If you want to know why the United States is still in Afghanistan nearly 15 years on, and why its forces, together with Afghan allies, could not defeat a dirt bike-riding cadre of 35,000 or so rebels, Joshua Partlow has some insights to share. From 2009 to 2012, Partlow reported from Afghanistan as the Washington Post’s Kabul bureau chief.
From an American point of view, Afghanistan – a place so unfathomable to most Westerners that it gives Alice’s Wonderland a run for its money – is a mess. Reconstructing that war-torn country has cost US taxpayers more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the Marshall Plan lavished on 16 European nations after World War II. At the same time, 2,356 US servicemen and women have been killed there and 20,904 wounded. The total tab for the US is more than $1 trillion and rising. For all of that, the future of Afghanistan remains very much in doubt.
Partlow’s valuable new book, A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster, enables its readers to understand Afghanistan better – or, at least as well as the author does. It also offers a compelling portrait of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his ambitious and oft-mystifying family – a number of whom had thrived in America and elsewhere only to return home after 9/11 to do exponentially better in an Afghanistan awash in American dollars. Partlow may not succeed in answering all the questions surrounding the Karzai family, but he at least offers a nuanced understanding of this very intriguing clan and their deeds.
When the Bush administration needed someone to rule Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Hamid Karzai seemed like a good choice. He was educated, moderate, and an ethnic Pashtun. It was mostly Tajik fighters from the Northern Alliance who, along with American bombs and Special Forces, had routed the Taliban, but Pashtun support was key to governance.
It was all kumbaya at first, but by the end of his two terms as president in 2014, Karzai’s relations with the Americans had deteriorated badly. He questioned their motives and actually came to believe, according to Partlow, that they were in “cahoots with the enemy,” one of the many popular Afghan conspiracy theories for why the war was going so badly.
After a particularly grim week in 2012, during which Americans soldiers had inadvertently burned copies of the Quran, Karzai expressed his anger to US General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in startling terms, “I wouldn’t blame a lot of Afghan soldiers for wanting to kill American soldiers.” In fact, they had been doing just that: Incidents of Afghan forces turning their weapons on American and NATO troops were rising at an alarming rate.
Clearly, Americans were battling more than simply the Taliban. A key obstacle, the author points out, was their own ignorance of a country that is perhaps as far from the American experience as a place can get.
Afghanistan has never had a central government to speak of, as a favorite folk proverb reveals so succinctly: “Behind every hillock, there sits an emperor.” Nor are Afghans wild about rules – tribes and relationships being far more important. The Americans tried to get Karzai to govern “rationally” by helping his government fight corruption and function more like their own.
It didn’t take. While considered honest by most observers, Karzai was more concerned with political stability, tribal relationships, and showing that he wasn’t an American stooge than in stamping out corruption. He governed to a different drum. His palace was a place, after all, that had a poet in residence and five food tasters, not to mention a 7-foot-tall man whose job was to walk around and be tall.
Several of the president’s siblings clearly pushed the envelope of their privileged position. But if many Afghans were stunningly corrupt, they were also remarkably adept at concealing it. In the end, the Americans largely gave up trying to nail people like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother, who was thought to be raking in $250 million a year as the warlord of Kandahar. Nothing stuck to him. Besides, a friendly Ahmed Wali, it turned out, was very helpful to the Americans – before a trusted aide murdered him in 2011.
In the end, Partlow determines that many unfairly judged Hamid Karzai, whom he calls “the puppet who wouldn’t dance.” He writes: “He could take credit for balancing Afghan ethnic factions and perhaps preventing them from reverting to civil war. Millions of Afghans returned home during his government; millions of children, girls among them, enrolled in schools. His great political skill was compromise, and he used it to hold an improbable government together. He stood up to America and for his own people. He put the brakes on something that could have spiraled much further out of control.”
David Holahan regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.