The Importance of Being Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan
by Ramtanu Maitra on 18 Oct 2011 6 Comments

From the outset, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, and NATO’s subsequent jumping into the adventure, was destined to failure. The war has now reached the overripe age of 10 years, yet the reasons for failure remain beyond the scope of public discussion in Washington. They are many, but among the most important is the systematic undermining of Afghan President Hamid Karzai by a section of US policymakers, working in conjunction with the White House.

It was by no means the bravery of the Afghan Pushtuns that foretold failure. To begin with, the invasion was too hastily organized without thinking through, or spelling out to the American people, a concrete policy that would bring the conflict to a satisfactory end. In 2001 the Bush administration told us that the prime reason it invaded Afghanistan was to get Osama bin Laden. “We will smoke him out,” President Bush promised the Americans.

And then later we were told that in order to get Osama, who was allegedly being protected by the ruling Taliban, removal of the Taliban regime was a necessity. It was fair to assume that to get the Taliban out, domestic Afghan support would be needed.

Washington knew very well that the Taliban were backed by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence and military, as well as by Saudi finance — in short, that the Taliban were the beneficiaries of America’s two best friends. Yet the Taliban regime was highly unpopular, and it was not difficult to put together an Afghan group consisting of all ethnic varieties to remove this rag-tag regime.

The only question mark was: how would our good allies, Islamabad and Riyadh, react?

Start the War — That Is All That Matters!

Instead of working toward generating critical support from a section of the Pushtuns, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, to overthrow the Taliban, Washington sought, and secured, support from the non-Pushtun ethnic communities led by the warlords and druglords and their armed militias. The speed at which the regime was dismantled made clear that only a tiny segment of the Afghan Pushtun population was ready to lay down their lives to defend the honour and authority of that regime — virtually all of whom were Pushtuns.

Despite this clear evidence that the minority Taliban could be separated out and the majority of the Pushtun population won over, the US and NATO made no real effort to do so. Following removal of the Taliban from Kabul and the installation of Hamid Karzai as the interim president, US and NATO troops continued to wage war in the Pushtun land, killing off innocent civilians, in the quest to extinguish the Taliban. Over a period of time, those acts alone brought the Pushtun together into a solid block of opposition to the foreign troops and their backers.

Why was such an elementary mistake made?

The lack of understanding of Afghanistan’s history is a likely factor, but more important than that was the opaqueness of the foreign troops’ goal in staying in Afghanistan when it was evident to all that Osama had already been bundled off to Pakistan. No matter how many times, or how loudly, Washington proclaimed its astonishment almost nine and a half years later to find that Osama was  languishing in a garrison city in Pakistan, it was widely known that Washington’s number one enemy was being moved from one safe house to another by none other than the Pakistan ISI, Washington’s major ally in its much-vaunted and absurdly named “war on terror.” It was also known that nothing much moves in Pakistan without a nod of approval from the Pakistan military. 

The purpose of the foreign troops’ stay in Afghanistan was never defined, and has not been even to this day. Incessant babble by American and western academics and authorities during the last 10 years suggests that Washington wanted to: 1) bring about social stability and equality in Afghanistan, and 2) make Afghanistan a democratic nation. Both aims must have seemed absurd even to those who articulated them, but they continued to be said anyway. Under that pretext, hundreds of billions of dollars were poured in, thousands of lives were extinguished, and after 10 years of warfare we find that, to use a baseball metaphor, the United States has not only not gotten to first base, but it has not even found its way to the ballpark.

It seems that the people involved in organizing and directing this endless war were either utterly incompetent and foolhardy — or they had other agendas, which could not be spelled out for “national security” reasons. It would be interesting to know what those agendas were.

Who Are My Friends? Who Are My Enemies?

Looking back, Washington appears to have been overwhelmed by its own day dreams. To begin with, the Bush team’s hope and belief that Islamabad would go after the Taliban that they themselves had armed and trained for their own strategic interest, which was to secure political and military control over Afghanistan, seem almost laughable. Washington’s other major ally, Riyadh, had made known from the 1980s onward that the only kind of government it would support in Kabul was one that was wholly controlled by Sunni Muslims imbued with the most orthodox Wahabi-variety of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Needless to point out here, the non-Pushtun ethnic groups that lent support to the US invasion to dismantle the Taliban regime consist of devout Muslims; but they are not the variety that would satisfy Saudi Arabia’s US-educated Turki Al Faisal, the 1977-2001 Director General of Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, and later ambassador to the United States and Britain.


Throughout the period that Afghanistan was undergoing a brutal civil war (1989-1996), Turki Al Faisal had made sure that Saudi money went only to the Taliban-in-the-making, jihad-prone Pushtuns, never to the non-Pushtuns. That money, along with Pakistani brawn, led to the birth of the Taliban in 1995. When these jihadis took control of Kabul in 1996, they were given recognition by only three countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. One has to stretch one’s imagination miles afar to even consider that those who created the Taliban, for obvious and stated reasons, would help the United States dismantle it.

But the Bush administration apparently believed that, and so did the hapless Obama administration, which is now wallowing in the bloody Afghan stew while shooting off missiles from drones at a dime-a-dozen rate. Though wincing in pain, the Obama administration is also trying to put up a brave front.

The Potential of Karzai and the Durranis

Still, in the midst of the series of foolhardy and dangerous activities during the early stages of the conflict that have continued for 10 long years, the December 2001 establishment of the Afghan Interim Authority was a single event that gave a ray of hope. The Afghan Interim Authority subsequently helped to elect Hamid Karzai as its president until October 2004, the target date for a fresh presidential election. The Bonn Agreement itself was flawed, however, because no representative of the vanquished Taliban was among its signatories.

Hamid Karzai, a Pushtun, was a good choice for president, although it is likely that he would not have been the first choice (if one excludes the reluctant late-King Zahir Shah as a candidate). That honour would have gone to Commander Abdul Haq, another Pushtun. Abdul Haq had an untarnished reputation throughout the 1980s when he fought the Soviet military with great distinction. He was a nationalist anti-jihadi Pushtun, who had developed strong ties with the non-Pushtun Northern Alliance commanders, particularly with the assassinated Tajik-Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, arguably the most effective of the nationalist Afghans. Both Haq and Massoud were deeply suspicious of the Saudi-financed jihadis and the Pakistan military.

But Abdul Haq was dead. Soon after 9/11, and prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, Abdul Haq, who though he lived in Pakistan had a large number of followers within Afghanistan, went inside Afghanistan to organize groups to rise up against the rag-tag Taliban. Before he could reach his destination, the Taliban, informed by the Pakistani ISI of Haq’s activity, entrapped and killed him. The US military received an SOS from Haq while he was keeping the Taliban fighters at bay, but the Americans did not react quickly enough. It is likely that they were under the spell of their ally, the ISI.

Nonetheless, Karzai was a good choice. He belongs to the half-million-strong Popalzay tribe, part of the Durrani or Abdal tribe that is the second-largest of the Pushtun tribes (the Ghilzai is the largest). The pride of all the Pushtuns is Ahmed Shah Abdali, who later changed his name from Abdali to Durrani, and ruled from 1747 to 1773. During his reign, Afghanistan became a military power to reckon with in the region.

Equally relevant is the fact that the Popalzay tribe is concentrated in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the foreign troops incurred the maximum number of deaths. The much larger Durrani tribe, of which Popalzays are a part, has 6 million members. Although many Durranis live in Pakistan, a large number of them live in southern Afghanistan, where Pushtuns are the overwhelming majority.

If anyone in Washington had had the understanding or the aim, Hamid Karzai could have served to keep the majority of Durranis in support of Kabul. And that would have had a very positive effect on the war and Afghanistan.

A Washington Tribe Says “Humiliate Karzai”

At the beginning of his interim presidency, Hamid Karzai drew support from a large section of his tribe, some of whom had joined the Taliban. He got that support, in part, because his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, had been deputy speaker of the National Council under Zahir Shah before the monarch was ousted in 1973. The Karzai family moved out of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and settled in Quetta. In July 1999, Abdul Ahad Karzai was gunned down in Quetta by some gunmen on motorcycles. Hamid Karzai claims to this day that his father was assassinated under the orders of the Pakistan ISI.


The tragedy is that although Karzai was made interim president, Washington did not lift a finger to help him accomplish the extremely difficult task he was entrusted with in the centre of an almost-impossible situation. Washington did not provide him with the muscle that he needed to bring some sort of order in a country ravaged by an almost seven-year-long civil war and a barbaric rule by the Taliban. Nor did Washington do anything to help him keep the Taliban isolated from the Pushtun community.


Instead, under the pretext of eliminating the Taliban, incessant killing of Pushtuns during these 10 years turned Hamid Karzai into a virtual non-entity even within his own tribe. Had US/NATO, with its 150,000 troops on the ground and its control over the international donors’ money power, helped him garner support from his Pushtun clan, Karzai might have succeeded in breaking out of the clutches of the corrupt Northern Alliance warlords and druglords and developed his own constituency. Perhaps that is exactly what the Bush-Obama administrations and their minions in Washington did not want. In any event, they set about to undermine Karzai and his presidency.

Added to Washington’s neglect is the Pakistan factor, which also helped reduce Hamid Karzai from the president of Afghanistan to a virtual mayor of Kabul. To begin with, Pakistan despised Karzai as it despises the Durranis generally. Pakistan’s long-term bias stems from the repeated attempts by Durrani governments to press their territorial claims and support for the creation of a Pashtun homeland, Pashtunistan. The last Afghan monarch, Zahir Shah, and his successor, Mohammad Daud, were serious Pashtunistan advocates and claimed Waziristan and Bajaur, parts of Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Agency (FATA), as part of Afghanistan’s national territory.

For this reason, ISI and the Pakistani government were determined not to allow the Durranis to return to power in Kabul. This unstated Pakistan policy toward the Durranis was illustrated by General Naseerullah Babar Khan, a Babar Pashtun tribesman who as interior minister during Benazir Bhutto’s second term as prime minister of Pakistan is considered one of the founders of the Taliban fighters.

Facilitated by Bhutto’s most powerful political coalition partner, Fazl-ur Rahman, the original Taliban Movement was heavily weighted in favour of the Ghilzai Pashtuns, the most numerous of the Pushtun tribe, at the expense of the Durranis; and this accounts for Ghilzai “forming the backbone” of the early Taliban, as reported by Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason in their article, “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan” (Orbis, Winter 2007). 

None of this is or was secret, and anyone who really wanted to resolve the Afghan conflict could have made use of these facts. But the tribes in Washington had their own “preferences.” Those who preferred to undermine Karzai and run him to the ground — such as Richard Holbrook, Peter Galbraith and their ilk — were burdened with pro-Pakistan prejudices. It is not that they wanted to do something good for Pakistan; but they really believe that Pakistan has the right to control Afghanistan and that the United States cannot come out of Afghanistan with its head held high without Islamabad’s help. This lobby also hates Iran and, in addition, suffers from a tinge of leftover Cold War bias, in which Pakistan is seen as much more reliable than India who had aligned with the “evil” Soviet empire.

When the history of the unending war in Afghanistan is written, Washington’s foolhardiness, exemplified by its role in backstabbing Hamid Karzai at every step, will certainly form a critical chapter. Who has gained out of all this? Whoever it is, it is certainly not the American people.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review 

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