“Delusional,” “paranoid,” “off his meds” — those are only a few of the words used to describe Hamid Karzai in Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars.” But it’s not just the closed-door assessments of the administration that raise concerns about the Afghan president. Karzai’s public appearances have become more bizarre, including a recent speech where he openly wept, lamenting that he didn’t want his 3-year-old son Mirwais to “be a foreigner growing up outside Afghanistan.”
With his green cloak and sheepskin hat, Karzai cut a swashbuckling figure when he visited the US after the ousting of the Taliban. He embodied American hopes for a new Afghanistan, one where politics were transparent, women had rights, and the Taliban were decisively rejected.
Nine years later, those hopes have been dashed. Karzai has attempted to stifle Afghan and American anti-corruption investigators, and approved some shockingly retrograde women’s laws that include allowing “local custom” to determine if a wife can leave the house without her husband’s permission. When it comes to the war, Karzai seems to reserve his strongest criticism for US mistakes rather than Taliban encroachment.
NATO military leaders and politicians increasingly wonder:
This is the man we’re fighting for?
Hamid Karzai was born on Oct. 24, 1957, to a prominent family in Kandahar. Though described by some media as an “aristocrat,” Karzai’s family worked with royalty but was not one of them. His grandfather was president of the national council under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 until 1973. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, later became deputy speaker of parliament, moving the family to the capital, Kabul.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the family into exile. His father went to Pakistan; at least one brother, Abdul Qayum, was in the US starting a chain of Baltimore restaurants. Hamid went to college in India, graduating with a masters degree in international relations and political science.
Karzai’s childhood has inspired some armchair psychology among his peers. Former Afghan diplomat Wahid Monawar notes that a former Afghan governor who grew up with Karzai says the president was often beaten up by his six full and half-brothers, which led to a persecution complex. His father nicknamed him “the mad one” for his moods.
At college, he liked to watch street magicians and learn their tricks. This, Wahid maintains, is a key to Karzai’s personality: even now focused on sleight of hand rather than substance, tactical advantages rather than strategy.
After a brief trip to Europe, Karzai returned to Afghanistan to join one of the “seven dwarfs,” or Pakistani-funded resistance groups. It was here that Karzai mingled with many of radical elements of the mujahidin. His faction was led by Sibghatullah Mujadidi, a grand-nephew of the jihadi leader who played a role in ousting reformist King Amanullah in the 1920s. He met the leaders who brought Arab jihadis into the Afghan war.
After the Soviets left, Karzai became deputy foreign minister to the unstable Afghan government that followed. But in 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, Karzai was on the outs. He angled to become an ambassador but was rejected and turned against the Taliban.
Karzai’s opposition was cemented when in August 1999, his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, living in Quetta, Pakistan, was assassinated by the Taliban while at prayers. Upon his father’s death, Hamid was chosen head of his local tribe, the Popalzai — apparently because his older brothers Mahmoud and Abdul Qayum were content living in the United States.
Meanwhile, Karzai’s personal life is something of a blank. In Afghan culture, most men marry in their early 20s. Karzai finally wed, at 42, to Dr. Zeenat Quraishi, a gynecologist, who’s a distant relative of Karzai and also from Kandahar. One child, Mirwais, was born to the couple in 2007 — again unusual in a country of large families. Unlike some other political leaders, who have brought their spouses to vote, Karzai’s wife almost never appears in public. Whatever his alleged support for women’s rights, on the home front Karzai plays by Kandahari rules.
During the 1990s, Karzai was far from a national figure. Ahmad Wali Massoud, brother of the slain resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the Court of St. James in 2001. He recalls that a few months before 9/11, Hamid Karzai sought him out to get an introduction to his brother. But Ahmad Shah Massoud wasn’t even sure who Karzai was.
On Dec. 5, 2001, Karzai was elected chairman of the interim administration, by participants of the United Nations-sponsored Bonn Conference. Yet on the first ballot, according to a participant, Karzai got just two votes. The unequivocal winner was Abdul Satar Sirat, an Islamic theologian who studied at Columbia University and has a doctorate in Islamic studies from Pacific Western University, and who was a former minister of justice. Sirat bowed to American pressure to stand aside because Americans decided an Uzbek would never be accepted.
Through the first presidential election in 2004, and even through the first part of 2006, Karzai enjoyed a honeymoon at home and abroad. The foreign press was adulatory; most Afghans were focused on the unprecedented economic growth and the opportunity to acquire undreamed of consumer goods like cars, video cameras and mobile phones. Few complained publicly about incompetent and corrupt officials.
Everyone was patient and wanted to give the new government time to work the kinks out. Yet those who were actually in that government knew they were coasting on thin ice.
Of particular worry to some officials is that Karzai cared more about coordinating with old contacts from the mujahidin days than actually running a democratic government. One former minister says, “Karzai never took Cabinet meetings as seriously as his meetings with jihadi leaders. For instance, in the middle of a serious Cabinet session, he would tell us that he had to go upstairs to meet [a jihadi leader]. During a session on [insurgent leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, when he was still in Tehran, I asked Karzai to seek the possibility of having him extradited to Afghanistan by the Iranian government. His reaction was both emotional and irrational, saying: ‘What are you saying? Hekmatyar is our great mujahid brother. This is an insult to him.’ ”
According to the same former Cabinet minister, Karzai showed disregard for democratic process at the start. During the first or second Cabinet session in early 2002, the minister says, Karzai asked the Cabinet to vote for Faisal Ahmed Shinwari as new chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court without allowing the ministers to ask questions about him or have more time to make up their minds about a highly sensitive position.
Shinwari, it turns out, was an extreme fundamentalist, who supported marriage for 9-year old girls, opposed women singing on TV, and supported the death penalty for blasphemy. “Shinwari was a disaster, who paved the way for a lot of corruption in the judicial system,” the minister says. “It was Shinwari who appointed hundreds of semi-literate mullahs as judges in the country.”
By 2006, many of the more capable members of Karzai’s cabinet left the government. Some for other opportunities, but my off-the-record interviews with two of the departing ministers revealed discomfort with Karzai’s disorganization and irrationality.
A turning point was May 29, 2006. Early in the morning, a military vehicle traveling from Bagram Air Force Base to Kabul lost control of its brakes and rammed several civilian cars, killing five Afghans. Rioters rampaged through Kabul. Karzai cowered in his palace, never showing himself in public, though he did appear on TV. After this, Karzai apparently suspected the loyalties of his own Cabinet. The riots couldn’t be a spontaneous reaction to frustration with the American presence, corruption and the slow pace of economic progress; they must have been orchestrated by disloyal officials. Karzai began to surround himself with the former loyalists of his old mujahidin friend Hekmatyar, a supporter of Osama Bin Laden.
During this period, President George W. Bush may have unwittingly played into Karzai’s eccentric dramas by holding videoconferences every other week with him. Woodward says that this led to his “taking up any dispute directly with Bush,” depriving other US officials of any leverage with him.
By 2008, the insurgency was in full swing and the weaknesses in Karzai and his government inescapable. Woodward’s book details the utter lack of confidence of nearly every senior US official and military leader in Karzai. National Security Adviser and retired Gen. James Jones is quoted as saying, “He doesn’t get it, or he doesn’t want to get it . . . We haven’t been tough enough on him, given the sacrifice in lives that we are making.”
Apparently the first review team sent by former commander Stanley McChrystal to assess the situation, in summer 2009, headed by Col. Chris Kolenda, concluded that the American counterinsurgency — no matter how excellent — might fail ‘because of the weak and corrupt Afghan government.”
There are dark rumors about the reasons behind Karzai’s mood swings. Woodward hints at marijuana use and manic depressive behavior, which Karzai has dismissed. Elizabeth Rubin, one of the few American journalists to spend time at the palace, noted that Karzai “always has a cold or a cough and takes vitamin-C tablets compulsively.”
Whatever psychological or pharmaceutical issues Karzai may have, it’s his paranoia that has proved to be the most frustrating. According to Afghan diplomats, Karzai believes that the US is deliberately transporting Taliban insurgents to northern Afghanistan to destabilize the country. An Afghan social scientist reported the same rumor to me in Kabul this August and wondered why the Afghan government was doing nothing to dispel it, but perhaps the answer is that it comes from the highest reaches of that government.
Karzai inveighs against every American airstrike that the Taliban say killed civilians before giving American investigators time to respond. He has nipped nearly every anti-corruption investigation in the bud. Meanwhile, his businessman brother Mahmoud — an American citizen — is under investigation by prosecutors in New York’s Southern District for charges that may include tax evasion and racketeering. And his politician half-brother Ahmad Wali, who lives in Kandahar, is dogged by charges of drug dealing and collaboration with the insurgency.
Just last week, I heard from a source close to Zal Khalilzad that the former American ambassador was in Kabul again, this time warning Karzai, “Najibullah once sat where you sit.”
Najibullah was the last Communist-era president of Afghanistan; he spent the last year or so of his life hiding in a UN compound in Kabul. When the Taliban took Kabul, he was tortured and murdered. His body was hung in public in the main square on Sept. 26, 1996.
Karzai could take this as a warning to do better. Or he could become even more withdrawn, convinced that the United States is out to get him. His paranoia may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama administration could become convinced that we cannot leave until Karzai does.