Fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, tremors of war and corruption continue to plague the fragile country. World Policy Journal spoke with Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post’s former bureau chief in Kabul, to discuss his upcoming book, A Kingdom of Their Own, which chronicles the intricate political and personal history of the Karzai family. Paying keen attention to former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, Partlow explores the gradual strain of diplomatic relations in an attempt to make sense of U.S.’s failed presence in Afghanistan.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your book, you explore the public and personal history of an incredibly complex Afghan political dynasty. What originally drew you to write about the Karzai family?
JOSHUA PARTLOW: I got to Afghanistan with the Washington Post in the summer of 2009, right before Hamid Karzai’s election for the second term, and stayed there on and off over the next five years. When I first got there, I was a little bewildered by this figure because I had in the back of my mind images of him from 2001 as this great peace maker and unifier of the country who was heralded around the world. This was the guy who came in after the Taliban, and he had a more modern sensibility and a pro-Western outlook in a dangerous part of the world. I had been elsewhere in the world and hadn’t really followed it too much, but by the time I got to Afghanistan, he had suddenly become the worst enemy of the United States, the cause of all these problems, and the head of this corrupt government. I was intrigued by him as a figure and I saw a lot of interesting contradictions throughout my time there. He was a very peace-loving guy, very sensitive to violence. At the same time, he was the commander and chief in this ongoing war and his relatives were supposedly involved in all this corruption. He was supposedly this master politician in dealing with Afghan tribes, but at the same time the government was basically failing. His family became more and more interesting as I learned about them, because they were involved in all sorts of issues and played very important roles in different aspects of the war.
WPJ: You mentioned in your book that Hamid Karzai was unlike most Afghan politicians. What about him do you think attracted the support of the Afghan people?
JP: To a degree, he did have a lot of support even at the end when he was quite unpopular. Initially people liked the fact that he didn’t have a lot of blood on his hands. He wasn’t like some of the other Afghan political leaders who were militia commanders who had fought the Soviets and still had thousands of men under arms. He had been in a political role and a spokesman’s role based in Pakistan during the Soviet war. He wasn’t a fighter himself—he was more moderate. He wasn’t a hardcore Islamist leader like some of the other rebels against the Soviets had been. He had a more modern, pro-Western outlook, as I mentioned. I think that attracted people to him and he was good at Afghan tribal politics. He liked the process of bringing in tribal elders from around the country and sitting for hours over long lunches or at all hours of the night. Even poor farmers and villagers from around the country would come in by the dozens—or hundreds—into the palace everyday and make an audience for him. In contrast to the current president of Afghanistan, who doesn’t have the same common touch with people and doesn’t seem to relish that, I think a lot of people liked that about him.
WPJ: Following up on that, how does the administration of Afghanistan’s current president, Ashraf Ghani, compare to that of Karzai’s?
JP: The temperament is a big difference. Ashraf Ghani is a technocrat. He’s more of an academic. He seems like he looks at problems and has written about a lot of the problems in failed states. He tries to apply more of an academic theory or policy to solving problems there and embraces the consensual, tribal meeting style, which Hamid Karzai used, to a lesser extent. I haven’t been back to Afghanistan since 2014 when Karzai left power, so I haven’t seen Ashraf Ghani’s government first hand, but I have interviewed him and knew him when he was in Karzai’s government in different capacities. Even then, people were saying he wasn’t popular among Afghans or that Afghans didn’t like him personally, because he was autocratic. It was his way or the high way. From what I read, that still seems to be the problem: He’s not sharing the power with Abdullah Abdullah, who is his partner in the coalition government. That causes ongoing rifts that are really threatening the stability of the government now.
WPJ: How would you characterize the corruption in Afghanistan’s governmental system?
JP: Pretty extreme is one way to characterize it. It was a very weak, fragile, new government. It’s important to remember how basic public services were when the Taliban left power in 2001. I talked to the Afghans who worked in our Washington Post bureau. They would have to travel hours to Pakistan just to make a phone call during the Taliban regime and all of the sudden, all these things changed after 2001 and billions of American dollars come into the country. So, to some degree, it’s not much of a surprise that there was a lot of corruption, but still this is one of the most corrupt countries in the word. There were people stealing millions of dollars and stacks of cash being flown out of the country every day on commercial airlines. If people wanted to become cabinet ministers, they would have to pay thousands of dollars to the parliament for confirmation. To get jobs as governors or to become local police chiefs, it was widely said that doing so required payments. There were bribes on the street to policemen and people really got fed up with the corruption. By around 2010, that became the point of view of the American mission in Afghanistan. Many people argued that the reason we were losing the war was because regular Afghans were angry about all this corruption in their daily lives and dealing with the government was such a nightmare. That was what I described in the book—this intense effort by the U.S. military and some of the civilian agencies at the embassy to investigate these corruption cases. That quickly led into the president Karzai’s palace family, and that helped ignite some of the dramatic problems in the relations between the Afghan government and the U.S. government during that period.
WPJ: Where would you say the United States went wrong with its relations with President Karzai?
JP: There were a few things that went wrong. One, I think the U.S. tried to change too much. They tried to remake the Afghan government in its own image in a way. They spent so much money and time trying to instill this grass-root democracy in Afghan villages that had their own historical system of consensual decision-making and ways of doing things. They tried to impose a bureaucratic system on Karzai’s palace and the National Security Council and to have it work in the way the White House worked. The obsession with corruption went too far because it created dramatic rifts with the government. We were there to support, but we pursued some of these cases with the ideal that we could make the Afghan government as clean as the United States’ government. It alienated a lot of people, was potentially unrealistic, and severed relations with a government that we needed a lot as a partner, as there were 100,000 U.S. soldiers fighting the Taliban at that time. That was one of the big problems. Another one was that I don’t think we were really honest with ourselves as a country about who we were fighting and why. President Obama, when he would talk about the war in political speeches, would talk about al-Qaida. When I was in Afghanistan, I’d probably heard the name al-Qaida a handful of times, but it just wasn’t a ground reality for the vast majority of the U.S. soldiers who were fighting Taliban and Afghan insurgents. There’s a real argument to be had about whether Afghan insurgents and the Taliban have any interest in international terror, or whether they just want to be Afghan political actors. I think what President Karzai got so upset about was the bombing of Afghan homes, the raids with dogs into Afghan bedrooms, and airstrikes and night raids. His argument was that if you want to fight terrorism, this is not where the home base of terrorism is, and all you’re doing is creating more enemies among the Afghan people. I think that was a little self-serving, but there was also a grain of truth to that. I don’t think the U.S. really understood or was really honest with itself about why it was fighting year after year in Afghanistan.
WPJ: Would you say that you discovered anything particularly surprising during your research of the Karzai family?
JP: One thing that was interesting to me was to learn about their lives in the United States before they returned to Afghanistan. When Hamid Karzai was in Pakistan in exile during the Soviet War and the years afterward, several of his siblings were living in the United States. Several had gone to school in the Washington, DC area and opened restaurants in Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Boston. I asked for the records of Montgomery Community College in Maryland because I heard one of the Karzais had attended. The woman in the administration office sent me a list of all the Karzais that attended, and it turned out there was about 15 or 20 of them and they had all taken classes at this community college before going other places. One of the brothers is a chemistry professor at a university on Long Island. They have degrees from colleges all over the United States. One was selling car loans in Virginia and then became this great militia leader in Afghanistan. It was interesting to contrast their lives in the United States with some of the things they got up to in Afghanistan. Amid Wali Karzai was the most important and powerful person in Kandahar. The CIA would come to him for intelligence all the time. He would basically rule like a king over all these provinces where much of the fighting had gone on. Another brother, Mahmud Karzai, had grand entrepreneurial ambitions and he built a giant gated city in Kandahar. It was interesting for me to track how big their ambitions were to remake Afghanistan after moving back there following Sept. 11.
WPJ: Did anything surprise you about the United States’ political presence in Afghanistan?
JP: The size of it was impressive and surprising to me. We had more than 1,000 people in the embassy and around the country in different provincial bases. There were hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of people in CIA missions. They had people from the whole range of U.S. government agencies working, such as livestock specialists in the Department of Agriculture and D.A. agents. It was interesting to see how everyone fit into this grand scheme. One of the lessons that I heard from Americans in Afghanistan was that part of the reason we ended up focusing on corruption so much, and the problems within the Afghan government that cause all these problems, was that we had so many people there looking. The more they looked, the more they saw of what was going on. There were a lot of people who focused on these problems, and once investigations got rolling into the Karzai brothers and others in the palace and the government, it was hard to stop that momentum.
WPJ: What makes this a vital story for people to know? What lessons can be learned from Karzai’s presidency, for Afghan politics or for U.S. foreign policy?
JP: It’s important to reflect on the Afghan war in general. For one, it’s been the longest war for the United States. More than 2,000 Americans have died there. Tens of thousands have been wounded. Far more Afghans have been killed and wounded. We’ve spent billions and billions of dollars trying to create something in this country: a stable government and a military that can protect itself. Right now, the situation is more tenuous than when President Karzai left. The Taliban are stronger and are circling provincial capitals and district centers. The government is quite weak right now. It’s important even just in the sense of what we’ve spent and what we got out of it. Also, it’s important to think about what happens if the U.S. goes into another country tries to engineer a different type of society: what they can expect and what the risks are of trying to change too much without listening hard enough to the hosts in that country. To re-iterate, a lot of the problems came from us not really listening to or understanding Afghans regarding the problems in their country, how they saw the United States’ presence, or whether the people had an appetite for the great military operations the U.S. was planning. That really undercut a lot of our success.
WPJ: Looking forward, what do you think about the future of Afghanistan’s presidential system more broadly?
JP: I’m pretty worried about the situation in Afghanistan right now. It’s quite dangerous and quite fragile. The Afghan government is wrestling with how to keep this coalition of a Pashtun president and Tajik and ethnic minorities all together. It seems like they’re straining or breaking apart. There’s also a place where the Islamic State seems to have gotten a foothold. Those threats of Islamic extremism appear to be growing. It’s a country that obviously can’t be ignored from the foreign policy standpoint. It’s easy to forget about the Afghan war because its been going on forever and doesn’t seem to ever end, but these are problems that we’ve helped create. The U.S. has a responsibility to help that country as much as it can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo courtesy of USAID Afghanistan]
[Interview conducted by Monica Rodriquez]