangering by keeping Karzai lubricated with pocket change? For one, the fellows U.S. troops are fighting: the Taliban. Karzai calls the payments "normal," and he is right. In the case of Afghanistan, Iran is in effect a U.S. ally.

It's useful to keep in mind that Iranian influence in Afghanistan is traditional. The two countries share a language, after all -- making it easy for the Iranians, for instance, to be particularly close to the leaders of the populous Herat and Balkh provinces, in the west and north of the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Iranians have served a useful balancing purpose to the Pashtun Taliban.

Worries about geopolitical bogeymen can overwhelm good sense. Case in point: today’s melee over the discovery that Iran has been regularly handing Afghan President Hamid Karzai fistfuls of cash. Just who is Tehran endangering by keeping Karzai lubricated with pocket change? For one, the fellows U.S. troops are fighting: the Taliban. Karzai calls the payments “normal,” and he is right. In the case of Afghanistan, Iran is in effect a U.S. ally.

It’s useful to keep in mind that Iranian influence in Afghanistan is traditional. The two countries share a language, after all — making it easy for the Iranians, for instance, to be particularly close to the leaders of the populous Herat and Balkh provinces, in the west and north of the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Iranians have served a useful balancing purpose to the Pashtun Taliban.

Today’s alarmism is partly over Karzai’s use of some of the Iran money to buy off Taliban leaders. To which one can rightly reply, So what? The strategic payoff is how power operates in Afghanistan. If you want to get rid of this kind of payola, you might as well load Karzai — or any other Afghan leader, for that matter — onto a C-130 to Virginia today, because he won’t be in power another hour.

Perhaps the hand-wringers are thinking of Iraq when their hackles go up over these reports. But one worries about Iranian influence in Iraq because of a far different balance-of-power equation, not to mention the fact that Iraq has oil. In Afghanistan, we are talking a terribly complicated play of regional power influence. Iran has a role to play, and it will continue to play it long after the United States loses interest.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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