November 20, 2013
How Is Hamid Karzai Still Standing?
By WILLIAM DALRYMPLE
The Karzai family graveyard lies a few miles outside Kandahar, on the edge of the village of Karz. On the day I drove there, burned-out cars stood rusting by the sides of the road, children splashed through open drains and bullet holes riddled the mud walls opposite checkpoints. Amid all this, the graveyard stood out — gleaming, immaculate. Straggling bougainvillea and mulberry trees blossomed over the calligraphic tiles topping the cream-colored walls. Through the double gates were lines of cypresses. In the middle stood a domed enclosure containing the graves of the clan elders.
Hamid Karzai was entering the final lap of his presidency, and I had traveled to Karz with Mahmood, one of the president’s elder brothers, accompanied by a phalanx of his bodyguards. Afghanistan’s presidential election is set for April, and as the deadline for registering candidates approached, the country’s future seemed to hang in part on the fraught internal family politics of the Karzais. Hamid is ineligible to run for a third term, and it had been long rumored in Kabul that he would anoint his brother Qayum as his successor. Mahmood had made it clear that he wanted the presidency to stay in the family; he had even begun to raise campaign funds for Qayum, just as he once had for Hamid.
So far, however, the president had been publicly silent on the subject, and Qayum had yet to tip his hand. Mahmood’s business dealings — banking scandals and supposedly dodgy real estate deals — had long been perceived as Hamid’s Achilles’ heel, and it remained unclear whether family loyalty would trump the president’s growing preoccupation with his own legacy. All this, along with Karzai’s angry rhetoric against the alleged misdeeds of his American backers, had caused some tensions around the family table. “I don’t feel comfortable talking to Hamid these days,” Mahmood said as we rode in his armored Land Cruiser, sandwiched between pickup trucks full of troops. “These ridiculous conspiracy theories. And his cynical view of the West. These ideas aren’t helping Afghanistan. I don’t think he understands the importance of a good economic policy.”
On arrival, however, the sight of the massed Karzai dead quickly brought back Mahmood’s sense of dynastic solidarity. “See over there — the grave with the old carved headstone?” he said. “That was my grandfather, the real leader of the family. He migrated to Karz from the west of the province and bought this land.”
He then pointed to a poster of a mustached man on the guardhouse: “That’s my uncle, Khalil.” Khalil was killed in the 1980s. Some say he was murdered in a family dispute, but Mahmood told me he was assassinated during the war with the Soviets. “And over there,” he continued, “another uncle. Also assassinated.”
We walked into the domed mausoleum where two recumbent gravestones were covered with pink plastic flowers: “My father’s grave,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “He was shot dead leaving a mosque. And that, by his side, is Ahmed Wali, my half brother.”
He didn’t bother saying what we both knew, that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, effectively governor of Kandahar and the man suspected by the West of controlling part of the Afghan heroin trade, but who also helped the C.I.A. operate an anti-Taliban paramilitary group, was himself killed by a trusted member of his inner circle. The shooting took place not far from where we were standing, two years earlier, almost to the day. I asked if anyone else in the family died violently. “Many!” Mahmood replied. He pointed to the different grave plots: “One, two, three . . . altogether about eight. Maybe more.”
From the graveyard, we headed on into Karz, where the brothers spent their childhood. Low mud-brick houses flanked the road. “Imagine having to live in these conditions!” Mahmood said. “If I had my way, I’d demolish the entire village, rehouse everyone in apartments and turn this space over to agriculture.” After decades in the United States, where he started an Afghan restaurant chain, it all seemed a bit of a surprise to him: “Imagine hanging up goat meat in the sun in this heat! So unhygienic. . . . And all these people just sitting there. Do they have nothing to do, for crying out loud? Just look how weak the retail community is here. Call these shops? What era are we in — the Roman Empire?”
I had asked to see the house where the brothers grew up, but after several false turns, we still couldn’t find the place. None of them had been back for years, not least because the village is now in the hands of a rival leader of the clan, their cousin Hashmat Karzai, and relations between the two factions of the family are not cordial.
“It’s changed beyond all recognition,” Mahmood said. “This mosque I remember: I used to play with Hamid over there. But the vineyards! Where have they gone?” Eventually his driver came to a stop. “This is it?” Mahmood asked. “It can’t be.” We got out in a field of dried mud, surrounded by mud houses with egg-carton domes. Mahmood summoned an old man in a turban wandering past and after conferring with him, announced: “The driver’s right. This is our home.” He gestured at the empty space around us.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The Russians.” He paused. “Any clan who were known to be prominent in the mujahedeen had their property seized or demolished.”
For the first time, Mahmood looked deflated: “Qayum and I were in the U.S., but Hamid and my father were prominent in the jihad. These houses here,” he said, pointing at the mud houses, “this was where my cousins lived. The same night the Soviet governor sent troops to demolish our house, they were all called out and lined up. Then they were shot. Every last one of them.”
‘Nothing left at all? Just an empty space?” Hamid Karzai dropped a cherry into his mouth. “Not even the outbuildings?”
Another cherry followed the first: “I haven’t seen it since the 1980s, but I remember it all so well.” He paused to extract the two stones, lining them up neatly on a plate in front of him. “It was a typical Afghan village house,” he continued. “A mud house. With a long tunnel leading in from the main gate on the street. That was where I was born.”
He pushed the fruit bowl toward me. “Have you ever tried Afghan cherries?” he asked. “You don’t get them anywhere else — they are the most delicious of all.” I did as I was bid. “They’re not meaty like the others. They’re juicy, soft and good. Slightly bitter: sweet and sour — what’s the word? Tart.”
It was nearly midnight during the first week of Ramadan. Most business in Kabul had come to a halt, and Karzai, having more time on his hands than usual, had agreed to spend three evenings with me talking about Afghanistan’s future. When I arrived at the palace, security was exceptionally tight. On each visit, my papers and passport were examined seven times. I went through three body scanners, and my BlackBerry and pens were confiscated. When I at last gained admittance, the palace was all but deserted. Only the president’s personal bodyguards were around, clutching their M-16 assault rifles and stalking about under the lights in double-breasted pinstripe suits.
There was good reason for the heightened vigilance. A week earlier, a Taliban raiding party, dressed in Afghan National Army-style uniforms and equipped with fake IDs, penetrated the first two checkpoints in the seven rings of security surrounding the palace before being gunned down in a two-hour battle. They got as far as Ariana Chowk, near C.I.A. headquarters, where, in 1996, Najibullah, the last president of the Soviet-backed government, was killed after being castrated by the victorious Taliban.
The preceding weeks were particularly bad ones for Karzai’s embattled relationship with his Taliban enemies as well as his U.S. backers. After years of postponed negotiations and hedging, Karzai, the United States and the Taliban agreed to meet in Qatar for peace talks. The Americans and Karzai believed that the Taliban would describe their Doha premises as an office. Instead, they erected an embassylike plaque at the entrance that read “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and unfurled the old Taliban flag. Karzai believed that the Obama administration had secretly agreed to this, and it played on his paranoia that the United States was making secret deals with the Taliban and their Pakistani backers, hoping to break up Afghanistan and create a Taliban entity in the south of the country.
Because of all this, I anticipated meeting a careworn Karzai, coming to terms with the unraveling of his regime. Instead, on our very first evening, he bounded into the room and grasped my hand firmly. I commented how well he looked considering the stress, and he laughed: “I don’t feel under pressure,” he said. “The first days of Ramadan are completely off days — nobody comes. Today was my first totally free day in all these 10 years! I did not even leave my room.” His wife, he said, was in Belgium with the children. “I just took naps and read my newspapers.”
The nervous tic that often makes Karzai wince with his left eye, and which is said to get worse when he is upset, was almost absent. His robust health also gave the lie to the rumor that in adversity, Karzai had become addicted to various narcotics. The rumors had gained credence in Kabul’s gossip mill in part because of the president’s mood swings and fits of anger. They are nonetheless nonsense, according to those who know him well. “He’s very fit indeed,” says Amrullah Saleh, his former security chief, now a political opponent. “He takes at least an hour’s exercise each night and exhausts the guards that have to keep up with him.” Mahmood agrees: “He’s very disciplined physically. And he’s extremely moderate in his eating. You know how delicious our melons are? I’ve often seen his hand hovering over a second slice, and then he resists. He has steely discipline.” After a day of fasting, however, there was no such restraint. As Karzai munched his way through a huge platter of Afghan melons, grapes and figs, as well as mountains of tiny cherries, he merrily began denouncing what he described as the “betrayal” of Afghanistan and its people by what he referred to as his so-called Western allies.