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Afghanistan: Charisma and Corruption

The rise and fall of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who ruled the country for 13 years

by Khaled Ahmed

In A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster, author Joshua Partlow has studied in great detail the life and political career of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, offering insight into the man who led the war-torn state during the peak of the U.S.-led war on terror.

“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,” read an early review of the book. “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,” it added.

Early achievements abroad

How accurate is this perception, and to what extent was the Karzai clan responsible for the deterioration in U.S.-Afghan ties? That question is at the heart of Partlow’s excellent book.

Hamid Karzai was an Afghan politician who served as president of Afghanistan from Dec. 22, 2001 to Sept. 29, 2014. He is a khan of the Popalzai Durrani Pashtun tribe of Kandahar, where he was born in 1957. Karzai graduated from Habibia High School in Kabul and later received a master’s degree in India in the 1980s. He then moved to Pakistan, where he was active as a fundraiser for Afghan rebels during the Soviet–Afghan War (1979–1989) and its aftermath. He briefly served as deputy foreign minister in the Islamic State of Afghanistan government. In July 1999, Karzai’s father was assassinated and Karzai succeeded him as head of the Popalzai tribe.

The former president’s grandfather had served in the government of King Mohammad Zahir Shah. Under the Soviet-imposed regime in the 1980s, the Karzai family left Afghanistan and settled in Pakistan. When the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001, Karzai led the Pashtun tribes in and around Kandahar in an uprising against the Taliban; becoming a dominant political figure after the removal of the Taliban regime in late 2001. During the December 2001 International Conference on Afghanistan in Germany, Karzai was selected by prominent Afghan political figures to serve a six-month term as chairman of the interim administration.

Early political career

During the Afghan War (1978–92), Karzai worked with the mujahideen, who sought to overthrow the Soviet-backed government, and often traveled to the United States to seek support for the cause. When the communist government of Najibullah fell in April 1992, the mujahideen established a coalition government, with Karzai serving as deputy foreign minister. In 1994 he resigned, however, tired of the infighting within the government. The growing strife escalated until the mujahideen turned on one another, and in the ensuing turmoil the Taliban, an ultraconservative political and religious faction, came to power.

Although initially supportive of the Taliban and the order that it introduced to the country, Karzai came to oppose the regime and again went into exile in Pakistan. In July 1999 his father was assassinated, an act that he blamed on the Taliban, and leadership of the Popalzai passed to Karzai. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the United States led a military campaign to topple the Taliban and capture terrorists based in the country, Karzai returned to his homeland to rally support for the U.S.-led mission, and by mid-November the Taliban regime had collapsed.

To avert a destructive power struggle, representatives from various Afghan groups, aided by the international community, named Karzai chair of an interim administration; he was sworn into office in late December 2001. In June 2002, a loya Jirga chose Karzai as president of a transitional government. The chieftain faced numerous challenges, including controlling the country’s powerful traditional leaders and preventing the Taliban from recovering power. He also sought to rebuild the war-torn country as violence continued unabated, with Karzai himself the target of several assassination attempts. In January 2004, a new constitution was approved that called for a directly elected president. Later that year Karzai won the presidential election and was sworn into office.

President with Western support

As Karzai entered office, he enjoyed strong support from Western allies, but he faced enormous challenges. Continued violence and instability and an inability to effectively build up Afghan institutions and provide basic services took its toll on his popularity at home and abroad, as did allegations of government corruption. The country was also plagued by an increase in drug trafficking—the country’s opium poppy harvest reached record levels in 2007—as well as by the resurgence of the Taliban, which mounted attacks with increasing frequency. As a result, pointed criticism, even from the United States, began to emerge.

Karzai’s term as president was due to expire in May 2009, and at that time he was constitutionally obligated to step down. Because of logistical and security reasons, however, the approaching presidential election—in which Karzai would be a candidate—was postponed from May to August of that year. Karzai asserted that, for reasons of security, he should remain in office until the election took place. Critics were concerned that maintaining his position would give Karzai an undue electoral advantage, and they urged him to step down as mandated by the constitution and turn power over to an interim government. In March 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that Karzai could legally retain his position until the election in August. Discontent with Karzai’s leadership produced a number of presidential hopefuls, though Karzai was deftly able to neutralize or secure the backing of most of those who might have challenged him.

Election marred by fraud

The presidential election was held on Aug. 20, 2009, and was followed by weeks of political turmoil. In September a preliminary count awarded Karzai almost 55 percent of the vote, thus indicating that he had won an outright victory over his closest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. With more than 2,000 complaints of fraud and intimidation, however, the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) ordered an audit of suspect polling stations and began an investigation into fraud allegations. In mid-October the ECC ruled that the fraudulent activity was pervasive enough to invalidate votes from more than 200 polling stations, which included almost one third of Karzai’s votes. As a result, Karzai’s proportion of the vote slipped to 49.7 percent, low enough to warrant a second round of elections. Although Karzai initially resisted the call for a runoff, on Oct. 20 he conceded to a second round of polling between himself and Abdullah, which was scheduled for Nov. 7. Shortly thereafter, however, Abdullah withdrew from the race, a decision he cited as being in the country’s best interest. The runoff election was canceled, and Karzai was inaugurated as president for a second term.

The Karzai clan

In the family of seven sons and one daughter from two mothers, half-brothers Hamid and Ahmed Wali were particularly close. During Hamid’s post-September 11 return to Afghanistan, Wali devoted himself to the logistics of fomenting the Pashtun uprising against the Taliban and helped the CIA set up its operations in Kandahar. Throughout Hamid’s presidency, Wali had been the enforcer of his political agenda in southern Afghanistan. They talked on the phone nearly every day, with Wali working to undercut tribal rivals to keep their Pashtun tribe, the Popalzai, dominant and well-funded.

During his term as president, Karzai helped his siblings realize outlandish dreams, smoothing the road for his brother Mahmood Karzai to build a giant-gated city in the Kandahar desert, while blocking challengers within the family who burned to steal his mantle as Kandahar’s reigning don. Wali put his elder brother Shah Wali, a shy engineer, to work for him after he couldn’t find the job he wanted in the palace. For years, while other siblings sought their daily comforts in Maryland or Dubai, Wali grappled daily in the death match of Kandahar politics. And in his sudden absence, nobody knew what to expect. Hamid Karzai was celebrated around the world as a unifier and peacemaker. But by the time of Ahmed Shah’s burial, the Karzai name had become another word for corruption, greed, and bewildering rage at America. His family had ascended into deadly feuds and scrambles for money that Wali’s death would intensify. Karzai’s relations with U.S. diplomats and soldiers amounted to little but distrust and traded insults. On his next trip to Kandahar, Karzai, with tears in his eyes, would tell villagers that Americans were “demons,” adding “Let’s pray for God to rescue us from them.”

Rivalled by Abdullah Abdullah

Karzai’s most prominent adversary during the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, had once been his foreign minister and had presented himself as a pan-ethnic savior-in-waiting during his electoral campaign, a distinction in earlier days that Karzai had claimed for himself. He had chosen as his running-mate Mohammad Qasim Fahim to win ethnic Tajik support, and had cajoled warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum into returning from Turkey and helping him win the Uzbek vote. Even more worrying for those around him, Karzai no longer had America at his back.

President Barack Obama had cut the avuncular link that Karzai had established with President George Bush. The White House now wanted a new approach to the failing war, and coddling a man increasingly considered an ungrateful and ineffectual tribal chieftain was not how it intended to find one. American officials believed that Karzai tolerated flagrant government corruption and had failed to extend his administration very far beyond the walls of his palace. “On all fronts,” a senior American official declared not long after Obama took office, “Hamid Karzai has plateaued as a leader.” Even in Kabul, the most modern, developed city in the country, only a third of the roughly five million residents received electricity, and that only sporadically; one in 10 residents had access to the city’s water supply. After Karzai’s first election in 2004, when the United States had essentially functioned as his campaign manager, and when his victory had been hailed by Vice President Dick Cheney as a major moment “in the history of human freedom,” the playing field had tilted steeply away from him. As early as the spring of 2007, European officials had proposed to Karzai that he promote himself out of his job—to a ceremonial position as head of state or king and let a prime minister assume the real work of governing.

Karzai and an unloved Pakistan

In battles with American officials, Karzai was already a scarred veteran. They had fought over what to do about Pakistan, with Karzai thinking the U.S. military should pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban there, rather than in Afghanistan. The United States needed to send Pakistan an ultimatum to stop using Islamic radicalism as an instrument of policy, Karzai had told Obama, then a senator, over lunch in Kabul in July 2008: “Softly, softly, won’t work.”

He was suspicious that the United States kept Afghanistan weak so as to have a free hand to pursue its larger goals in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. He felt that the United States had failed by giving too much authority to cautious NATO allies in southern Afghanistan, and that it had not protected the country’s tribal leaders from assassinations by insurgents. Karzai spoke openly of the notion that America was secretly allied with Iran to support his rival Abdullah.

Expensive stolen election

American allies had paid $488 million for the 2009 election, the United States contributing $263 million of that total. The Afghan government’s share was $1.5 million. More than 10,000 people on 51 different election observation teams from around the world monitored the polls; drones peered down from the skies. The official watchdog organization, the Electoral Complaints Commission manned by foreigners, had a staff of 220 people deployed around the country. The goal was to open more polling stations and have more people vote than in the previous election, in 2004, all while having more eyes on those polls to ensure that the election was carried out fairly.

It did not turn out that way. Only about 4.5 million Afghans voted, out of more than 15 million who registered—half the turnout of Karzai’s win five years earlier. The Taliban launched more than 400 attacks that day, the most of any day in the war. At least 30 people died. More than 700 of the polling centers failed to open.

Eager American and European officials had declared the election a relative success within the first hours of voting, but people in Kabul soon realized that, by any measure, the election had been a disaster. There were people who voted more than once, those who voted on behalf of others, whole sheaves of 600 ballots with be same exact vote in the same exact pen. “Ghost” polling centers that opened racked up votes. In voting rooms that opened, gunmen forced people to fill out ballots, or police took them home and checked the boxes themselves. The ECC found that of the 3 million votes cast for Hamid Karzai, at least 800,000 were fraudulent.

Defrauding a bank

A few years later, on Oct. 2, 2014, Reuters reported that brothers of former president Hamid Karzai and one of his vice presidents were among 19 individuals and companies that still owed a total of $633 million from a 2010 loan fraud scandal at Afghanistan’s biggest bank. The bank collapse triggered a financial crisis and of the $935 million drained from the bank’s deposits, only about a third was recovered. The Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, a combined international-Afghan body, released a report naming Kabul Bank’s main debtors.

Among the names was Mahmoud Karzai, brother of Hamid. He was listed as having owed $22.2 million in loans from Kabul Bank and having paid back only $13.4 million. Mahmoud denied he still owed money, saying he had paid back all his loans with interest and had done no wrong. He said the $8.7 million in outstanding money listed represented shares he held in the bank that were still under legal dispute. His argument was that what the management of Kabul Bank did with its loan portfolio was beyond his control and knowledge. He claimed he had been “fraudulently induced” to become a Kabul Bank shareholder, as he had no way of knowing that the bank’s books were an elaborate fabrication.

Karzais in America

Since moving to the U.S. in the late 1960s, Hamid’s elder brothers Mahmood and Qayyum had established a network of successful restaurant businesses. The family’s lone sister, Fawzia, along with her husband, managed one of their restaurants, the Helmand, not far from the Harvard campus. Oldest brother, Abdul Ahmed, had trained as a mechanical engineer and worked at an airport in Baltimore. The youngest brother, Abdu Vali, had earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and taught chemistry at a college on Long Island. Several of the siblings had become American citizens, along with their children. They had spouses who sold insurance, worked in department stores. They were accustomed to their suburban lives.

Among the siblings, Hamid had stayed the most politically active during his exile years, but even he could not expect that in the condensed frenzy of three months, he would be transformed from an obscure exiled Afghan diplomat into the country’s wartime head of state. This brief period has also been the most thoroughly documented of Karzai’s public life. Books such as The Only Thing Worth Dying For have chronicled in minute detail Karzai’s post-September 11 journey into Afghanistan. In early October 2001, Karzai, armed with a CIA-donated satellite phone, had ridden a motorcycle into Afghanistan with three companions to foment rebellion in Afghanistan. But his war-party got surrounded in the mountains of Uruzgan. The Bush administration lent soldiers to rescue him. Karzai and America ended up finally convening at a CIA safe-house across the border in the Jacobabad district of Pakistan’s Sindh province to prepare for another attempt.

Karzai was a survivor par excellence. With no military expertise, he gravitated to Pakistan during the Soviet war in the early 1980s and got involved with Afghan rebel groups. Living first in Peshawar, Karzai worked as a political adviser and spokesman for Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the leader of the Afghan National Liberation Front, one of the seven Afghan rebel factions that relied on American money and weapons to fight the Soviets. Karzai got the position through the influence of his father, Abdul Ahad, who was also working with the group. The rest is dubious history.

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