The second report was filed on the 23rd by Dexter Filkins for the New York Times: Iran Is Said to Give Top Aide to Karzai Cash by the Bagful. Filkins reports that (anonymous) officials say that Umar Daudzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, "serves as a conduit for Iranian cash into the Karzai government" and that Tehran is funneling millions to Karzai to help him shore his power and undercut the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The Filkins report drops so many bombs that anyone who doesn't already know all the stuff in the report will be left shell-shocked. However, I'm having a problem with the timing of the two reports.
If there really was a clever ruse to sow dissent among the Taliban leaders, I can't understand why Petraeus friendlies would undercut him by blabbing about it to reporters at this delicate juncture. Surely Taliban leaders have been suspicious that the encouragement they've gotten to negotiate with Karzai's regime is a divide-and-conquer tactic. Now they have confirmation for their suspicion from a major news organization. (The Taliban leaders are fanatical news consumers, so there is no way they missed the McClatchy report.)
I'm going to take a flyer and speculate that there was no ruse -- that Petraeus, either following his Iraq playbook and/or acting under orders from Obama advisors, did genuinely reach out to the Taliban to get them to at least talk with Karzai. However, if the recent reports are true that the Northern Alliance has rearmed, I'd say Obama and the rest of the NATO leaders were caught off guard by the speed with which the alliance reacted to Karzai's negotiations with Taliban leaders.
If my line of reasoning is correct it makes sense that NATO would suddenly scramble to downplay talk that there are negotiations between Karzai and Taliban leaders, even if meant throwing a monkey wrench into the negotiations. The last thing NATO needs is a civil war on its hands in Afghanistan.(1)
As to the Filkins report, it states that Karzai had been taking money from Iran's government before Daudzai became his chief of staff in 2003. And while the extent of Iran's influence in Karzai's government is a revelation, from what the report says this is not news to American officials.
And I recall U.S. military brass making accusations, going back years, about Iran's machinations against ISAF troops. But all once Afghan officials have decided to unburden themselves to a New York Times reporter out of concern that Tehran is sabotaging ISAF efforts in Afghanistan. And all at once Richard Holbrooke has snapped out of his daze:
Obama administration officials have expressed alarm about Iranian intentions. Last week, Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, complained to Afghanistan’s finance minister, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, about Mr. Daudzai and Iran’s influence in the presidential palace, a former Afghan official said.Let's see, what else was going on last week? Ah yes. The latest strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the United States.
So regarding the sudden decision by unnamed officials to dish the dirt about Iran's involvement with Afghanistan, here I'll take another flyer. I suspect the sudden airing of many details about Iran's machinations, including their continued support for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar "one of the most brutal of Afghan warlords," is in response to howls from Pakistani officials that they shouldn't be accused of all things bad in Afghanistan while the Iranians are running riot there.
As to how the Iranians came to run riot -- gee do you think it has anything to do with Richard Holbrooke making public remarks such as, "Pakistan is one of the most important countries in the world" and evidence that NATO has been pressuring Karzai to cut a deal with Pakistan-backed warlords the Pakistani military is on good terms with?
So I have to weigh Iranian bribes against the USA bribing Karzai into committing political suicide. As to how long this bribery tug-of-war can last between Tehran and Washington -- not long, if Obama doesn't get serious about routing the Taliban, and if American civilian and military leaders don't quit clowning around with their counterparts in Pakistan.
Is the latter possible as long as the 'Get Russia' crowd still has any power in Washington? The question needs to be answered. I don't envy Barack Obama's position if that crowd is still machinating to keep Pakistan as a strategic asset against Russia. But I don't know what to say except that Obama wanted the dirtiest job in the world, and he got it.
1) Oct. 25 Update: It's noteworthy in this context to mention that the Northern Alliance is a misnomer that's gotten entrenched in Western usage. It was originally a propaganda term devised by Pakistan's military and picked up by their news media at the time of the alliance's formation; this was in an effort to make it seem as if resistance to the Taliban came only from the north of Afghanistan. The actual name given to the resistance was the United Front, and it encompassed a wide range of Afghans from all over the country.