Q&A: Hamid Karzai and the “Afghan Disaster”

(Photo: AP/Rahmat Gul)

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center, arrives at the presidential palace in Kabul on September 29, 2016.

The next president who takes office will inherit the longest war in American history. Despite thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent over more than 15 years, Afghanistan is arguably worse off today than it was when the United States first invaded. The Taliban now control more territory than at any point since 2001, and an Islamic State affiliate has emerged as a potent threat. The National Unity Government, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry following Afghanistan’s deeply flawed 2014 elections, is in disarray, unable to come together to implement stipulated electoral reforms. Afghans fleeing the region’s deteriorating security situation make up the second-biggest group of migrants to Europe. As Afghanistan teeters on the brink, neither presidential candidate is paying much attention to a war that has become an afterthought in Washington.

All the while, Hamid Karzai has kept himself in the limelight in the two years since he left the presidential palace, living nearby and receiving daily visits from regional, tribal, and religious leaders, and government officials and diplomats. Indeed, some observers have speculated that Karzai has actively sought to undermine President Ashraf Ghani so as to eventually return to power. The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow offers unique insights into the former president and his family in his new book, A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster. The Post’s former Kabul bureau chief, Partlow delivers a deeply reported account of the Karzai family’s role in America’s relationship with Afghanistan and the failures of the U.S. war effort.

Partlow answered questions via email about Karzai’s legacy, his role in Afghanistan’s current chaos, and the future of the U.S.–Afghan relationship.

Adam Gallagher: Early on in the book, you point to the central paradox of Karzai’s presidency. While he skillfully maneuvered within the confines of Afghan tribal dynamics and achieved real accomplishments (building schools, new penalties for rape and child marriage, etc.), he also rejected Western-style governance and tolerated corruption. How would you assess his legacy in light of the current situation in Afghanistan? What role did he play in Afghanistan’s current plight?

Joshua Partlow: His legacy seems to me that of a frustrated peacemaker—a patriotic leader who cared deeply about Afghanistan and wanted to end the violence there, even if it meant condoning extravagant corruption. He couldn’t make it happen, but I think he’s far more than a puppet president. The evolution that I track in this book is from an inexperienced, pro-Western Muslim leader, happy to go along with any American strategy or plan, to someone [who] by the end of his term in 2014 was deeply embittered by the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, and who yearned for more autonomy and sovereignty than he actually possessed. He considered the bloody civil war years in the ’90s a low point of Afghan history, and he was willing to let regional warlords in his coalition government pilfer funds if it kept them from fighting each other. As president, sometimes he tried to keep his relatives from enriching themselves, but often he let them do as they pleased. While the U.S. wanted a technocratic president, he saw himself as a tribal leader and a father figure of a nation that refused to get along. 

The Karzai family has many colorful characters, perhaps none more so than Mahmood Karzai, who you refer to as Afghanistan’s Donald Trump. From his housing development outside Kandahar to the Kabul Bank scandal, what does Mahmood’s story reveal about corruption in Afghanistan?

Mahmood might have been the most ambitious of the Karzai brothers. He had outlandish plans to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan in the image of suburban U.S.A., where he’d lived during his exile years. Mahmood had opened Afghan restaurants in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, and after the September 11 attacks, he returned to Afghanistan ready to be his homeland’s greatest businessman. He got the U.S. government to give him $3 million to build a gated city in Kandahar, even though someone else owned the land, and would go on to run cement plants, Toyota dealerships, and become a major investor in the most notorious financial institution, Kabul Bank. I think Mahmood initially had good intentions, but soon got caught up in a war-profiteering gold rush, fueled by U.S. aid money. He would rage against his brother, President Karzai, for not doing more to encourage private enterprise. He wanted Afghanistan to be Singapore or Dubai. He claimed his brother wanted another Pakistan. Americans at the embassy, and some Afghan bureaucrats, devoted a lot of time trying to put him behind bars, but they never succeeded.

By 2009, the United States viewed President Karzai as the ineffectual leader of a corrupt government. President Obama came into office and made it clear that his administration would maintain much more distance from Karzai than the previous administration. In his first eight years as president, Karzai went from staunchly pro-American to one of the biggest critics of the U.S. war effort. What role did this change in the relationship between Karzai and the U.S. play in the deteriorating security situation?

The timing couldn’t have been much worse. Just as President Obama was doubling down on the war, sending tens of thousands of more troops to fight on behalf of the Afghan government, President Karzai had decided that the American military was causing more harm than good in his country. American commanders didn’t fully understand the scope of his opposition, in those days. Also, Karzai was angry and suspicious of American motives. Diplomats such as Richard Holbrooke wanted Karzai out of the picture, but Karzai scraped through the fraud-filled 2009 election with a win. As a politician, he was wounded but not killed, as one American put it to me. Karzai spent the rest of his five-year term increasingly appalled by civilian casualties and collateral damage, while growing more paranoid that Americans were scheming to overthrow him. If the U.S. wanted an ally for their war, he was definitely not that. I believe his opposition to military operations hobbled the American mission, but it also put the brakes on a war that could have gotten even further out of control and taken more American lives. 

One consistent theme from your book focuses on the United States’ pronounced lack of understanding of Afghanistan’s tribal and political dynamics. In what ways did this hamper state-building efforts? How did this knowledge gap affect perceptions in Washington of Karzai?

One stark example was how Karzai’s palace functioned—or didn’t, from the American point of view. The U.S. spent a lot of time and money trying to create the National Security Council office, drafting flowcharts of committees and bureaucratic decision-making maps. They were almost wholly disregarded. Karzai didn’t write things down, or follow agendas, or make timely decisions. He would meet with Afghans over long lunches or in his residence late into the night—a type of tribal politics learned at the foot of his father—and come to agreements when the Americans weren’t around. This was infuriating to the soldiers and civilians whose job it was to make his office more professional. But Karzai proved to be a more agile politician than his successor.

When President Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who researched state-building, came into office in 2014, many in the West were hoping they finally had their man in Kabul. Yet, the security situation has only worsened, corruption remains a major challenge, and the government is as ineffectual as ever. What impact do you foresee on the U.S.–Afghan relationship moving forward, as the country increasingly seems to be ungovernable? 

One evening, after Ashraf Ghani became president, I attended a dinner at the State Department with Afghan and American dignitaries. Secretary of State Kerry made some remarks, and you could just feel the almost giddy relief that Hamid Karzai was no longer president. The message was: Finally, an Afghan leader who will be grateful for American aid and assistance. So in that sense, I think relations improved right away. But the larger problems you mention, and the inability of Ghani’s government to solve them, or heal the ethnic divisions within his coalition, has tested those bonds once again. The U.S. military has slowed down its withdrawal, so Americans will continue to be involved in trying to protect major cities from the Taliban, but that’s an increasingly difficult task.

Karzai has made it clear that he will remain a major player in Afghan politics, whether in power or not. Some have argued that he has sought to undermine President Ghani and exploit a moment of national crisis to return to power. You paint a picture of Karzai as really a tragic figure, who earnestly cared about the people of his country. What role will Karzai play in Afghan politics in the years to come? Is he angling for a return to power?

I think it’s fair to say he’s angling. He’s regularly meeting with power brokers and playing off the shifting alliances within Afghan politics, as he’s done for so many years. Whether he would participate in a coup to overthrow the government, I’m not so sure: He at least professes to care about democracy. But given some opportunity to rule again, my guess is he would take it. He seems to want nothing more than to be that unifying figure who could finally bring peace to Afghanistan—the goal that so many have failed to achieve. 

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