The neo-conservatives have all but been vanquished. But the Barack Obama administration in the United States is making a solitary exception in the case of Zalmay Khalilzad. He is back on the Washington circuit, repeating an amazing trapeze act which has few parallels in the chronicles of political opportunism.
His life and times have been exciting, on a constant upward graph ever since he migrated from the dusty ancient Silk Road town of Mazar-i-Sharif on the Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan to the United States in search of the American dream.
"Zal" (as he is popularly known) has crossed the American political divide with abandon. Branded as a neo-con who contributed to the New American Century Project under former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's watch, he was indeed destined to occupy key positions in the US establishment during the George W Bush era, which he did, steadily rising from the position of under secretary in the Pentagon, special envoy to the Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, finally, to cabinet rank as Bush's representative to the United Nations.
Now he is reportedly negotiating his way back to his old hunting ground in Kabul. The New York Times newspaper's ace Washington correspondent has broken the story quoting senior American and Afghan officials that Zal could assume a "powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government". Such a position, a senior US administration official has been quoted as saying, involves Zal serving as "a prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn't be responsible to a parliamentary system".
That's one hell of a cute way of putting a complicated matter in real perspective. Cooper reveals that officials in the Obama administration wouldn't admit they are behind the seamless idea, but apparently Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Af-Pak representative Richard Holbrooke are all seized of it and have been plain decent about it, leaving it to President Hamid Karzai "to decide whether to proceed".
Karzai, apparently, is mulling over what is undeniably a most dicey situation - the Obama administration wants to insert Zal into the Kabul power structure but will not be upfront about it. He must be wondering that it's a bit like what the Chicago mafia would have done to him.
Karzai can make out from a mile that the immaculate conception of Zal's return is all about Obama choreographing a design for bypassing him. Obama has made no bones about his contempt for heads of state living in "bunkers" and refusing to come out. But Obama doesn't want to get rid of Karzai outright for a variety of reasons - because he is unable to do so, because the time is not opportune to do so when the war is almost at a touch-and-go stage, and finally, because Karzai won't easily walk into the sunset.
So, the "smart" thing, which is the hallmark of the Obama administration, is to let Karzai be in his presidential robe, to pamper his vanity while neatly sidestepping him, ignore him gradually and eventually transact all real business of state through Zal. Cooper reports, "A plan that puts Khalilzad near the top of a Karzai government would provide the Obama administration with a strong conduit to push American interests in Afghanistan."
Obama, Clinton and Holbrooke - they must be holding breath and waiting and watching "whether Karzai remains willing to bring Khalilzad aboard". The problem is not only that Zal had a bumpy relationship with Karzai when he served in Kabul as the American viceroy. Times have changed.
The old Karzai is no more the current Karzai. Zal cannot ride roughshod over him and expect him to take it in his stride, as he used to. Today, Karzai truly believes he is the leader of the Afghan people. Therefore, Zal must undergo a veritable metamorphosis himself and evolve into an altogether new butterfly. Karzai would like to be certain that Zal doesn't begin to dictate once he is ensconced in power in Kabul.
Obama, on his part, cannot hold out any assurance to Karzai in this regard, either. It has to be left to Karzai and Zal to work out between then, which they are reportedly doing at the moment in Kabul. Nor can Karzai depend on the Afghan constitution to ensure that Zal will scrupulously function under his supervision.
For, the real catch is that Zal will be an extra-constitutional authority, not accountable to the Afghan constitution or parliament or people or, arguably, even to Karzai himself. Karzai would apprehend that ultimately, Zal is Zal and from the time he hit the ground, he would be sprinting and it would be impossible to match his stamina for outpacing his peer group.
To be sure, Zal will report only to Washington. All the same, Clinton, too, needs to be watchful. To quote Cooper, "While he was working for the Bush administration, Khalilzad often brushed up against other officials, including secretary of state Condoleezza Rice." Now, that's formidable dexterity - to bypass Condi and deal directly with Bush.
The million-dollar question, however, is what the Obama administration is hoping to achieve by inserting Zal into the extraordinary pack of hugely ambitious American high-fliers who are hovering around the Hindu Kush already. As things stand, Holbrooke by himself has a reputation as a "bulldozer".
Then there is the legendary commander with the Roman name, Central Command chief General David Petraeus. At the field level, Petraeus has just put one of his favorites in as the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan so that he has a total grip on what is going on - General Stanley McChrystal. The American media estimate that apart from top-notch soldierly qualities, McChrystal has a knack for maintaining excellent chemistry with politicians.
Taking all factors into account, Karzai cannot be faulted if he draws the right conclusion that the raison d'etre of Zal's insertion into the Kabul power structure is to incrementally eject him out of it. It is all a bit Kafkaesque - the Obama administration expects Karzai to cooperate to commit political suicide.
But Zal's insertion is also about geopolitics. The regional powers will take note the timing of his return to Hindu Kush when the Great Game is accelerating in the Caspian and Central Asia. Zal has it all mapped out in his brain from his Rand Corporation days - oil pipelines, containment of Russia, regime change in Iran.
But Moscow and Tehran won't be the only regional capitals to feel uneasy about the return of the thousand-pound guerilla. Islamabad too will have a vague sense of disquiet. One thing about Zal is that he never tried to hide his contempt and antipathy towards the Pakistanis, when he served in Kabul as ambassador.
Arguably, Zal had a personality problem at that time with president General Pervez Musharraf and that doesn't have to necessarily extend to General Parvez Kiani, the present chief of the army. But then, Zal's problem with Musharraf was about the shenanigans of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Afghanistan, and Kiani was the agency's chief at that time.
That brings us to the Taliban. Zal is just the right man to handle the brief when the US begins direct talks with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah Omar would recollect that Zal wrote a hard-hitting article in the Washington Post 10 years ago impressing on the Bill Clinton administration to grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Zal's thesis was, "you can deal with the Taliban if you know how to deal with them". Zal argued persuasively in his article that the Taliban were an eminently reasonable lot with which to get acquainted.
By now Karzai would have begun to sense that Zal is being dispatched by the Obama administration to Kabul primarily for dealing with Mullah Omar. As a native Afghan and Pashtun, Zal can be much more effective than any of the experts in Holbrooke's team in dealing with the Taliban.
One great quality about Zal is that he is a highly flexible diplomat. He criss-crossed the ethnic and tribal divides in Iraq with amazing skill. Nothing deterred him when a job had to be done. Obama seems to have decided that Zal could just be the right man Washington needs at this point to bring the Taliban around.
The hard core of the Af-Pak strategy is finally unfolding. The influential Washington columnist David Ignatius couldn't have put it better:
To understand Petraeus' basic approach, try to picture in your mind a horizontal line that charts the level of militancy of insurgent groups. On the left are the hard-core "irreconcilables" who could never be co-opted by the US. But as you move right along the line, the groups become more pliable and join the "reconcilable" camp. What Petraeus did in Iraq was to move groups from one category to the other - transforming hardcore insurgents into members of tribal militias on the US payroll. The remaining fanatics became targets for special forces' "capture or kill" operations, which were overseen in Iraq by McChrystal. It was a "hard-and-soft strategy" - using kinetic firepower to clear an area, and then gentler counter-insurgency tools to hold it and build through economic development.To be sure, there is no one in Washington today who can match Zal's impeccable credentials, having seen it all in Iraq, and knowing like the palm of his hands the ethos and traditions of the Pashtun tribes. Certainly, he will take his stance to the right of McChrystal. When the tough special forces commander hits the Taliban hard, rubbishes them and makes them "reconcilable", and when the "chameleon insurgents" - as Petraeus calls them contemptuously - begin to peel away, he will pass them on to Zal.
As Petraeus envisages reconciliation with the Taliban, it will happen village by village, across Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts, rather than in a big sit-down with the group's leader, Mullah Omar ... Petraeus wants to restore tribal authority, as he did in Iraq, and meld it with the power of the central government and a US-trained army.
Zal will carefully roll up his sleeves, sit down with them over a cup of green tea, and talk some sense into their dazed minds. And then, he will make a mental note as to the fastness of the color of the "chameleons" facing him and looking at him with their watery eyes, before short-listing them for future assignments. That is, until a job falls vacant for Zal himself - in the presidential palace in Kabul.