The Taliban Story: Hamid Karzai: The Man of many shades who lead Afghanistan post-Taliban (Part 19)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Arun Anand

The Taliban Story: Hamid Karzai: The Man of many shades who lead Afghanistan post-Taliban (Part 19)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the 19th part of the series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 19th part-

Hamid Karzai, who was chosen as the interim leader and later on full time President of Afghanistan after Taliban’s defeat, was a man of many shades.

Karzai was born in an influential family in Kandahar. His family belonged to the Popalzai tribe. His father Abdul Ahad Karzai was an influential political figure. He was Afghan parliament before the Communists took over the power. Karzai studied politics in Himachal Pradesh University, which was situated in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India. In 1983, he moved to Peshawar where he worked as an aide to an anti-Soviet Afghan resistance leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi.

Karzai served as a foreign policy adviser, humanitarian aid organizer, and press contact. He was known as a snappy dresser and a well-liked participant in Peshawar’s expatriate social scene, which was enlivened by Australian aid workers, Scandinavian nurses, British spies, ISI watchers, unreliable journalists, and mysterious drifters, all of them energized by a liberation war and the smoky atmospherics of a Cold War Casablanca.1

As Karzai was trying to find his political feet, his brothers Qayum and Mahmud moved to the United States where they started their food business separately. The scattering of Karzai family was an outcome of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Karzai’s first stint in power was when Kabul fell to the CIA-ISI backed Mujahideen in 1992. His initial mentor Mojaddedi became President for a brief period and Karzai was appointed as the deputy foreign minister. ISI backed Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was named prime minister but he refused to join the new government. His forces started shelling Kabul relentlessly from a base to the south of the capital.

In this Mujahideen government that took over after exit of Soviet forces, the defence ministry was allocated to Ahmad Shah Massoud. His intelligence aides Fahim Khan and Engineer Arif had suspected that Hekmatyar had a secret support base inside Kabul.

One day, Arif summoned Karzai for “advice” about individuals who might be working for Hekmatyar, a senior Afghan official involved recalled. The idea was “to share intelligence” with Karzai “and ask him to do something about it” at the foreign ministry, meaning identify and help round up Hekmatyar sympathizers. But Karzai “was nervous,” understandably enough, about being interrogated by Panjshiri musclemen. Afterward, Karzai took it upon himself to visit Hekmatyar to try to find a diplomatic solution. When he returned to Kabul, however, Fahim Khan arrested Karzai on suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. The intelligence service abused Karzai in a Kabul cell. Fahim regarded Karzai as a “weak figure” who could be intimidated, as a Western diplomat who worked closely with both men put it. After a short period of imprisonment, one of Hekmatyar’s randomly aimed rockets hit the jail and knocked a hole in the wall, allowing Karzai to escape.2

He fled to Pakistan. There he expressed support for the Taliban. “I believed in the Taliban when they first appeared,” Karzai later conceded. “I gave them fifty thousand dollars to help them out, and then handed them a cache of weapons I had hidden near Kandahar. . .. They were good people initially, but the tragedy was that very soon after they were taken over by the I.S.I.” As the years passed, the Taliban’s hostility toward the Karzai family changed his thinking again. Hamid Karzai’s aging father spoke out against the Taliban. One morning in 1999, assassins on motorbikes gunned him down. After that, Hamid opened contacts with Ahmad Shah Massoud, Fahim’s commander. They discussed the possibility of Hamid Karzai’s entering Afghanistan to build up a Pashtun-led resistance to the Taliban.3

Meanwhile Greg Vogle who had arrived as the CIA.’s chief of base in Peshawar in 1999 became a key point of contact for Karzai and this played an important role in changing the future course of Karzai’s political career.

The CIA’s stand has always been that ‘Karzai was in no way a controlled C.I.A. agent, but rather a potential resistance leader in a common cause. According to noted US journalist Steve Coll, who had reported extensively from Afghanistan and went on to wrote ‘Directorate S’, one of the most authentic accounts of US war in Afghanistan, “After the assassination of Karzai’s father, Vogle helped him to sketch out the plans Karzai was considering to enter Afghanistan and link up with the Northern Alliance. ISI caught wind of the planning and served Karzai with an eviction notice late in the summer of 2001. Then came September 11, which galvanized Karzai. He and Vogle discussed a new possibility: Karzai would move into Afghanistan to stir up a rebellion among tribesmen and allies in the Taliban’s heartland—a more direct and riskier version of the guerrilla strategy the pair had outlined earlier. A few days before the air war started on October 7, Vogle called Karzai. “I can’t tell you why, but you’ve got to get inside now,” Vogle said. The implication was obvious: The American bombing would start soon. Karzai had to be in position to take territory and rally followers as the Taliban reeled under the coming air assault. Karzai said he had to check with contacts in Kandahar. The next day, he called Vogle back. “I’m going this afternoon,” he reported. Unarmed, in the darkness, joined only by three friends, Karzai crossed by motorcycle into Afghanistan. His courage made an impression on Vogle. It was one thing for a trained reconnaissance soldier to ride into the dark; it was another for a political science student with no military experience.4

Coll gives a riveting account of the quick developments that catapulted Hamid Karzai to the top of the power ladder which probably, even he hadn’t expected: “Karzai initially toured rural Kandahar, hosting delegations and giving speeches, then moved toward Uruzgan’s provincial capital of Tarinkot. He found modest support—perhaps a few dozen armed fighters travelled with him—but also ambivalence. Switching sides was an Afghan way of war, but the Taliban had showed no mercy to those who defected, and it wasn’t yet clear to locals how this war would turn out. Where were the Americans? Karzai and Vogle stayed in touch by satellite phone and text.

Between October 30 and November 2, Karzai’s small band fought off a Taliban force sent to kill him. They barely escaped. “Everyone in the U.S. government supports you,” Vogle texted him. “All we ask is that you maintain a continuous heartbeat.”

The next day, Karzai asked to be rescued—his phone was running out of batteries. Vogle flew on the Special Operations helicopter that extracted him and some followers. Back in Pakistan, they moved Karzai into an old schoolhouse at a Pakistani air base in Jacobabad, in southern Sindh Province. Karzai gave phone interviews to the BBC and other journalists, pretending to be still inside Afghanistan, until Secretary of Défense Donald Rumsfeld inadvertently blurted out that Karzai was actually in Pakistan. By mid-November the Pentagon and C.I.A. had organized Team Echo, a paramilitary force drawn from the Army’s Fifth Special Forces Group, Delta Force, and the C.I.A. Army captain Jason Amerine, a West Point graduate, would command the team. Greg Vogle would lead its small C.I.A. contingent. Team Echo flew into Uruzgan on the night of November 14. At that point, besides Karzai, the only other Pashtun resistance leader the C.I.A. was prepared to back with an embedded military team was Gul Agha Sherzai, a strongman from southern Afghanistan’s Barakzai tribe. Karzai and Sherzai were destined to become political rivals whose struggles would shape Afghanistan; it was the CIA’s support that gave birth to this competition. Like Karzai’s Popalzai tribe, the Barakzai had produced generations of Pashtun elites, particularly through the Mohammadzai subtribe. Gul Agha Sherzai was not of the elite, however. His father, Abdul Latif, was a small businessman who had risen during the anti-Soviet war as a commander, “exploiting the absenteeism of the Barakzai aristocracy,” as two scholars of the family’s history put it. In 1989, Abdul Latif’s cook murdered him by poison. His son Gul Agha (“Flower” in Pashto, a name he adopted as a boy) inherited his networks of influence and added Sherzai (“The Lion’s Son”) to his name. He became governor of Kandahar after the Soviet withdrawal, a powerful figure in the coalition of checkpoint-extorting, neighbourhood-menacing commanders the Taliban expelled from power. He went into exile. Sherzai relied on political influence and a “ragtag band of tribal militiamen with no organization and few heavy weapons.”

Through his networks, Sherzai had been gathering intelligence on the Taliban and Al Qaeda for the C.I.A. for more than a year before September. He lived in Quetta, enriched himself through business and espionage, and bided his time. The significance of his position that autumn was that, like the Panjshiris, Gul T Agha Sherzai was already a vetted Counterterrorist Centre partner with a track record of cooperation with the C.I.A. against the Taliban. Sherzai entered Afghanistan from Quetta, to Kandahar’s south, a few days after Karzai landed by helicopter. Team Foxtrot, another Pentagon-commanded Special Forces–C.I.A. collaboration, joined Sherzai. To prepare, Sherzai’s lieutenants met I.S.I. officers in Quetta to receive Pakistani weapons. The service had reluctantly come to play both sides in the American war against the Taliban, but few officers had changed their convictions. The I.S.I. officer handing over the guns told Sherzai’s men “that they were making a serious mistake in trying to overthrow the Taliban, one which they should regret, and one which they should seriously reconsider.” The decisive battle of Hamid Karzai’s improbable campaign took place less than two weeks after he returned to Afghanistan in the company of Vogle. A convoy of about fifty armed and highly irregular Taliban vehicles rolled up a highway from Kandahar to attack Karzai outside Tarinkot. It “looked like a snake slithering out of the pass,” in the journalist Eric Blehm’s description. “There seemed to be no end; it just kept coming, its numbers obscured by the dust storm it created as it advanced across the flat desert floor.” Karzai’s smaller militia carried “everything from AK-47s to bolt-action rifles that likely predated World War II.” But F-18 fighter-bombers obliterated the Taliban trucks before their occupants could dismount, scattering dozens of charred bodies on the plain. The remaining trucks turned and fled. The victory brought yet more local leaders to Karzai’s makeshift quarters, where Greg Vogle, who had taught himself some Pashto, was a constant presence—part bodyguard, part political adviser, and part reporting officer into CIA channels. The political stakes he managed rose by the day. The Northern Alliance held Kabul. Kandahar lay open to Karzai and Sherzai. An interim post-Taliban government was now an urgent requirement, and the Bush administration appointed the diplomat James Dobbins to negotiate one, in partnership with the Algerian-born diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. The United Nations scheduled a formal conference in Bonn, Germany. En route, Ehsan ul Haq, the ISI chief, and Abdullah Abdullah, the long-time political adviser to Massoud, each volunteered to Dobbins the name of Hamid Karzai as someone who might be an acceptable interim leader of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai’s destiny was sealed. As he moved toward Kandahar, Karzai met tribal leaders hoping to pledge themselves to him early. On December 5, he had just sat down for another parley when an explosion shook the room, throwing him to the floor. Vogle leaped on top of Karzai’s body to protect him, followed by a scrum of Afghan guards. 25 They feared a Taliban attack was under way. It was friendly fire. An Air Force controller had inadvertently directed a two-thousand-pound bomb near Karzai’s position. Three Americans and fifty Afghans died. Karzai was shaken but not seriously hurt. During the next hour, a BBC reporter called his satellite phone from Kabul to inform him that he had been named chairman of the new Afghan interim government. That same day, a Taliban delegation arrived with a letter of surrender, as Karzai later characterized the document. Karzai asked Mullah Naqibullah, the militarily powerful commander of an armed force in Kandahar, to speak with surviving Taliban leaders who had gathered in Shah Wali Kot, a redoubt of canyons and ridges to Kandahar’s northeast. Mullah Mohammad Omar received him. Other senior Taliban leaders and advisers were also present. Karzai was inclined to accept Omar’s terms of surrender. The next day, at a Pentagon press conference, however, Donald Rumsfeld announced that any negotiated end to the war against the Taliban was “unacceptable to the United States.” It remained American policy toward the Taliban “to bring justice to them or them to justice.”

(Meanwhile) after tense negotiations, the CIA helped to broker a deal in which Gul Agha Sherzai was restored as governor of Kandahar, Naqibullah yielded political power but maintained his armed force, and Hamid Karzai took over national leadership from Kabul. Mullah Mohammad Omar hid out for a few days, wrapped in a shawl, then climbed on a motorcycle and escaped into Pakistan.” 5

(To be continued)


  1. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp-94)
  2. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp-95)
  3. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp-95-96)
  4. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp-97)
  5. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp-98-102)