The South Asia Channel

A Man and a Motorcycle

Many things can and will be written about the Karzai Era in Afghanistan. But what is perhaps most remarkable about Hamid Karzai’s 13-year stretch at the helm of one of the most impoverished countries in the world is that one can even speak of it in terms of an era at all. The list of ...

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Many things can and will be written about the Karzai Era in Afghanistan. But what is perhaps most remarkable about Hamid Karzai’s 13-year stretch at the helm of one of the most impoverished countries in the world is that one can even speak of it in terms of an era at all. The list of Afghan leaders who have successfully survived a transfer of power in Kabul is short. Yet two months after stepping down as Afghanistan’s first elected president, Karzai remains quietly ensconced in the Afghan capital. Fate, it turns out, has been good to him. History, however, will not likely be as charitable.

The record of transformational leadership in the annals of modern Afghanistan is fairly scant. The statistical significance of the long line of transactional leaders that have plagued the Afghan state cannot be easily discounted as a factor in the country’s epic struggle to right itself against the historic tides of feckless governance. Where Karzai falls on the spectrum between the transactional and the transformational is relatively clear, even to casual observers. Historians may eventually determine that Karzai’s chaotic exit from the center of Afghanistan’s political stage in September 2014, and the subsequent rise of Ashraf Ghani to the presidency and Abdullah Abdullah to the position of CEO of an as yet undefined corporate entity, is little more than a wrinkle in time. We may, however, have to wait another generation or so before that particular part of Afghanistan’s history is written and rewritten to anyone’s satisfaction.

In the meantime, curious fans of Afghan history may sate their appetite with a reading of Dutch journalist Bette Dam’s A Man and a Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power. Recently translated into English from the Dutch version first published in 2009, Dam’s slim but impressive bit of biographic reportage provides a compellingly written snapshot of the early days of one of the most misunderstood leaders in Afghan history.

The narrative centers on Karzai’s fabled journey across the southern province of Uruzgan with a small band of U.S. Special Forces soldiers before he was selected to lead Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. There are payoffs, CIA operatives, clunky old satellite phones, and running battles with the Taliban. It is a familiar tale — one that has been so breathlessly told and retold over the years, that is hard for the eyes not to glaze over at the very mention of it. But Dam’s thorough, measured account distinguishes itself, adding fresh dimension to a well-worn story. She manages to artfully paint a complex and surprisingly empathetic portrait of a mercurial leader who was as driven by political expedience as he was controlled by it.

Dam, who has covered the conflict in Afghanistan for eight years, gained unprecedented access to Karzai in 2008, seven years after CIA officials identified him as a possible champion of the U.S. counterterrorism cause in southern Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Those early days, just after the 9/11 attacks and before Karzai was tapped to lead Afghanistan’s Interim Authority, were heady times. In the north, armed groups affiliated with the late Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud and Afghanistan’s recently-elected Uzbek vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostum were pushing hard into areas dominated by the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Northern Alliance — under the notional leadership of the late former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani — engaged in rough and bloody battles alongside U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives in the northern provinces of Kunduz and Balkh. In the south, the Taliban still dominated in many areas, including Uruzgan, where Karzai eventually fomented a small rebellion against the Taliban with the help of the Americans and dozens of his assorted loyal Pashtun tribal relatives and affiliates. According to Dam’s account, the story of Karzai’s rise to power is not so much the story of a calculating strategist as it is of a savvy tactician whose dependence on a loyal cohort of family and friends ultimately undercut his political potency. This, Dam seems to slyly suggest, may be partly a circumstance of Karzai’s birth.

Born in the Pashtun-dominated south to a respectable branch of the Popolzai tribe, Karzai was the youngest of three brothers and a sister born to Abdul Ahad Karzai, who served as the deputy speaker of parliament and a one-time district governor in the south, and his first wife. Dam artfully recounts young Hamid’s estranged relations with his father, as well as the impact of Hamid’s less favorable positioning within the Karzai clan and wider circle of ruling Pashtun elites on his leadership style. Quite a few parachute journalists and junk historians have made the mistake of underestimating the depth and breadth of the Karzai family’s connections to royalist and clerical power circles. Dam is not one of them.

To her great credit, Dam is careful to situate Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president firmly in the fabric of a tradition-bound semi-feudal culture broken by years of internecine conflict. It is in these circles, amid the chaos of the anti-Soviet jihad and civil war, that Karzai and his now-equally famous brothers — Ahmed Wali, Qayoom, and Mahmoud — and half-brother — Shah Wali — came of age. Dam’s fly-on-the-wall recounting of Karzai’s move from Quetta, Pakistan to Tarin Kowt, the capital of Uruzgan, and onward to Kandahar and Kabul is as detailed as it is insightful. The latter half of the book notably sheds new light on Karzai’s friendships with notable warlords and insurgent commanders. It also illuminates the dynamics behind Karzai’s unsuccessful decade-long attempt to convince the United States to reverse its aggressive campaign against Taliban leadership in favor of a political settlement, and to persuade former Taliban commanders to join the peace process.

But Dam never quite delivers on her promise in the book’s introduction to explain "how the group Karzai relied on enriched themselves through patronage and nepotism over the years." While she ably captures the essence of Karzai’s leadership style, she is less precise in her portrayal of Karzai’s Western counterparts, particularly his American backers. For the handful of Afghanistan experts who are able to read between the lines of Dam’s descriptions of the American soldiers and officials who proved so pivotal to Karzai’s rise, there is certainly value added. Her revelations about Karzai’s longstanding connections to top Taliban leaders, such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and former Taliban interior minister Khairullah Khairkhwa, are also quite illuminating. Yet one rather wishes that Dam’s editors had pushed her harder to take a more rigorous approach to citations and to include an index. Still, it is hard to quibble too much on this score given the exhaustive and impressive list of Dam’s interview sources. And though A Man and His Motorcycle is unlikely to stand as the definitive history of the genesis of the Karzai Era, there are so many little gems hidden in the book that one suspects it will have a long shelf life.

Candace Rondeaux is the strategic advisor for the Lessons Learned Program in the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and a research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. She lived and worked in Afghanistan for five years, covering the conflict there for the Washington Post and International Crisis Group. She writes regularly about U.S. foreign policy in South Asia for Foreign Policy. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of SIGAR or the U.S. Government.

Candace Rondeaux is a Senior Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace and Director of the RESOLVE Network, a global consortium of research and training institutes focused on leveraging analysis to address violent extremism. She recently led a study on lessons learned from U.S. strategy in Afghanistan for the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and she spent five years living and working in South Asia, as bureau chief for The Washington Post and Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

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