Peter Bergen, a vice president at New America, a professor at Arizona State University and CNN’s national security analyst, has reported from Afghanistan frequently since 1993.
When Hamid Karzai took power in Afghanistan soon after 9/11, aided by U.S. diplomats and Special Forces, he was celebrated in the West as a new kind of Afghan leader: He wasn’t a warlord with thousands of fighters at his beck and call but a cosmopolitan diplomat who was fluent in English and several other languages. He was the scion of an illustrious tribe that had long ruled Afghanistan, and he rose above the country’s often fractious ethnic politics. American menswear designer Tom Ford even called Karzai “the chicest man on the planet” because of his habitual, distinctive ensemble of colorful cape and astrakhan fur hat.
When Karzai left office in 2014, he was widely derided as the “mayor of Kabul,” and he had exhausted the patience of key U.S. officials with his continual, public criticism of Americans, whom he described as “demons” when he met with ordinary Afghans. Karzai also presided over one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and members of his family had vastly enriched themselves during his tenure.
Was Karzai a bridge-building president, as he was first portrayed, or was he a wily pol adept at playing the great game of Afghan politics but inattentive to his chance to become his nation’s George Washington? Or was he always a bit of both? And what of his brothers, such as Ahmed Wali Karzai, the de facto ruler of southern Afghanistan: Was he a drug-dealing plutocrat, as was rumored? Or was he the glue that kept the south together, as many CIA and U.S. military officials believed? And was his other brother, the blustery businessman Mahmood Karzai — “Afghanistan’s version of Donald Trump” — a big-time crook or a bona fide entrepreneur just trying to make something of his country?
Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post’s former bureau chief in Kabul and now bureau chief in Mexico City, does a splendid job of tracing the history of President Karzai and his sprawling family in “A Kingdom of Their Own.” He digs deep into the puzzles presented by their stories and through them tells the larger tale of Afghanistan, from the excitement of the first years after the overthrow of the Taliban to the poverty and corruption that continue to afflict the country today. Interestingly, Karzai himself did not drink from the great spigot of the tens of billions of dollars in aid that gushed into Afghanistan during his tenure, living instead what Partlow describes as “an almost ascetic life” and “rejecting many of the perks of his position.”
Yet Partlow shows that Karzai also tolerated the greed of his family members who became extraordinarily rich — sometimes at the expense of both ordinary Afghans and American taxpayers. He also ignored the massive electoral fraud that helped keep him in office. Karzai emerges as a paradoxical figure, a crafty politician who held together an enormously complex country without enriching himself and who presided over the first peaceful transition of power there in centuries.
For many American generals and diplomats, Karzai was a maddeningly mercurial leader and at times infuriating. Yet he had to navigate the constantly shifting vagaries of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Partlow points out that by the time the Afghan president left office, he “had been lectured on military operations by twelve ISAF commanders from seven different countries. He’d received the American president’s messages from five U.S. ambassadors.” Add to that the fact that almost all U.S. soldiers and diplomats serving in Afghanistan were on one-year tours, and it’s not surprising that the mordant cliche about the Afghan war was so accurate: “It wasn’t a 10-year war, but a one-year war fought 10 times.”
Then there were the various, and often competing, U.S. theories of what to do in Afghanistan: no nation building in President George W. Bush’s early years, followed by full-blown nation building in the later Bush years. There was a counterterrorism-only policy in the first Bush term, followed by a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign in the early years of the Obama administration. There were competing tensions even within American counterinsurgency practice. Part of the theory emphasized the need to better connect local Afghans to their central government, but at the same time U.S. officials invested considerable energy in trying to root out corruption in the central government. This raised the question: Why were we bothering to connect local Afghans to their corrupt central government? It was enough to give anyone whiplash.
Despite the fact that the Afghan war has been America’s longest, it’s surprising how few really good books about it exist. There have been memoirs by diplomats and soldiers, some interesting, others less so; but there have been very few well-written, deeply reported, well-balanced and interesting accounts of what transpired during America’s longest war. Partlow’s is one of them. The Karzai family is a big one, and occasionally reading about its saga becomes like reading a fat Russian novel with a bewildering variety of relatives who are sometimes hard to follow. A family tree would have helped readers navigate this better, but this a minor quibble.
President Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali was arguably the most important leader in southern Afghanistan, and since that is the heartland of the Pashtuns — who for centuries have dominated Afghan politics — that made Ahmed Wali one of the most important politicians in the country. That position of power put him on the payroll of the CIA, but rumors constantly swirled that he was a major beneficiary of the heroin trade, the most successful of Afghanistan’s few exports. Partlow’s reporting largely dismantles that notion; investigations by the U.S. military of these claims came up empty, and instead American officials are quoted saying that Ahmed Wali always provided the “best intel,” which in southern Afghanistan, the heart of Taliban country, was what really mattered to them.
Also, why would you engage in the illegal drug trade when the perfectly legal bonanza of American military contracting was open to you? NATO intelligence officials estimated that Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan, which at one point was the busiest airport in the world, needed $1 billion worth of goods every year to operate and that the Karzais and another important local family supplied 95 percent of those goods. Ahmed Wali alone was estimated to be making $250 million a year from his various businesses, despite the fact that he never admitted to owning any companies or even drawing a salary. As Michael Kinsley once observed about Washington, “The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal, but what’s legal.” In the Wild West of post-9/11 Afghanistan, Ahmed Wali could make tens of millions of dollars without breaking the law.
There was never any hard evidence tying him to the drug trade, but Ahmed Wali’s role as the de facto leader of southern Afghanistan still put him in harm’s way. In July 2011, a disgruntled member of his security team assassinated him. When President Karzai was told the news, a longtime aide had “never seen him appear so shaken.”
Partlow provides a telling portrait of the collapse of Kabul Bank, which turned out to be the biggest Ponzi scheme in Afghanistan. The bank was the country’s biggest, and many ordinary Afghans entrusted their savings to it, but it also acted as an ATM for the Afghan elite, who took out loans that were, for all practical purposes, gifts.
As it became clear that Kabul Bank was failing in 2010, the Afghan Central Bank started to try to bail it out to the tune of $852 million, a staggering sum for one of the world’s poorest countries. Karzai told bank regulators to “blame the Western media” for the story, and he believed that the catastrophe was “an American conspiracy to destabilize his government and oust him from the palace.” Partlow describes the bank meltdown as the “defining scandal of the Karzai government” because “it was a glaring example of how the greed of a small cabal of relatives and political and business cronies had stolen from both poor Afghans and the U.S. government. . . . After the Kabul bank fiasco it was harder to make the case that we were fighting for something worthwhile or paying to build something that would last.”
President Karzai’s brother Mahmood owed the bank more than $30 million but paid back only about $5 million, according to a forensic audit by Kroll, a New York-based corporate investigations firm. Mahmood colorfully told the New York Times that the Kroll audit was a “piece of puke.” (In the “it’s a small world” category, in their previous incarnations, both of President Karzai’s brothers as well as many other members of his family worked as busboys, waiters and managers at the Marriott hotel in Bethesda, Md.)
When Karzai took over the leadership of Afghanistan, he took on one of the toughest jobs in the world. For centuries, Afghan leaders who preceded him had either involuntarily left office in a coffin or had gone into exile. Karzai handed power over to Ashraf Ghani, his successor, without bloodshed. That alone is a real achievement. He also kept Afghanistan’s warring ethnic factions from embroiling the nation in the kind of brutal civil war that wracked it in the mid-1990s. And Karzai oversaw some real advances in Afghanistan — for instance, its booming telecom sector and its vastly reduced child mortality rate. Balanced against that is the fact that, according to the authoritative index maintained by Transparency International, Afghanistan today is ranked 166 out of 168 countries on the corruption scale.
Karzai contributed to a culture where widespread electoral fraud was commonplace, and so his record as president is a mixed one. On some levels, he really was the George Washington of Afghanistan, a man who was personally not on the take and was able to bring together his country’s factions and create a peaceful transition of power. But on other levels, he was just another pol who looked the other way as members of the elite looted the country and members of his party tampered significantly with the electoral system. During the 2009 presidential election, observers estimated that at least 800,000 votes out of 3 million cast for Karzai were fraudulent.
We probably have not heard the last of Hamid Karzai. According to the New York Times, in his new house — a stone’s throw from the presidential palace — he is receiving some 400 visitors a month, more than when he was president. Karzai is only 58, and his appetite for the great game of Afghan politics seems undiminished.
Knopf. 422 pp. $30