The Misunderstanding of Hamid Karzai

Afghanistan's president of 13 years exits the stage, and leaves behind him a slew of missed opportunities.

Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images for 9th World Islamic Economic Forum
Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images for 9th World Islamic Economic Forum

After 13 years in office, Hamid Karzai has left Afghanistan’s presidency. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani has been sworn in as the country’s new president, and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is the CEO, a position akin to prime minister. Karzai’s departure will bring a collective sigh of relief from his foreign interlocutors, who have come to view the departing Afghan leader as mercurial, difficult, and, more often than not, an obstacle to their goals to defeat the terrorists and establish a stable and democratic state.

Whenever I visited NATO headquarters in Kabul, during my six years as a reporter working in Afghanistan, Western officials’ frustration with the Afghan president was palpable. He was corrupt and unreliable, they said. Some openly claimed that they thought he was mentally ill.

Karzai wasn’t always a pleasure to deal with. He called the Americans "demons" after U.S. soldiers burned the Quran in 2012, sparking riots and attacks in Kabul. And he stubbornly refused to sign the strategic partnership agreement about the future of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Most tellingly, Karzai infuriated his partners by referring to the Taliban as his "brothers."

Yes, Karzai has been an infuriating partner. But he has also been deeply misunderstood — and mishandled. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Karzai — as an ambitious former diplomat — had the potential to build a political structure for the country. He was a shrewd political operator and the ideal choice for a post-Taliban leader. At that time, he had a plan that could have fundamentally changed the course of Afghanistan’s war and avoided the long-running U.S. military campaign: striking a peace deal with the Taliban. It was rejected.

The Taliban were our Afghan friends, Karzai told me several times in interviews. It was Karzai who made a clear distinction between "the Arabs" — foreign jihadists using Afghanistan as a base — and the Taliban. The Arabs had to be fought in Afghanistan, and yes, the Taliban must be punished for sheltering Osama bin Laden. But after their regime was toppled, Karzai believed it was time to stop fighting the Afghan group.

In a series of hourlong interviews over the course of 2007 to 2009, I talked with Karzai, his allies, and his enemies about how he came to power in 2001, and how he managed to stay in power. That story, told in my book A Man and a Motorcycle, is one of lost opportunities.

While most people have focused on his failures and inadequacies over the past 13 years, a little-reported trip in the earliest days of his coming to power in Afghanistan sheds light on what sort of leader he might have been — if only the United States would have let him.

In 2001, Hamid Karzai was a former diplomat, known as an active but not prominent anti-Taliban figure from a well-known Kandahar family. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was a prominent tribal leader from the Popalzai tribe and made a career as a senator. When the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, the family fled and moved to the United States, except for Hamid Karzai. He went to India to study and completed a bachelor’s degree in political science, but decided in 1983 to join the U.S.-funded jihad against the Soviet invasion and organized money and weapons, mostly via the U.S. Embassy, for tribal commanders in the field.

After the war with the Soviets ended, Karzai was appointed deputy foreign minister in the corrupt and unstable government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. But soon fate turned against him. Karzai had to flee Kabul in 1994.* After an argument with his colleague Mohammed Fahim, who at that time was defense minister, Karzai was arrested by the Afghan secret service. He escaped shortly after when the city was engulfed in a battle. (Karzai and Fahim reconciled eventually: After Karzai took over the presidency in 2001, Fahim became his first vice president.)

Long before Karzai became a vocally anti-Taliban president, he and his family were among the group’s early supporters. In 1994, when the Taliban was sweeping across southern Afghanistan, many tribal families chose to support the Islamist radicals for opportunistic reasons. Karzai’s family had seen its tribal influence diminished in Kandahar. The Karzais wanted their power back; the Taliban was the quickest path to that.

Working from his home in the Pakistani city of Quetta, on Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Karzai encouraged his tribesmen to work with the Taliban when they came to power in 1994. He sent trusted messengers to his tribesmen inside Afghanistan, telling them to support the Taliban regime by giving them tribal backing, money, and weapons.

But when the Taliban denied Karzai a job as a U.N. representative in 1997, his opportunistic instincts took charge. He changed his mind about the group. Before then, Karzai hadn’t condemned the Taliban’s human rights violations, such as its executions of women in soccer stadiums or executions by stoning of homosexuals. That changed after they had refused him the job. He organized opposition meetings in Pakistan and Europe, and he started to ask Washington for weapons to fight the Taliban.

At that time, Karzai was a fixture in Pakistani diplomatic circles, dropping in on foreign diplomats as a not-always-invited guest at their embassies so often that they found it hard to devote time to him. "Karzai was always pushing us to support Afghanistan so often that I could not always receive him," said Richard Smyth, who was the political officer in the United States’ consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, at the time.

Among Afghans and his friends in the diplomatic corps, Karzai became known for being a pragmatic political player, maintaining relationships and continuing to have tea with anyone, friend or foe. He had good connections with the CIA, with Pakistani intelligence, and with all the Afghan groups, even including some Taliban members.

After the U.S. invasion in October 2001, Karzai seemed like a suitable candidate to become a new Afghan leader: He not only spoke English fluently but also used the language of democracy. He said all the things the Americans wanted to hear, such as pledging to bring women back to school and promising that human rights would be a top priority.

But Karzai was much more than a convenient place holder for the Americans. By then he had become a skilled politician who had worked hard to create his own power base by maintaining ties with Western and Pakistani governments as well as with various tribal and political groups in Afghanistan. That was something the United States didn’t fully appreciate, but could have leveraged to stabilize Afghanistan in the months that followed.

A few days after the United States and Britain launched their attack on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, Karzai organized his mission to enter the country to place himself as the alternative for the Taliban. He set up the trip with the backing of other tribesmen inside Afghanistan, a good friend in the CIA, and his contacts in the Taliban. Karzai was continuing his habit of simultaneously playing every side of the political puzzle.

The future president secretly crossed the border with three members of his tribe by his side. He carried a satellite phone and some money from the CIA, which at that time was willing to pass on support to anyone it thought might be able to bring down the Taliban. He rode a secondhand motorcycle purchased in the Pakistani bazaar border town of Chaman. First he traveled the rocky road to Shur Andam, a town outside Kandahar. Once in Kandahar province, he continued traveling in cars, on bikes, and by foot deep inside southern Afghanistan, ending up in the province of Urozgan. During his trip he stayed with fellow tribesmen or in empty houses of his family members. The U.S. bombing had started just a couple of days earlier, and while Karzai tried to avoid the American airstrikes, he saw long streams of Afghans fleeing the province to Pakistan.

"Times will change," Karzai told every Afghan he came across on his clandestine trip. "The Taliban will go and the Americans will support us." Not everyone was on board. After arriving in Urozgan, Karzai encountered a group of men who didn’t believe that he came in peace. A group of Taliban attacked Karzai, and he had to be rescued by the CIA and was flown to Pakistan. That wasn’t enough to deter him from his mission to make peace, though. Two weeks later Karzai continued his trip, now with the assistance of U.S. Special Forces and the CIA.

Early in Karzai’s sojourn into southern Afghanistan — before he was attacked and airlifted — his compatriots captured two Taliban members who tried to attack Karzai. Karzai’s men wanted to kill them, but their leader intervened. "Go home, keep your heads down, and return to work as usual tomorrow." It wasn’t a coordinated offer of amnesty, but a clear sign Karzai still thought he could talk the Taliban into peace. It was only the first of a remarkable series of amnesty offers Karzai gave to the Taliban on his road to power. Nobody knew about it, since no journalists were present in the country’s south at that time. Only later, while I was reporting my book, did I learn of these stories from people who witnessed these amnesty offers.

Even more so when Karzai’s name was mentioned in relation to the future presidency of Afghanistan, he became the person to go to for the Taliban. Though Karzai might have offered amnesty for opportunistic reasons, hoping to gain more power among his Pashtun community, eyewitnesses describe the Taliban’s positive response to these initiatives.

In November 2001, Karzai was still on his secret mission in southern Afghanistan. He approached the city of Kandahar after a month traveling around the surrounding area. Kandahar was the last city still under Taliban control. Karzai made contact with Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, and his cabinet. Mullah Naqibullah, a Taliban member who had maintained a good relationship with Karzai for years, arranged the meeting. While the war was almost to an end, high-level delegations arrived at Karzai’s hideout in the northern Kandahar mountains with a letter from Mullah Omar saying that the Taliban leader had given his cabinet the authority to decide about Afghanistan’s future. After several high-level Taliban delegations visited Karzai, the Taliban cabinet surrendered to him. They agreed to support Karzai’s new plans and surrendered their weapons to the new governor of Kandahar, Karzai’s ally Mullah Naqibullah.

But it didn’t result in a final peace deal with the Taliban.

While Karzai was hammering out a future for southern Afghanistan as the new interim president, the Americans intervened and tried to stop him. Even when high-level Taliban members, such as the minister of defense and top commanders, surrendered to Karzai in the first week of December, Karzai was forced to stop accepting the surrendered Taliban by the Americans.

Karzai didn’t get a chance to broker more deals that could have brought the Taliban into the government. The Americans’ desire for revenge derailed any early chance at peace. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on Dec. 1, 2001, that he wouldn’t let Taliban leader Mullah Omar "live in dignity" in Afghanistan and that the military campaign would continue.

If only the Americans had listened to Karzai in 2001, the situation in Afghanistan could have turned out differently. Though Karzai was Washington’s preferred candidate, the Bush administration’s lack of knowledge about Karzai’s political deal-making in the complex Afghan political and tribal dynamics prevented it from appreciating his early efforts to win the war by negotiation. Soon, it would be too late. By the time Karzai became the official president in 2004, the Taliban had regrouped, having realized that under U.S.-controlled Afghanistan they would find no place back into the political process. Their insurgency continues to this day.

Would Karzai have been a different leader if he had brought the Taliban on board in 2001? It’s hard to know. But with the Taliban as part of the peace process in the early years of the war, the Americans might have achieved a more diplomatic solution to Afghanistan’s crisis, creating an inclusive government, heading off the insurgency, and thus avoiding the full-scale involvement that followed — which has caused the deaths of more than 2,300 Americans.

As a consequence of this bitter start, Afghanistan has become a familiar story of political corruption and dysfunction: The power brokers once supported by U.S. Special Forces and billions of dollars became the enemy of the United States and the Afghan people — acting like the mafia, pursuing their own interests over the country’s, and ruining Afghan’s faith in post-Taliban governance.

With the support of the United States, many in Karzai’s government marginalized opposing groups and rival tribes, often convincing their ignorant U.S. counterparts their enemies were Taliban in order to discredit them. The war began as a fight between the extremist Taliban and the people who opposed their radical worldview — both Americans and their Afghan allies. But those lines dissolved as Karzai’s government made more enemies from within what had previously been its camp. Political rivals — some Taliban, some not — were allowed to live in peace in Kabul; others were forced out, only to join the insurgency.

Thirteen years after 9/11, power in Afghanistan has little to do with democracy. The bitter political wrangling between the new president, Ashraf Ghani, and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has demonstrated that, even as the world witnesses a peaceful transfer of power. But peace talks with the Taliban are off at the moment, and many fear the insurgency will bloom as soon as the Americans leave. Can Ghani win the peace now? Perhaps. But also, too, could have Karzai 13 years ago — if only the Americans had given him a chance?

*Correction, Oct. 3, 2014: While deputy foreign minister, Hamid Karzai fled Kabul in 1994. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he fled in 1984. (Return to reading.)

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola