The Obama administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened U.S. relations with those countries and, in some cases, have fostered increased corruption within their governments. At least that was one of the messages delivered Monday afternoon at Stanford by Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, in a wide-ranging talk entitled “The Struggle for the Broader Middle East: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go.”
Khalilzad, 59, who served under President Bush, was born in Afghanistan and educated in Kabul, Beirut and Chicago.
He called recent exchanges between the United States and Afghanistan a “blame-game” that has eroded the relationship between the two countries. Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month blamed the United States and other Western powers for election fraud, and the United States responded by calling the comments troubling and frustrating.
“I believe that the origin of the situation was the change in the administration in the U.S.,” Khalilzad said, later adding: “There is now an effort underway to really strengthen the relationship, but the situation in Afghanistan is very fragile.”
Specifically, Khalilzad said, Obama’s timelines to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq this summer and from Afghanistan in July 2011 have led to increased corruption by giving local leaders the perception that important resources they now enjoy will disappear when the Americans leave.
“People have begun to hedge against the scenario,” Khalilzad said. “People are thinking, we better take care of oneself when the going is good in terms of availability of resources.”
In Iraq, Khalilzad said, U.S. intervention since 2003 has propped up the construction of important societal institutions, but the American exit strategy threatens to derail development of a fair and balanced Iraqi government.
“Everyone is thinking we [the United States] are on our way out, we are looking to the door, we are on a short timeline,” Khalilzad said. “The Iraqi actors are looking to regional players for support, and that has produced more polarization.”
The former ambassador went as far as to say that failure in Iraq may indicate impending failure in Afghanistan. “What will happen in Iraq could be a precursor to what one might see in Afghanistan if we continue down the path the president has said of reducing forces,” he said.
In all, Khalilzad said, the American relationship with Iraq and Afghanistan is “a more delicate situation than it was three or four years ago.” Khalilzad’s term as ambassador to Iraq ended in March 2007.
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Khalilzad said a resolution would be an “important shaping factor” in the Middle East. At the same time, from his perspective, “the circumstances are not ready for a settlement in the near term.”
“I think the Israeli government wants a process without an outcome in the near future, and the Palestinians want an outcome without a process,” Khalilzad said. “And it is unlikely, given where the parties are, that we will get to a settlement of this issue in the foreseeable future.”
On the Middle East as a whole, Khalilzad laid out five factors that are shaping the region. These included the challenge of militant Islam, which he characterized as a “civilizational crisis” that is now being put to the test by modernity; regional disputes such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Afghanistan-Pakistan territorial dispute and the Indian-Pakistan border dispute; rivalry for hegemony in the region, which encompasses the Sunni-Shia conflict and Iran’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons; democratization efforts, which, Khalilzad said, are growing but continually at the mercy of internal instability; and extra-regional factors such as Western intervention.
Iran, Khalilzad said in his closing remarks, has emerged “front and center” in the Middle East as its nuclear ambitions continue to play out on the world stage.
“It will reshape the region for some time to come, whether it does get away and become nuclear or there is a conflict to slow it down or prevent it from moving forward,” he said.
Khalilzad’s talk, held in Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center, was part of the Payne Distinguished Lecture series, organized by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.