U.S. Ignores Lessons of History in Afghanistan

When the Iranian revolution against the Shah Reza Pahlavi reached critical mass in late-1978, the United States found itself with very limited political leverage in Iran because of a longstanding U.S. commitment to ignore the country’s opposition politicians. Washington had considered this precondition an acceptable price to pay for the shah’s support of the West during the Cold War. But it backfired when the shah found himself facing a tidal wave of mullah-led unrest. The Carter administration, fearing the shah’s displeasure, simply waited too long to press him to replace his autocratic rule with a reformist government.

In 1979, desperate to calm the turmoil generated by Ayatollah Khomeini, the shah reluctantly agreed to allow Shapour Bakhtiar, a moderately left-wing critic he had imprisoned on more than one occasion, to form a government and introduce democratic reform.

Bakhtiar was an unknown quantity to the Americans, as were they to him. Shortly before he took office, he told me that the American embassy had studiously avoided any contact with him for more than a decade. As a result, he had no lines of communication to the Carter administration, a key player in the unfolding crisis.

In any case, Bakhtiar’s 36-day tenure had come too late to avert the collapse of the Iranian imperial house. His single biggest mistake was to allow Khomeini back into the country from his exile in France, and things went downhill after that. In fact, a more acceptable politician to the mullahs would probably have been Mehdi Bazargan, an Islamic scholar. But the Americans didn’t know him either. Bazargan was later appointed interim prime minister by Khomeini.

All of this came to mind last week, when the Obama administration gave the cold shoulder to former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s challenger in the last presidential elections. The dapper Abdullah visited Washington within days of Karzai’s own fence-mending trip. He complained to the New York Times — and indeed to anyone who would listen — that his requests to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior administration officials had been turned down. The inevitable anonymous official justified this to the New York Times by explaining that the administration did not want to upset the delicate balance of its new relationship with Karzai by talking to his political rival.

It’s a safe bet that the administration — learning nothing from history — has actually promised Karzai it would cut off its contact with Abdullah Abdullah as a price for Karzai’s cooperation. The wisdom of such a decision, if it were in fact the case, is hard to fathom. “Legitimate” is a tenuous term to use in relation to Afghanistan, and so is “democracy.” But in a democracy, the legitimate opposition deserves its share of attention. And there is no question that Abdullah Abdullah represents the strongest legitimate opposition voice in Afghanistan. Indeed, given the funny business with the recent election, he may even be . . . well, that’s another story.

Postscript: In 1991, Shapour Bakhtiar was assassinated in exile in Paris. Last week, his Iranian assassin, who was serving a life sentence in a French prison, was released in what both the French and the Iranians insisted was not an exchange for the French student, Clotilde Reiss, charged with espionage in Iran, and conveniently allowed to return to France just days before.