JONAH BLANK is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. From 1999 to 2011, he was Policy Director for South and Southeast Asia for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Follow him on Twitter @JonahBlank.
Foreign observers of Afghanistan tend to think of former President Hamid Karzai’s government as a clan of corrupt thugs, led by a feckless, petulant whiner. In this narrative, Karzai was a man in over his head: an aesthete playing the part of a warlord, just barely aware of his unsuitability for the role. His 13 years in office, this thinking goes, deprived Afghanistan of competent leadership and condemned the country to instability and poverty. By 2009, five years before Karzai stepped down, the governments in Kabul and Washington were headed for an ugly separation, thanks in part to Karzai’s poor record.
How accurate is this picture, and to what extent were the Karzais responsible for the deterioration in U.S.-Afghan ties? That question is at the heart of Joshua Partlow’s excellent A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster. As in any divorce, there are two sides to the story.
FROM BIT PLAYER TO WORLD-CHARMER
From the American perspective, Karzai began as a heroic figure. Rugged and handsome, he seemed to many Westerners exotic enough to represent the authentic voice of his people, yet spoke English with a reassuring fluency and an appealing British inflection.
In the fall of 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion commenced, there were few other viable contenders for Afghanistan’s top job. The country’s most capable anti-Taliban commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had been assassinated by al Qaeda two days before September 11; Osama bin Laden knew that the terrorist attacks might provoke an American invasion and eliminated the man most likely to serve as Washington’s partner. Even if he had lived, Massoud might have had a hard time governing: he was Tajik, and Afghanistan’s Pashtun plurality had maintained a monopoly on political leadership since the eighteenth century. The most plausible Pashtun leader, meanwhile, was a one-legged mujahid named Abdul Haq, known to American officials as “Hollywood Haq” for his fondness for the limelight—but he was killed (by
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