No, Mister Waffles is not a new competitor for IHop, and you won't find Mister Waffles in the frozen treats section of your supermarket, or hawking non-stick cooking utensils on the Food Channel. Mister Waffles is the President of Afghanistan. He's a very agreeable sort - in fact he'll agree with just about anyone, and will embrace all points of the compass as the right direction for Afghanistan.
That Hamid Karzai is a waffler is not news, but the point was made anew the other evening over dinner with someone with a decades-long close relationship to Afghanistan, and I started thinking about the many wafflings and flip-flops of the man whose country we are trying to save from itself. Remember the song from Finian's Rainbow, "When I'm not near the girl I love, I love the girl I'm near"? Just change "girl" to "adviser" or "cabinet minister" or "old Pushtun pal" and it could be the theme song of Mister Waffles.
I had a few experiences with His Fickleness when I spent several months in Kabul interviewing Karzai for a book. The original premise was that I would be his ghost writer and help him write a first-person account, his personal story coupled with a road map for Afghanistan's future and an appeal to the West to remain involved in Afghanistan and not bail out as had happened after the Red Army pulled out in 1989. I traveled to Kabul on the promise that the president had agreed to collaborate with me to produce the book. But when I was ushered into his office in the Arg Palace for my first meeting with him, he was not alone. There were three advisers with him, and the president said, "They don't think I should do the book." Great, I thought, I have taken four months off without pay and bought a round-trip ticket to Kabul for nothing. Think fast, Mills. I tap-danced for ten minutes, explaining ad lib why the president should do the book. The advisers, looked at one another, shrugged, nodded, and agreed that it was a good idea after all. They left, I mopped the sweat off my brow, and Karzai and I got down to business. But that scene would be repeated at least twice more during my stay, with other advisers, and each time I managed to turn the naysayers' heads from No to Yes (I had the routine down pat by now). But, I thought, what's going to happen when I leave, and return to the U.S. to polish the manuscript for my publisher?
It turned out as I had feared. After months of silence from Kabul I was informed the president had decided he did not wish the book to be published. I had gambled four months' pay plus travel and living expenses, and lost. The publisher, Wiley & Sons, was disappointed but stuck with me, and encouraged me to take the material I had gotten in my sessions with Karzai, add context, and publish it under my own name, which was what happened and KARZAI - The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Afghanistan was published in late summer of 2007 and was met largely with towering indifference.
When I relate this saga to other Afghanistan-watchers and people with personal experience with Karzai, they all have tales of Mister Waffles and his frequent reversals on a variety of issues, which is one reason why there has been so little progress in fighting corruption or drug trafficking. And in Karzai's recent outbursts, which had some people muttering that he had either lost his marbles or was possibly on drugs, he made his biggest flip-flop, going from pro-West to anti-West, buddying up to Public Enemy Number One, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accusing the Western powers of perpetrating the fraud in last summer's spectacularly fraudulent election, and threatening to join the Taliban.
On one major point, though, Karzai seems to have been consistent: although the threat to run away from home and join the Taliban was no doubt meant as a bitter joke, he has long favored negotiating with the Taliban, whom he sees as mostly fellow Afghans, and working out a power-sharing arrangement with them - which might the only way forward for Afghanistan. Stay the course, Mister President.