The West Still Doesn’t Understand the Taliban
How to Engage With the New Afghan Regime
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 the Taliban) only a few weeks after Massoud.
Unlike Haq, Massoud, and most of Afghanistan’s other potential leaders, Karzai had lived through twenty years of war without seeing combat. His baptism by fire came only a few weeks before the 2001 invasion began, when U.S. Green Berets snuck him into southern Afghanistan. On the other hand, Karzai’s lack of battlefield experience meant that he had acquired few enemies. From an Afghan perspective, he also had the right background: he was a Pashtun, from the traditionally royalist Popalzai tribe of the largely anti-Taliban Durrani lineage. To Americans, he looked and sounded like a leader. “Karzai,” as Partlow notes, “was a compromise candidate known for compromising.”
In Washington’s view, Karzai couldn’t deliver on his promises and had little interest in trying.
Many who had encountered Karzai in the 1990s were amazed at his rapid elevation from bit player to world-charmer. (I was among them: in 2000, I had arranged for Karzai to testify before the U.S. Senate, identifying him only as a “tribal leader” at a little-noticed committee hearing; his transformation was so abrupt that I forgot about the episode until cleaning out a file cabinet years later.) Suddenly, he was feted in world capitals, splashed on television stations, and even, in 2002, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
By 2009, however, the love affair between Karzai and U.S. officials had gone wrong. In Washington’s view, Karzai couldn’t deliver on his promises and had little interest in trying. He turned a blind eye to the industrial-scale corruption that permeated his government, especially when it was perpetrated by his relatives. The Americans saw Karzai as a wartime leader with little interest in warfare, a fickle pushover too eager to follow the counsel of toadies, an ingrate who constantly insulted the American troops who kept him in power. Karzai vacillated on crucial issues, seemed uninterested in the details of economic development and institution-building, and insisted on calling the Taliban his “brothers” while labeling NATO troops occupiers. In 2010, when Karzai threatened to give up his post and join the Taliban himself, many Americans half-hoped it wasn’t a bluff.
From Karzai’s perspective, however, the United States was an enemy masquerading as a friend. This was an old role for superpowers in Afghanistan: the British pioneered the model in the nineteenth century and the Soviet Union epitomized it in the 1980s. Karzai and many other Afghans believed that the United States was unwittingly mimicking many of its predecessors’ mistakes. The U.S.-led army of liberation soon came to be seen as an army of occupation.
Like the Soviets before them, the new occupiers dished out insults to local culture and custom, often without knowing they had given offense. Most damaging was their trampling on Afghans’ religious sensibilities: foreign soldiers let dogs loose in peasants’ houses on night raids, violated religious propriety to search women for weapons, and even (unintentionally, as part of a routine prison housecleaning) burned pages from the Koran. When Karzai expressed his outrage at such actions, he was indeed speaking on behalf of his people.
What Americans described as corruption and nepotism, on the other hand, were in Karzai’s eyes merely the cold realities of Afghan politics, in which loyalty to family is among the highest imperatives. In Partlow’s story, Karzai's half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, was the family’s Godfather. AWK, as he was commonly known, was a generous, calculating, charismatic, and brutal power broker who had once worked as a busboy in Bethesda, Maryland, before rising to power in Kandahar Province. Different segments of the U.S. government loved and despised him in equal measure. Diplomats and military brass in Kabul saw him as the archetype of the venal warlord the United States was trying desperately to uproot. Spies and military leaders in Kandahar—where AWK controlled most legal and illegal activities worth controlling—saw him as a vital partner who, unlike his peers in the central government, could be counted on. Was he guilty of mafia-style graft, extortion, and violence? As Partlow rightly notes, most U.S. and international observers believed that he was—but none could produce evidence.
Karzai relied heavily on his half-brother. Most of the president’s cabinet members and potential rivals commanded personal militias and had pockets deep enough to buy or terrify others into compliance. Karzai didn’t have any of those things; although his powers on paper were extensive, in practice, they were almost worthless. He was mockingly referred to as the “Mayor of Kabul,” reliant on American bodyguards for his physical security. It was AWK who provided him with a power base independent of his theoretical subordinates. When the Americans pressured Karzai to force his brother into exile, as they often did during Karzai’s tenure, it should have been no surprise that he refused.
Karzai’s brother Mahmood Karzai, by contrast, was more careless in his crimes. When Kabul Bank collapsed in 2010, he owed it more than $22 million; to date, more than one-third of that sum remains unpaid. The evidence of corruption at Kabul Bank, which had made a number of shady investments and loans to its own shareholders, was indisputable: the bank’s CEO turned incriminating documents over to investigators. But if Mahmood was guilty (as Hamid correctly concluded he was), so too were most of the Afghan elite. The gaudy mansions springing up throughout Kabul weren’t being built on any civil servants’ salaries. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann highlighted the hypocrisy that followed: “To Afghan ears, it was ‘I won’t fire my crooks, but I want you to fire your crooks.’” No charges were brought against Mahmood, either in Afghanistan or the United States—a decision that Partlow notes some U.S. officials believed was motivated by fear of angering the Afghan president.
Karzai saw corruption as an American phenomenon, and he wasn’t entirely wrong. The United States and other foreign donors had poured massive amounts of money into a society unequipped to handle it, creating few safeguards against graft. As for the U.S. Treasury officials hounding Mahmood for his financial transgressions, their entreaties seemed hypocritical to many Afghans. In 2010, Kabul Bank required a bailout of just under $1 billion; in 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department spent $700 billion on behalf of U.S. taxpayers to prop up failing Wall Street banks. (Once concessional loans by the Federal Reserve are added to that sum, the U.S. bailout’s price tag may have been trillions higher.)
“Accountability” was the United States’ watchword in demanding harsh punishments for the culprits in the corruption at Kabul Bank. The bank’s founder and its CEO, the latter responsible for $810 million of the bank’s $935 million in losses, received jail sentences of five years each, and over a dozen others were sentenced to shorter terms. But what accountability had the United States meted out to its own financial miscreants? No top Wall Street banker spent time in jail for his or her role in the 2008 financial crash. And the figures involved in the risky practices that helped cause the crisis represented a class of bankers who cycled between lucrative jobs at financial companies and positions in the government bodies tasked with overseeing them. The U.S. Treasury Department, which led the campaign against Kabul Bank, largely failed to hold Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis; until around a year before the scandal in Kabul broke, it had been chaired by Henry Paulson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.
Karzai was acutely aware of the disparity between how the U.S. government treated its own financial titans and how it expected him to treat Afghanistan’s. In 2007, when U.S. General Dan McNeill brought Karzai a message from President George W. Bush noting that congressional support for Afghanistan would hinge on anticorruption measures, Karzai reminded him of Boston’s notoriously corrupt “Big Dig” infrastructure project and suggested that similar problems could be found in every congressional district. When confronted about Kabul Bank’s malfeasance by the governor of Afghanistan’s Central Bank in 2010, Karzai asked whether President Barack Obama had gotten personally involved in the prosecution of Wall Street con man Bernie Madoff. One of the most infuriating things about Karzai was that he was not always wrong. “So many of the problems we experienced,” said U.S. General John Allen, “were things he had raised three or four years before.”
Karzai’s greatest crime was neither incompetence, nor fecklessness, nor the enablement of corruption, nor the brutality and misrule of his family and allies. Those were all valid charges, but the United States forgave such offenses and more from its other Afghan partners: Gul Agha Shirzai, Abdul Raziq, Ismail Khan, Atta Muhammad—the tally of such warlords could fill pages, and a similar roster could be assembled for Iraq and other countries with which Washington has had a close relationship.
Karzai’s unforgivable crime was ingratitude. As American troops were dying to protect his life, he called them names and dishonored their sacrifices. In a typical statement in February 2013 he accused U.S. Special Forces of “harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people.” In the spring of 2012, following the accidental Koran burning, he labeled American soldiers “demons” who were committing “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies.”
Any war brings a succession of human tragedies, and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was no exception. Yet it would be hard to argue that the American outrages were worse than those brought about by the Soviets, the Taliban, or the chaos of the civil war in the 1990s. By Karzai’s second term, which began in 2009, he nevertheless tended to portray U.S. errors in the harshest words possible and display little appreciation for the fact that his survival rested on the troops he so freely disparaged. This explains a great part of the “disaster” of Partlow’s title.
So, perhaps, does the familial infighting that provides much of the book’s drama. The code of the Karzais was mob-like: family members would give their lives for each other on one day and order assassinations on another. AWK, for example, was killed by a longtime family retainer in July 2011. Various minor relatives have been unceremoniously offed by other members of the clan. As Partlow notes, “the worst things I ever heard about the Karzais came from other Karzais.”
Those who followed Partlow’s byline over his years in Afghanistan will find his typically gripping combination of fine narrative and telling detail replicated in this admirable book. Many readers, however, may hunger for a more complete portrait of the Karzai family rather than a set of loosely linked sketches centered on its most famous member. Hamid’s elder brother Qayyum comes across as little more than a cipher. Mahmood appears briefly and in fascinating form—he “was blustery, brash, buffoonish, full of outlandish plots and plans, a man who spoke without filter or seeming regard for the facts—Afghanistan’s version of Donald Trump,” according to Partlow. Who wouldn’t want to read more detail about that? And how did AWK evolve, in the realm of Afghan politics and within himself, from an American restaurant worker to the capo of Kandahar? These stories remain to be written; in the meantime, Partlow has contributed a first-rate initial volume.
How to Engage With the New Afghan Regime