Richard Reeves

Let Us Now Praise Famous Conspiracy Theories

WASHINGTON -- Last Saturday morning, Mike Allen's Politico Playbook, the early-morning blog Washington whisperers wake up to, began this way:

"IF YOU READ ONLY ONE STORY -- N.Y. Times 2-col. lead, 'Karzai Is Said to Doubt West Can Defeat Taliban,' by Dexter Filkins, in Kabul: President Hamid Karzai 'has been pressing to strike his own deal with the Taliban and the country's archrival, Pakistan ... Mr. Karzai's maneuverings involve secret negotiations with the Taliban outside the purview of American and NATO officials. ... People close to the president say he began to lose confidence in the Americans last summer. ...'"

The pre-dawn sound you heard here was hammering ... as in nails in the coffin of our doomed war in Afghanistan. Filkins is as good as we get, one of the great reporters of his generation. And here he is writing that our boy Karzai -- the Ngo Dinh Diem of his generation -- was privately dismissing evidence that the Taliban was behind a devastating rocket attack earlier this month on a national peace conference.

"The president (Karzai)," said a named intelligence official, "did not show any interest in the evidence -- none -- he treated it like a piece of dirt." No, it seemed Karzai thought his patrons, the Americans, were probably behind the attack.

(Remember that word "dirt.")

When you actually got the Times in your ink-stained hands, you saw Filkins was reporting that Karzai has been secretly trying to cut his own deal with the Taliban and with Pakistan, a rival neighbor that is something of a patron of the same Taliban. Well, that is hardly a surprise. That's the way the great game has always been played out there. The surprise is that Filkins and the Times felt sure enough about it to lead the paper with the story.

We have, of course, been there before, historically if not geographically. The principal reason the Central Intelligence Agency and various high-ranking United States diplomats -- Averell Harriman and Henry Cabot Lodge, to be specific -- were so anxious to see Diem overthrown (and assassinated) in South Vietnam in 1963 was that they believed the American-financed president and his brother were trying to cut a secret deal with communist North Vietnam.

In both secret deals, 47 years apart, the United States would have been pushed out of the fight over control of those far places. Actually, not a great shame, if you think about it.

Some of this stuff, of course, is the grist of conspiracy theories. People like me often reject our own suspicions, or at least, put them on hold for a while. Wait and see what happens next.

This time what happened next was just two days later, on Monday. And again it was the lead story of The New York Times under this extraordinary headline:

U.S. IDENTIFIES MINERAL RICHES IN AFGHANISTAN

This story, by James Risen in Washington, reported that for almost 30 years, some geologists have known that Afghanistan has at least a trillion dollars' worth -- "huge veins," say secret Pentagon surveys -- of iron ore, copper, cobalt, lithium and other good stuff. That is certainly plausible to anyone who has spent time going from range to range in the dirt and rock mountains of the Hindu Kush. It's actually more plausible than the old conspiracy theory that the war in Vietnam was actually about huge reservoirs of offshore oil under the South China Sea.

There we are. You don't have to be Henry Kissinger to figure out what is happening and just how anxious someone in Washington is to stay in Afghanistan, no matter how badly the war is going. There are two possibilities:

The mineral reports are true, and we are determined to keep the stuff from China and other interested parties.

Or, the reports may not be true, but they are tantalizing enough to provide an answer to the question getting louder and louder -- Why are we in Afghanistan?

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