Posted by: sean | January 28, 2009

Khalilzad: The man who would be king?

I was just reading this piece in the Times about how the Obama administration was going to crack down on Karzai and may not even support him in the upcoming elections when I came across this bit (emphasis mine):

An election is scheduled to be held no later than the fall, under Afghanistan’s Constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is a former United States ambassador to the United Nations and is viewed as a possible challenger to Mr. Karzai, warned that the Obama administration must tread carefully as it recalibrated its Afghanistan policy.

Now I’m far from having my hand on the pulse of Afghan national politics, but I’d never heard about this before.  According to this article in the Telegraph from last April, though, I’m way behind the curve:

Asked if he would stand for the presidency, he replied: “I have said earlier that I’m not a candidate for any position in Afghanistan, but I am at the service of the Afghan people.”

Sources close to Mr Khalilzad within the Afghan establishment insist that he is considering a run for the presidency and has been putting out feelers to political factions within the country.

“He is under pressure to stand from within Afghanistan,” said one source. “His comments are genuine in that he will come to Afghanistan and work in the private sector, but he will reassess towards the end of this year whether he has a chance to take the presidency.”

Mr Khalilzad is rumoured to have long had his eye on replacing President Karzai, the man he picked to become Afghanistan’s first president in 2004.

Mr Khalilzad’s supporters are alleged to have sounded out Pashtun tribal chiefs in the south as well as figures within the Northern Alliance, which now calls itself the National Unity Front.

Khalilzad is an interesting guy. Before he was Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, he was a student at the American University of Beirut. According to one account, he underwent quite a transformation:

He is a protege of Wolfowitz, who worked with him on the war with Iraq and the occupation… When I knew him, he was an Afghani graduate student and a radical. He boasted of the demonstrations he had organized in Beirut, of the fedayin he knew and had worked with, and of his friends who regularly visited Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. He went to pro-Palestinian meetings. His room had a poster of Nasser in tears. He and I had taken [proto-neocon Albert] Wohlstetter’s course on nuclear war together. He didn’t seem, at the time, particularly interested in the course. He was, however, enthralled by Wohlstetter’s party [for grad students]. In the elevator, in the apartment, he kept saying how much it all cost, how expensive it was, how much money Wohlstetter must have. Later, he borrowed my copy of Kojeve’s Lectures on Hegel. When he returned it, one sentence was underlined. ‘The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.’ The next summer, Wohlstetter got Khalilzad a job at Rand. I don’t know what happened to the poster of Nasser.

Again, I’m no specialist of Afghan politics, but I’d be curious to see how the current Afghan political climate will treat a native informer turned prodigal son. My guess is not well, but who knows, that certainly doesn’t preclude him from winning the elections if he runs.

UPDATE: Andrew, a.k.a. Abu Muqawama passes along this informative post about presidential possibilities in Afghanistan.



  1. I was just about to mention Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire when I realized that is where the quotation comes from.

    The impression I have of him — certainly influenced by the aforementioned book — is that he is an opportunist who would shift sides depending on which way the wind blows. But president of Afghanistan? Well, I never…

  2. BTW, the update does not link to Exum’s site.

  3. Super interesting Sean.

    Wow, so even feckless AUB protestors can grow up to make sum’in of vemselves… ;)

  4. Ms. Tee: I have to say that I only know snippets about him from here and there, but there’s something appealing to imaging him at barometre (or the equivalent of his time) talking about the Palestinian cause and Arab nationalism. For the link, Andrew passed it along to me by email, but it’s a link to a post by a friend of his.

    QN: I have to keep sending things like that to my roommate N who’ll soon enough be in the halls of American power to make sure he keeps his guard up and doesn’t become the next Fouad Ajami…

  5. ‘The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.’
    I love this. I think, I am more and more becoming like that :) I neither work nor do I fight.
    I am counting on you and Qifa nabki to test me every now and then. Power is a dangerous thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: