The Afghan government's order a week ago to the United States to close its prison at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, where it holds unidentified prisoners, came as a shock to Washington, although President Hamid Karzai has before invited the United States to cease its operations in his country because of what he considered infringements upon Afghan sovereignty.
This time the demand reportedly was provoked by American acquiescence in the opening of a Taliban representation office in Qatar, interpreted as an American effort to deal directly with the Taliban, short-cutting the Afghan government.
Karzai has made it clear before that he intends to control dealings with the Taliban, since their uprising takes place in his country, meant to replace his government. He also wants to control how American and allied forces leave his country, and on what terms. The Obama administration, which has said that it will pull out U.S. troops this year (although the Pentagon has indicated disagreement), naturally wants to control what happens.
The order to hand over the prison followed Pakistan's closure late last year of the important American land supply route to U.S. forces that runs through the Khyber Pass. That decision came after persistent U.S. drone incursions and the unauthorized American raid in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden.
One might think both Pakistan and Afghanistan are unappreciative of America's well-meant wars in their countries, and would like us to go home.
Departure from Afghanistan on less than triumphal terms would stir an uproar at home among Republican Party patriots. Yet everyone, presumably excepting those patriots, knows what will happen sooner or later. The United States will be forced out, directly or indirectly, and Afghan politicians or military leaders will assume control of their country, with or without sponsorship or assistance from the Pakistan -- or the Indian -- intelligence services. All that is taking place now is futile. Why not take Karzai at his word, and leave?
Well, the Pentagon would not like that, since it prefers a triumphal exit to the rather embarrassing departure that has just taken place in Iraq. There -- not to put too fine a point on it -- the country is being abandoned in the hands of Shiite politicians and their Iranian allies. The United States was willing to stay on, but only on terms of an extraterritorial legal status, exempting Americans from all Iraqi control, to which the Iraqi parliament would not agree.
Second, Republican politicians in the United States do not want proud Americans being ordered out of what they consider petty client countries, whose role is to take orders, not issue them.
Incredulity is growing among those of us living abroad as we witness this and the Republican presidential primaries that are now in full swing. Can it be that a major American political party -- Abraham Lincoln's party -- should today be putting forward as candidates for the presidency people who mostly are unfit for responsible political office in any country, and who debate international issues in terms pathologically disconnected from reality?
Take the current front-runner, Mitt Romney. Asked about his solution to the Middle East's problems, he said that he would go to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ask him what to do. He thinks allies know best about American interests, in this case at least.
Donald Trump is no longer an active candidate but holds an intriguing opinion on Iraq. He has declared that it is outrageous for Obama to take American troops out of Iraq without seizing half of Iraq's oil as reward to America for having invaded the country. (But why bother? Western companies have already contracted for the oil.)
Trump is preposterous. But equally far from reality is the avowed willingness of all the candidates (except Ron Paul) to go to war with Iran because of its unproven nuclear-weapons program. All assume that Iran, after acquiring such a weapon, would use it and thereby commit national suicide. Therefore, as president, they would be obliged to preempt Iran's suicide by attacking Iran and starting a third American war of aggression. So it goes in the U.S. presidential campaign.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).