Stephen M. Walt

What we can learn from Iran’s attempt to buy influence in Kabul

Well, well, well. What are we to make of the revelations that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been receiving "bagfuls" of money from Iran, reportedly to the tune of $1 million a year? The go-between for this operation, Karzai aide Umar Daudzai, seems to be doing pretty well these days too, reportedly owning six houses ...

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Well, well, well. What are we to make of the revelations that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been receiving "bagfuls" of money from Iran, reportedly to the tune of $1 million a year? The go-between for this operation, Karzai aide Umar Daudzai, seems to be doing pretty well these days too, reportedly owning six houses in the UAE, Dubai, and British Columbia. Hmmmm… nice work, if you can get it.

This situation shouldn’t surprise us, and I hardly think it’s evidence of some dastardly Iranian plot to control Afghanistan. Given that the two states share a lengthy border, Iran has a considerable interest in Afghanistan’s future course. In fact, it would be surprising if they weren’t trying to buy a little influence in Kabul. (What do we think we are trying to do with all the aid money we provide?) And if you’re one of those people who are really worried about Iran, you might be glad that they are sending all that money to Karzai instead of using it to buy more weapons to ship to Hezbollah.

These reports also remind us that Karzai and his associates have their own interests, and they aren’t identical to ours. Given how the war has been going, the swirling array of political forces inside Afghanistan, and its own geographic location, it’s easy to understand why Karzai would accept some slush funds from just about anyone. I assume that he knows more about what it takes to hold power in Afghanistan than we do, and everything I’ve read suggests that having a lot of cash on hand is a pretty useful asset when you’re bargaining with warlords, buying off potential rivals, and making sure you have somewhere to escape to if it all goes south. If this report helps dispel the illusion that we have an effective and loyal ally in the Karzai government, so much the better.

Third, and perhaps most important, it’s not clear that Tehran is going to get much for its money. Bribing foreign leaders is a dubious strategy because there’s no guarantee that the recipients will stay bought if their own interests shift. Moreover, as great powers have discovered on countless occasions, giving a lot of aid to a foreign government may even backfire, because the donor’s prestige gets committed and the client becomes "too important to fail." That’s more-or-less what has happened to us in both Afghanistan (and Pakistan): We don’t want Karzai to fall, so he can defy us without fearing that we will just cut him off or go home.

Iran hasn’t really committed much prestige to this operation — even in this context, $1 million a year is really chump change — but they’d be fools to think that this is buying them lasting influence there. Remember the old adage: You can’t buy a foreign politician; you can only rent them.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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