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The Runaway Ambassador

In the midst of all the convention hooplah, some important stories get missed. That seems to be the case with the tale of Bush ambassador to the UN,

Khalilzhad In the midst of all the convention hooplah, some important stories get missed. That seems to be the case with the tale of Bush ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been engaged in some very irregular cozying up with Pakistani presidential hopeful Asif Zardari.

Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said. Other officials said Mr. Khalilzad had planned to meet with Mr. Zardari privately next Tuesday while on vacation in Dubai, in a session that was canceled only after Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, learned from Mr. Zardari himself that the ambassador was providing “advice and help.” “Can I ask what sort of ‘advice and help’ you are providing?” Mr. Boucher wrote in an angry e-mail message to Mr. Khalilzad. “What sort of channel is this? Governmental, private, personnel?” Copies of the message were sent to others at the highest levels of the State Department; the message was provided to The New York Times by an administration official who had received a copy.

A senior American official said that Mr. Khalilzad had been advised to “stop speaking freely” to Mr. Zardari, and that it was not clear whether he would face any disciplinary action.

State and White House officials from Negroponte on down are said to be furious with Khalilzhad for his planned vaction with Zardari and his unofficial contacts at a time when the US wants to be seen as neutral in the Pakistani presidential race. Zalmay is an old political hand who knows the rules and White House plans but decided to break them anyway. Why?

Well, maybe its just that, like other neocons, Khalilzhad doesn't think the rules apply to him. The founding PNAC member certainly didn't mind interfering in Afghan elections to get his old buddy Karzai elected (although that was probably on White House orders). Maybe he felt he could do the same for his new friend Zardari with impunity.

But the worrying element is that there have been rumors for a while that Khalilzhad, who is Afghan born, has his sights on the Afghani presidency himself. While Karzai has been confrontational with Pakistan about its ISI intelligence agency and their support for the Taliban (something Zardari has been helpless to do anything about). He's also allied himself strongly with India in response to Pakistani treatment of Afghanistan -something that led to the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul recently, carried out by ISI proxies.

If Khalilzhad does have his sights on the presidency, then he could be a very different matter. Despite his neocon credentials he was an early and staunch supporter of the Taliban - chaperoning their officials to a Unocal Oil party in their honor and declaring in a 1996 WaPo op-ed that "The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran." He went on to say that the Taliban's brand of Islam was more akin to that of Saudi Arabia...

Zardari is by some accounts quite unstable and paranoid - if an alliance with the ambassador would definitely appeal to the highly corrupt Pakistani politico. He might think that he would thereby get U.S. protection, just like Musharraf did, by default even if the Bush administration didn't originally intend to extend it. Kalilzhad might be thinking that Zardari can leverage him into power. India, I'm sure, has thought of all this already and will have been burning up the phones to the White House since the story broke, demanding to know what the runaway ambassador thinks he was doing.

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