At war with Afghanistan’s first family
MIGHT things have turned out better in Afghanistan without Hamid Karzai? The many critics of the former Afghan president blame him for tolerating corruption and for undermining the West’s war against the Taliban. As Robert Gates, once America’s defence secretary, said: Mr Karzai was the most “troublesome ally in war since Charles de Gaulle”.
America initially regarded the dashing Pushtun tribal leader as just the man to run post-Taliban Afghanistan, Joshua Partlow, a journalist with the Washington Post, writes in “A Kingdom of Their Own”. Western diplomats made sure he was appointed interim leader in 2001 and elected president in 2004. But America came to have grave doubts about him. “I hate that guy,” Richard Holbrooke, then a senior American diplomat in the region, let slip to Afghan officials in the run-up to the fraud-ridden presidential election of 2009. Mr Karzai’s naive pacifism and his disdain for military affairs maddened American generals. When one commander reported that a remote town had fallen to the Taliban, Mr Karzai snapped back: “So it was liberated.”
Things went from bad to worse as America became increasingly frustrated at its inability to crush a ragtag Islamist militia. In 2010 it seized on the notion that public anger with government corruption was behind the growing support for the Taliban. But an anti-corruption campaign provoked a confrontation with members of Mr Karzai’s family, which included some thoroughly Americanised Afghans who had returned from exile after making their careers in the restaurant trade.
Mr Partlow describes how American officials, tapping telephones, uncovered the brazen malfeasance of the Afghan elite. Much of this focused on Kabul Bank, an institution that turned out to be little more than a Ponzi scheme which provided multi-million-dollar, interest-free loans to its shareholders. Among them was Mahmood Karzai, Hamid’s elder brother, a dealmaker and businessman who dreamed of creating American-style suburbia in the deserts of Kandahar.
Mr Karzai personally abhorred corruption and angered his relatives by frustrating their attempts to obtain government contracts and jobs. But he also blocked foreign would-be corruption-busters. Any arrests would undermine Mr Karzai’s own political base of tribal leaders and the businessmen who had made millions out of the wartime economy and vast amounts of civil aid after 2001.
America also bears much of the blame for its failures in Afghanistan, as this finely reported book shows. Policy changed with each new rotation of diplomats and generals. Early on, the Bush administration was not interested in nation-building and was happy with a conciliatory president who would co-opt corrupt warlords, not imprison them. Later, when it decided to throw money and troops into a massive counter-insurgency campaign to boost the war effort, it wanted a no-nonsense technocrat in charge. That was not the style of Mr Karzai, who loved to rule in the manner of a king, meeting tribal delegations and micromanaging the country by mobile phone from his presidential palace. The historic compound, with its gardens and its decorative giant employed to “walk around the palace and be tall”, looms large in this book.
One of America’s biggest U-turns was over Ahmed Wali Karzai, another sibling who became the president’s man in Kandahar, the historic heartland of the Pushtuns. Over the years many Americans, from Vice-President Joe Biden down, argued that Ahmed Wali was like a mafia godfather, his behaviour fuelling support for the Taliban. But when President Obama decided to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2010, Ahmed Wali became essential to the war effort after all.
Mr Partlow overstates the extent to which the Afghan people shared their president’s disillusionment with his tormentors. But he is right that Mr Karzai identified many of the mistakes America made, only to be ignored. He railed against the killing of civilians and harassment of villagers during NATO raids long before General Stanley McChrystal tried to confront the problem. And he was right to blame the Taliban’s resilience on Pakistan’s harbouring of Afghanistan’s enemies.
Some American officials who were sent to Afghanistan came to wish they had listened more. Of all the many brothers and lesser Karzai cousins Mr Partlow encountered in his reporting, Hamid was, he believes, the “most misjudged of all”.