The Rise and Fall of the Karzai Dynasty

Review: Joshua Partlow, 'A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster'

Hamid Karzai, right, meets with tribal leaders in late 2001 / AP

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A recent New York Times headline says it all: "15 Years Into Afghan War, Americans Would Rather Not Talk About It." A Kingdom of Their Own by Joshua Partlow, who was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Kabul from 2009-2012, explains in agonizing detail why. He has told the story of America’s involvement in Afghanistan since 9/11 by telling the story of the Karzai family, many of whom were working in their own restaurants and living in America when 9/11 happened.

Hamid Karzai was not, though; he was living in Pakistan in modest circumstances. At first, U. S. officials did not want him to be president of Afghanistan—he was not a significant player in the region—but he knew the different tribes and spoke the languages, including a British-accented English. He was a Pashtun, a member of the most powerful tribe in the country’s south. He was suave, smooth, a low-level diplomat who liked to meet with people and compromise. He would not embarrass American officials as a fragrant, bearded Afghan warlord might. With American help, he became president of Afghanistan on December 12, 2001. As one diplomat told Partlow, "What you have to remember about Hamid is, he was just a nice guy."

Despite a bad start—at the Bonn conference where Karzai was chosen, it was obvious the Americans and international community had already picked him—Partlow describes how the Bush administration got along better with Karzai than President Obama. Bush would often have video conferences with Karzai, whereas Obama delegated that task to Joe Biden and an ambassador. The general message of Obama’s administration, via Richard Holbrooke and later David Petraeus, was that the Afghans needed to get out of the way of the power pouring money and men into Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

A story about Biden illustrates this attitude. "Biden came with a message that Karzai needed to clean up his government and deliver services to the people and that he wouldn’t have the type of chummy relationship or easy access to Obama that he had enjoyed with Bush." As the discussion escalated into argument, "Biden chucked down his napkin." Partlow writes:

This type of pressure tended to backfire. The Afghans present, even those with little sympathy for Karzai, found it offensive. They saw Biden as not just impolite but condescending. "He was talking as if he were negotiating with some wild mountain people who knew nothing. He was showing a lot of disrespect," Amrullah Saleh, Karzai’s intelligence chief at the time, told me. "Biden’s way of conducting that talk was not diplomatic. It shattered the image of American grandness. Slamming a cup. It’s over. This is not Hollywood. These are negotiations. … Karzai’s reaction was very decent. Very brave. Very courageous. He kept his composure. He was much higher than Biden."

But military failures also abounded. Besides the infuriating replication of mistakes we made in Vietnam, such as one-year rotations of personnel, many bombings and night raids were disasters (some because of Afghan treachery). For instance, in 2012 a raid of a pharmacist suspected of being a "‘subcommander’ of the Haqqani insurgent network" ended with the suspect’s mother killed, his father wounded, and his aunt shot in the eye. When asked how they defined "subcommander," those in charge of the raid said the suspect had "an informal relationship with just one other suspected insurgent." Karzai asked, "Why didn’t you just arrest him on his fifteen-mile commute to the pharmacy?"

Aside from their deadly mistakes, the Afghan political class in this book comes off as one of the most corrupt I’ve ever read about. Powerful men, two of them Karzai’s brothers, enriched themselves shamelessly. The Kabul Bank was a huge Ponzi scheme; most of the money ended up in foreign banks, and Hamid Karzai did little to bring the guilty to justice or recover money for the poor who had invested in a bank they trusted.

Power and money tore the Karzai family apart. At the center stood Hamid, the quiet intellectual who became president. Partlow often praises him, and admits his basic achievements in a troubled country. "He wasn’t a despot, or vengeful, or cruel. He didn’t win the war or make peace with the Taliban. But when he left, there was still a democracy." Yet Partlow also displays the leader’s quirks, failures, obtuseness, and, gallingly, ingratitude to the American slain. Karzai had no words of gratitude for the United States during his last speech as president of Afghanistan. Partlow says this is because Karzai thought America had prolonged the war to serve its own ends. And so, "The man who began the war as arguably the most pro-American Muslim leader in the world ended it with this message to the United States: thanks for nothing."

Frank Freeman

Frank Freeman   Email Frank | Full Bio | RSS
Frank Freeman’s book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Commonweal, The DublinReview of Books, The Literary Review, The Rumpus, Touchstone, and The Weekly Standard, among others. Frank is a stay-at-home dad of four who lives in Saco, Maine. He grew up in Texas, Connecticut, and California, received a BA in English from Texas A&M and an MA in English from Northeastern University.

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