- By Charles HomansCharles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.
Maybe it was all the excitement with the Russian spies last week, but somehow we missed one of the more intriguing things to grace the Wall Street Journal‘s letters page in a while: A full-throated defense of Hamid Karzai’s brother, Mahmood Karzai, written by Gerald Posner. Posner, you may recall, was an investigative reporter for the Daily Beast until February, when he resigned after being caught plagiarizing from the Miami Herald and other news sources. In the letter — which concerns an unflattering recent story about Karzai ferrying cash out of Afghanistan — Posner identifies himself as "Gerald Posner, Attorney at Law," and refers to Karzai as "my client." Huh?
FP spoke this afternoon with Posner (above left), who says he isn’t just representing Mahmood Karzai (above right), but also the other two Afghan presidential siblings, Hamid’s younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and older brother Qayum Karzai. It’s an odd twist on the disgraced plagiarist-fabulist rehabilitation story, which often involves a legal career but not usually in the service of a beleaguered Central Asian ruling family. "They are really proud of the reputations that they have earned," Posner says of the Karzais, "and sort of in shock that they are viewed with such disdain in a country that is their ally in this process."
So far, Posner — who worked as a lawyer before becoming a journalist — says, his work on behalf of the Karzais has mostly involved pursuing potential libel cases against his old colleagues in the Western media, where the presidential family has taken a drubbing of late: The brothers have variously been accused of trafficking heroin, muscling their way into lucrative development projects, and selling materials for IEDs used against American troops. Posner hasn’t filed any actual lawsuits yet, but says he is in contact with representatives of the New York Times, the New York Post, Fox News, the Toronto Star, and the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank about reports they’ve published concerning the Karzais that he believes to be potentially libelous. ("We are investigating his request for correction at this point," Kathy English, the Star‘s public editor, told FP. "He has suggested there is an inaccuracy, and our writer and I are looking into it.")
Posner’s relationship with the Karzais goes back to October, when the Times reported that Ahmed Wali was on the C.I.A.’s payroll, and repeated earlier allegations that he was deeply involved in Afghanistan’s opium trade. Posner spoke with both Ahmed Wali and Mahmood by phone for a sympathetic Daily Beast story, in which he aired the brothers’ complaints about their treatment by the Times. He met Mahmood and his wife in Washington in May, several months after his departure from the Beast.
By this point, Posner says, the brothers were starting to realize they had a PR problem. "When [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal was coming to Kandahar and meeting [Ahmed Wali], and forming the policy in terms of security and the surge this fall," Posner says, "there were a number of people on McChrystal’s staff who said, ‘Hey, people are saying these things about you, and it’s making you a hot potato, difficult to deal with." Posner flew to Kabul the first week of June, during the Afghan peace jirga, in which the government was trying to forge some sort of consensus about the country’s future. By the time he left town, his former sources had become his clients.
Posner says that so far, the Karzais are his only customers, and while he won’t say how much they’re paying him, it’s "surprisingly less than almost anybody would expect." In addition to pursuing the Karzais’ journalistic antagonists, Posner also helped arrange a conference call between investigators for a U.S. House subcommittee and Ahmed Wali and Qayum while the subcommittee was preparing a recent report on Afghanistan’s warlords. He hopes to work with the Karzais to put together some sort of seminar on corruption in Afghanistan. Beyond that, it mostly sounds like your basic damage control, writing letters to the editor and generally tending to the brothers’ worse-for-wear public image. "You have to draw your battle lines," he says. "I can’t answer every blog post on the Karzais, but the more egregious ones I hope to do something about."
Posner says he hopes to eventually return to journalism — his big project is completing a book on the Vatican than he began several years ago. "I’m not comparing myself to Doris Kearns Goodwin," he says, referring to the historian who was similarly tarred as a plagiarist before becoming a bestselling author with her book on Abraham Lincoln’s policy brain trust, Team of Rivals. "But what she did was disappear for a couple years and came back with a bulletproof, superb book. What I need to do is eventually come out with a book — it won’t be about Afghanistan, but in three or four years I’ll come back with that. And people will be able to say, he didn’t put together two words from anyone."
So far, Posner’s PR successes have been minor. When Pat Buchanan called Ahmed Wali the "Al Capone of Kandahar" in a column last month, Posner e-mailed him to complain. (Buchanan didn’t respond to emails about the exchange this afternoon.) "Buchanan wrote back," Posner says, "and said, ‘You know, the more I think about it, it was unfair. Maybe I was thinking more Boss Tweed than Al Capone.’"