‘He’s off his meds,” said a former ambassador. “A dark and difficult man, subject to wild mood changes” is the way the late Richard Holbrooke described him. Afghan expert Thomas Barfield wrote that he was “dysfunctional” and “erratic.” Even his own brother, Mahmoud, complained to writer William Dalrymple about his “ridiculous conspiracy theories.”
Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai has been a thorn in the side of many an American dealing with America’s longest war. Why does Karzai behave as he does? Perhaps because he knows that for 100 years, from the peaceful death of Abdur Rahman in 1901 until his own ascension to power in 2001, every single Afghan leader has either been assassinated or driven from office. Those who fared the worst were often the ones seen as tools of a foreign power. Even his most serious detractors concede that, to maintain credibility in his own country, Karzai needs to distance himself from the United States to blur his image as America’s puppet.
Mistaken drone strikes, and the abiding unpopularity of having troops break down the doors of people in the dead of night, have taken their toll. When I visited Kabul in 2003, America was not perceived as an occupying power. When I returned in 2010 it was. America had, in a sense, become for many the new Russia — less brutal, but nonetheless just the latest conquerors attempting to bend Afghanistan to its will.
Karzai is a Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group and traditional rulers of Afghanistan. Pashtuns, in the form of the Taliban, had driven Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other minorities of the Northern Alliance into a small corner in the north of the country. The American invasion of 2001 simply put the Northern Alliance back into power in Kabul, and the Pashtuns felt left out politically. The Americans and their allies chose Karzai as the new leader because he was a well-connected, anti-Taliban Pashtun, and because they thought he was pliable, not because of his leadership qualities.
I got a sense of what Karzai was up against when the Taliban posed this question in their propaganda: Would you rather be a follower of Shah Shuja or Dost Mohammed? They were referring to the British effort in the 19th century to replace the Afghanistan leader, Dost Mohammed, with Shah Shuja, whom the British saw as more reliable. As it has from time immemorial, Afghanistan proved easier to conquer than to rule, and the result was a disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842, leading to the annihilation of a British army in the mountain passes between Kabul and Jalalabad. Dost Mohammed ended up back in power, Shah Shuja was murdered, and the invaders were humiliated. Dost Mohammed was a Ghilzai, the clan that defeated the British, whereas Shah Shuja led the Popalzais, part of the Durrani clan whose 18th-century empire solidified the modern state. Today Hamid Karzai leads the Popalzais, while many Ghilzais are with the Taliban.
Karzai may not be able to constitutionally succeed himself in next year’s Afghan elections, but he has his legacy to think about and the position of his family in Afghanistan’s future. He may step down, but there are other Karzais in the wings.
I once met a British officer in Kabul named Dicky Winchester. On his office wall was a print of a famous painting showing the 44th Regiment of Foot making a last stand against the Ghilzais in that disastrous retreat of 1842. “Do you know why that happened?” he asked. “Because we didn’t pay off the tribes.”
Winchester knew that disaster could follow if the West simply walked out of Afghanistan and left Afghanistan without, in effect, paying off the tribes. The Russian puppet, Najibullah, hung onto the major urban centers for three years after the last Russian soldier left Afghanistan. Najibullah fell only when the Soviet Union itself fell, and the money dried up. Afghans may be famously opposed to foreigners, but its stability has depended on foreign subsidies.
Karzai once said that America did not come to Afghanistan for Afghanistan’s sake. The Americans had their own reasons, and Karzai is betting that he has maneuvering room to be difficult, to squeeze more concessions out of the Americans, to appear less puppet-like to his people, to not be Shah Shuja. The only question is: Will he overplay his hand and lose everything? For Afghanistan’s forces are by no means ready for a complete American pullout.
H.D.S. Greenway is former editorial page editor of the Globe.