It is only two years since Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan since the beginning of the American intervention, stepped down from the presidency, but amazingly many Afghans are regretting the day he left. Afghanistan is in a precarious state. The economy has taken a dive since 2014, when most American troops withdrew. Assistance programs and lucrative contracts have dried up and thousands have been put out of work. Insecurity has increased as the Taliban has sharply escalated its offensive to seize territory and unseat the Afghan government.
Political divisions within the Afghan leadership compound the unease. President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September 2014, appears isolated in the Arg, the former royal palace, at odds with his chief executive Abdullah Abdullah and most of the political leadership, while in a house just outside the palace walls, Karzai hosts a growing crowd of former ministers and wealthy supporters in a manner that hints at a political comeback. The mood among ordinary Afghans is one of disillusionment and nervousness. Taliban advances have won them control of more districts than any time in the last fifteen years and new groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State have unleashed appalling violence.
Afghan security forces and police are hemorrhaging men amid accusations of corruption and poor leadership—the army has been losing five thousand to six thousand men a month in casualties and desertions, while enlistment has fallen to two thousand a month. In Kabul government offices and embassies have disappeared further behind high concrete blast walls. Helicopters clatter constantly overhead as American and Afghan officials travel by air across the city rather than risk suicide attacks.
While the country is in a state of national emergency, political leaders are locked in a power struggle. Ghani and Abdullah agreed to share power for two years in a government of national unity—brokered by John Kerry after widespread fraud rendered the 2014 election result inconclusive. But the two men have barely been able to agree on ministerial appointments, and the planned reforms to the electoral law and to the constitution have yet to take place. The two-year deadline passed in September amid fierce political maneuvering only after the Obama administration insisted that the unity government continue for the full five-year presidential term. Yet many worry that the arrangement is not functional.
President Obama’s legacy in Afghanistan is disappointing. He made broad promises to focus on the country as the site of a just war when he took office eight years ago, but he is leaving as bad a mess as he inherited. He brought home most of the troops, but as in Iraq, withdrew too quickly, and mishandled the politics.
The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency only adds to the uncertainty. Trump has not outlined plans for Afghanistan—he has expressed both an aversion to expensive nation-building and a determination to fight the Islamic State and radical Islam. His national security advisers may well urge him to reject President Obama’s minimalist military strategy, which has left ten thousand US troops in Afghanistan struggling to hold the line, but Afghans fear he may slash vital assistance or even abandon Afghanistan altogether.
People already recall the Karzai era as a time of more money and more jobs. Politics were also less divided, thanks to Karzai’s policy of bringing friends and enemies into the tent. Nevertheless, that people are missing Karzai’s leadership is itself a remarkable change since the frustrations were great by the end of his rule in 2014. Corruption and cronyism were pervasive, his government was inefficient, and he had become willful and antagonistic to the United States. Most Afghans and foreign allies were desperate for a change.
The Washington Post correspondent Joshua Partlow has written a timely book, A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster, that serves as a useful reminder of just how compromised Karzai’s administration was by the end of his second term and how far his relationship with the United States had deteriorated. Partlow gives a detailed portrait of the former president, as well as of several of the powerful brothers and cousins who helped him during his time in power—and helped ruin his name. Partlow reported from Kabul from 2009 to 2014, during Karzai’s second term as president, and he describes both the excesses of the Karzai administration and the widespread feeling that Afghanistan was going into decline.
The United States was pouring in troops and money to beat back the Taliban before a deadline—set by President Obama—for withdrawal in 2014. Corruption was spiraling out of control as people made money while they could. By then the Karzai family had suffered terrible losses. Four of the president’s relatives, including his favorite brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, were killed in the second term of his presidency. His elder brother Mahmood was again and again accused of corruption. Karzai himself had fallen out dramatically with the Obama administration. The state of affairs was a far cry from 2001. Then, as Partlow writes, Karzai had been “celebrated around the world as a unifier and peacemaker,” but by 2011 “the Karzai name had become shorthand for corruption, greed, and a bewildering rage at America.”
The friendly, English-speaking, pro-American politician, who charmed the world with his courteous ways and striped silk robes, had turned into a mistrustful, conspiracy-minded, nationalist leader who described the Americans as demons and talked of joining the Taliban. But as Partlow emphasizes, it was the Bush administration that had pushed for him to be the new leader of Afghanistan in 2001 after US bombing led to the fall of the Taliban.
Karzai was from a prominent Afghan family whose members were distinguished for their diplomatic and political service, their leadership of the Popalzai tribe, and their having been in favor under the former king, Zahir Shah, before he was deposed in 1973. One of seven siblings, most of whom went to live in America following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Karzai was the most politically active, studying in India, and then learning tribal politics at his father’s side in the Pakistani frontier town of Quetta.
He was by no means the most capable Afghan politician but the United States was looking for a conciliator who could step into the power vacuum created by the fall of the Taliban. Karzai had old and secret links with the CIA, which may have helped. Moreover he was seen as friendly not only to the Americans but to their rivals—none of the important regional powers, including Pakistan, Russia, and Iran, objected to his selection.
As Afghan representatives gathered in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001 to decide on a new government, the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arranged for Karzai to address the conference directly by satellite telephone from the mountains of southern Afghanistan where he had been trying to rally Pashtun tribesmen to rise up against the Taliban. Delegates first voted for a distinguished former minister, Abdul Sattar Sirat, to be the new leader. The Americans then intervened and demanded that he step aside in favor of Karzai. So began direct American political interference, which has never gone down well with Afghans. “The American team ended up playing a strong, arguably decisive role in Karzai becoming the new leader of Afghanistan,” Partlow writes. “For all the rage, angst, and frustration that Karzai would cause American officials in the years to come, there is no one else to blame for his presence but themselves. The US government paid him, armed him, protected him.”
In the early days, everyone was impressed with Karzai’s openness, honesty, and enthusiasm, but no one had really understood the scale of the task ahead of him and few had any idea of his abilities as a leader and manager. Partlow describes Karzai arriving in December 2001 in Kabul to a bombed-out royal palace with no car, no money, and no guards he could trust. “It was like Flintstone-istan,” an aide told Partlow.
Partlow is not correct in saying that the Taliban made off with Afghanistan’s gold reserves. In fact they were thwarted from doing so by an enterprising bank official who broke the key in the lock of the room in which the gold was held. But the Taliban had left behind a gutted, impoverished country. Half of Kabul was in ruins, and in the provinces there was barely a single paved road or government building intact.
The Bush administration was miserly in its early assistance—the United States donated $297 million to Afghanistan in 2002, about half of the funds provided by European nations—and it sent a clear message, Partlow writes, that it was not going to get involved in “nation building.” The Bush administration changed this policy later when the insurgency picked up again, but by then it had lost valuable time. Bush officials decided to focus on civic assistance—roads and buildings—instead of on security, which was most needed. As Partlow puts it, the Bush administration tried to buy a better Afghanistan with “billion-dollar experiments.” By the time he arrived in Kabul in 2009, US spending had grown hugely and so had corruption. US assistance and military spending were so enormous, and monitoring and auditing so lacking, that many Afghans could make illegitimate profits.
The war, meanwhile, was going from bad to worse and US officials contended that the corruption of the Afghan government was driving people toward the Taliban and losing the war. No doubt Afghans complained about corruption but this was not the main reason that people joined the Taliban.
Partlow does not analyze in any depth why the insurgency was growing so swiftly. He writes that Karzai “felt” that, along with the Taliban, the war was, in fact, “headquartered and orchestrated in Pakistan” by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. This reference to Karzai having no more than a feeling about what was happening ignores his own deep knowledge of Pakistan and of the Taliban movement. It also ignores the intelligence about the Taliban his own security forces were gathering alongside the Americans, and information that senior Pakistanis, including the former president, were providing to Karzai and other Afghans. Karzai’s knowledge went far beyond a feeling.
The United States never used its leverage to persuade the Pakistani government to cease its support of the Taliban and end cross-border terrorism at the cost of Afghan lives. This failure was an important factor in the deterioration of Karzai’s relationship with the United States, but Partlow does not give it the emphasis it should have. His focus is on corruption and his point is that Karzai’s unwillingness or inability “to address the greedy thieving within his government” was causing a fundamental strain on the US–Afghanistan relationship. Certainly the corruption was spectacular. Afghanistan would tie with Somalia as the most corrupt country on the planet, according to Transparency International.
Yet the US administration’s actions were often counterproductive. The US military was paying vast sums to Afghan security firms to guard supply convoys while much of the money was being passed on to the Taliban to guarantee safe passage. The system gave additional power to the Taliban and led to the rise of uncontrolled local militias, adding to the lawlessness. Partlow describes how US officials charged with combating corruption tried to make an example by arresting a palace aide who agreed to suppress an investigation into money laundering in exchange for a Toyota Corolla, but the case backfired. Karzai saw the involvement of the Americans as politically motivated and closed down relations with them.
As Karzai prepared to run for a second term in the presidential elections of 2009, officials in Washington hinted broadly that they wanted a change of leadership. Publicly, American policy regarding the election was to be impartial, but US officials in Kabul encouraged Karzai’s opponents. Partlow writes that Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan, wanted to replace Karzai. The point was not lost on the president, who notched up another grievance.
On election day Karzai’s supporters delivered a high margin of victory for him, but it quickly became clear that they had achieved this through fraud—“massive, unbridled, unsophisticated, blatant and untrammeled” fraud, as Timothy Carney, the US diplomat charged with overseeing the election, later described it in a Democracy International report. Karzai to this day has refused to acknowledge that fraud was committed and blames the debacle on US officials. It took ten weeks to announce a result, and hours of negotiation by John Kerry to persuade him to agree to a run-off. I was at the press conference when a new election was announced and saw from Karzai’s face that he was deeply humiliated. Such public arm-twisting left him “damaged, discredited, feeling betrayed,” Partlow writes. “That period transformed Karzai into the president he would become.”
Karzai emerged the winner—his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew, citing lack of confidence in the electoral system—but he would never forgive the United States. He became increasingly critical of US actions, clawed back control over US military engagement and detentions, and refused to sign a long-negotiated bilateral security agreement with the US. Having worked with the US against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Karzai ended up thirty years later an opponent of US dominance in Afghanistan and beyond.
I always felt the falling out with Karzai happened because America was losing the war and each side blamed the other. President Obama was having reluctantly to order a surge of thousands of troops and civilian assistance in a last big effort to change the course of the war. The erosion of the relationship began under President Bush but the high-handed attitude of the Obama administration turned it into a crisis.
That does not excuse the Karzais. While American soldiers were fighting in southern Afghanistan in 2010, the biggest corruption scandal of the Karzai administration broke into the open and nearly bankrupted the country. Karzai’s elder brother, Mahmood Karzai, was deeply implicated and the president’s handling of the affair left the blackest mark on his presidency.
Mahmood was a gregarious businessman and restaurant owner who had arrived in America at the age of nineteen and settled in suburban Maryland. The fall of the Taliban and rise of his brother drew him back to Afghanistan looking for new opportunities. If Karzai saw himself as returning Afghanistan to peaceful governance, Mahmood, Partlow writes, “saw himself as the remaker of its private industry.”
Like Karzai, Mahmood owed his start to US support. His first plan was to build a gated housing development called Aino Mena in his home city of Kandahar, a dusty, often violent crossroads in southern Afghanistan from which the Taliban emerged. Mahmood and four partners succeeded in raising a $3 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US government’s development finance corporation.
The Bush administration was keen for trade and private investment to boost the Afghan economy and pushed through the deal despite the facts, described by Partlow, that Mahmood was a credit risk, could not meet the criteria for loans, and had questionable claims to land ownership. That Mahmood, in a deal that became a scandal, had obtained defense ministry land at an abnormally low price was overlooked; the Aino Mena development proved a success, a sought-after protected community with tree-lined streets, paved roads, and fountains, but the US and Afghan governments overpaid.
Another of Mahmood’s projects cost the country nearly $1 billion. He was a shareholder in Kabul Bank, a flashy new enterprise that had sprung up with blue glass headquarters in downtown Kabul and ran popular lotteries for its customers. Within six years of opening, it was forced to close with $861 million invested in bad loans.
The bank was started by an Afghan currency dealer, Sherkhan Farnood, who, as it later turned out, was wanted by the police in Afghanistan and elsewhere on charges of illegal banking, money laundering, and organizing a crime syndicate in Russia. His former bodyguard, Khalil Ferozi, became the bank’s chief executive and engaged in lavish spending sprees in Dubai.
Mahmood Karzai and Haseen Fahim, the brother of the vice-president, both became shareholders in the bank, buying stock with loans from Kabul Bank itself. Within a few years the bank had made Farnood and his friends fabulously rich. Mahmood came to own about 8 percent of the bank and lived in one of Farnood’s villas, worth several million dollars, on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.
Investigators later established that Farnood had been running a well-concealed Ponzi scheme that used bank deposits to fund loans, with no requirement that they be repaid. Mahmood, the investigation found, had taken out $22.2 million, disguised as ten separate loans under different names, to keep the scheme going. “I’ve seen some really, really bad banks, but I’d never seen one with so much fraud,” Kat Woolford, an International Monetary Fund official working in Kabul, told Partlow. The Afghan government, Partlow writes, bailed out the bank at a cost of $825 million, essentially with American taxpayers’ money.
Many people come out badly from the Kabul Bank scandal, including Western financial advisers and auditors who failed to blow the whistle on the bank, but the refusal of the Karzais to recognize their own corrupt behavior concerning the Kabul Bank is the most shocking outcome of all. Mahmood has never accepted that he did anything wrong and says he has paid back all of his loans with interest. Karzai, whose 2009 election campaign received tens of millions of dollars from the bank, shifted the blame onto Abdul Qadir Fitrat, the Central Bank chief, and his officials, who had intervened to stop the fraud. Fitrat was given a three-year sentence, but Mahmood and the vice-president’s brother, Fahim, were never charged. That, Partlow concludes, “summed up how seriously Karzai’s palace took fighting the greed among his family members and supporters.”
If the Kabul Bank revelations were the most damning scandal of Karzai’s rule, the darkest events involved his half-brother and two cousins, all of whom carried on a blood feud, had dealings with the CIA, and were accused of murder. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the closest of Karzai’s three half-brothers, became the president’s representative and strongman in southern Afghanistan. He had been working in America at his brother Mahmood’s restaurant at the time of the September 11 attacks, but returned to join Karzai. He moved into a large house lent to him by a druglord in Kandahar, and as his rivals were eliminated, he became the most powerful and feared figure in the south.
Partlow describes him well as a courteous, hard-working mini-emperor, his house filled with supplicants. He was long accused by rivals of profiting from the drug business but he made himself indispensable both to Karzai and to the Americans fighting the war.
His cousin Hashmat was, as Partlow puts it, an “unabashed war profiteer” who ran a security firm and built a castle in the family village of Karz, and began to compete with Ahmed Wali for wealth and prominence in Kandahar. Hashmat had a blood feud with Yar Mohammed, another cousin, who had killed Hashmat’s father years earlier. Despite his denials, Hashmat was suspected of killing Yar Mohammed’s son, and even of arranging the American raid that killed Yar Mohammed.
As the family scandals and rivalries escalated, so did the killings. Ahmed Wali was shot dead by his most trusted commander, and Hashmat was killed by a teenage suicide bomber bearing explosives in his turban. The death of Hashmat marked the end of the khan legacy of the Karzai family, the claim to be the strongest of the tribe. Reading Partlow’s book, the reader spends much time with the Karzai family and comes to know a great deal about their relations with one another, their passions, their greed, and their infuriating self-promotion. Partlow finds that Karzai is the most likable of all and perhaps the most misjudged. He is not personally interested in making money and is possessed of a strong sense of tribal obligation and honor. He describes himself a “soft-core fellow.”
But Partlow makes it clear that Karzai has not left much of a legacy. His great political skill was compromise and achieving a balance among the Afghan ethnic factions; but he never succeeded in winning the war or making peace with the Taliban. What can be said, in Partlow’s view, was that “when he left, there was still a democracy.” Yet Karzai even sabotaged the transfer of power to his successor. He rigged the election commission and in 2014 presided over another fraudulent election. That has led to a continuing power struggle, and Karzai is still involved in intrigues to maintain influence in Afghanistan. For all his distaste for the United States, Karzai’s legacy, as Partlow shows, will be intrinsically based on the American intervention, and on his own responsibility for what Partlow calls the Afghan Disaster.