The Taliban Story: Karzai vs US: Knives were out (Part25)
Source: USA Today

By Arun Anand

The Taliban Story: Karzai vs US: Knives were out (Part25)
Source: USA Today

This is the 25th part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 25th part-

Hamid Karzai was the blue-eyed boy for the US when he took over charge of Afghanistan in 2001 immediately after the ouster of Taliban. But within next few years the knives were out. Both the sides blamed other for treachery and manipulations. Karzai’s fall from grace, as far as the US was concerned, was complete by 2009 when Karzai was accused of rigging the elections for his second five-year presidential term. The way mutual trust and confidence turned into utter disregard was primarily an outcome of the way US mishandled Karzai as well as the failure of Karzai to stem rampant corruption in his administration.

In 2004, when Karzai won his first presidential term, the elections were hailed as a new dawn of democracy in Afghanistan. International observers were of the view that the 2004 polls in Afghanistan were free and fair. The Bush administration in the US couldn’t have been happier. It was their man who was at the helm of affairs in a country which was governed by its arch rival Soviet Union’s handpicked politicians till late 1980s. It was a complete turnaround.

During the first Presidential polls in 2004, more than eight million Afghan voters voted. The threats from Taliban failed to douse the enthusiasm of Afghan people and Karzai won by garnering 55 per cent of the votes polled.

During the initial years of bonhomie between Karzai and the US, Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad played a key role. Khalilzad was also a Pashtun like Karzai. Both had known each other since 1990s. Khalilzad was appointed as US special envoy to Afghanistan in 2002. A year later he was named as US ambassador to Afghanistan. Khalilzad soon became a friend, philosopher and guide for Karzai. In fact, he spent more time at Karzai’s office and presidential palace than in the US embassy in Kabul.

Khalilzad spoke with Karzai multiple times a day and dined with him at the palace almost every evening. …Karzai was punctual. Supper started precisely at 7.30 pm and he expected his guests to arrive 30 minutes early. The menu rarely changed: either chicken or lamb with rice, plus two vegetables. Afterwards they chatted for hours. By the time Khalilzad got back to the embassy, it was often past midnight. 1

Till 2005, when Khalilzad was in Kabul, the relationship between Karzai and the US were quite cordial but it started deteriorating after Khalilzad was sent to Baghdad to help manage the crisis there. Karzai was taken aback by Khalilzad’s transfer and he in fact made a personal intervention and requested the White House to allow Khalilzad to continue. But US President George Bush didn’t budge. As Khalilzad moved out of Kabul, Karzai felt abandoned.

Martin Strmecki, the Pentagon adviser, said Karzai needed to spend hours talking through his leadership dilemmas before he felt comfortable making tough decisions. It required a lot of hand-handling.2

Khalilzad’s successors adopted an aggressive approach. The new incumbent who replaced Khalilzad in 2005 was Ronald Neumann. Neuman started prodding Karzai to remove corrupt officials. One of the major bones of contention was the case of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Hamid Karzai. He was chief of Kandahar Provincial Council and alleged to have been involved in major corruption cases.

In January 2006, Newsweek published a story accusing Ahmed Wali Karzai of controlling the drug trade in southern Afghanistan. Enraged Hamid Karzai summoned Neumann and the British ambassador to the place. He threatened to file a libel suit and demanded to know if US or British officials had any hard evidence against his brother…The Americans didn’t back down. They told Karzai that perception was reality and he needed to deal with the problem. 3

Ironically… the US government was asking Karzai to clean up a mess of its own making. Behind the scenes, the CIA worked closely with Wakil Ahmed Karzai and helped turn him into a regional power broker. For years the agency paid him to recruit and support a secretive paramilitary strike force, almost certain with Hamid Karzai’s knowledge. Given that ongoing relationship, it took chutzpah for US embassy officials to urge the Afghan president to punish his brother based on vague allegations of wrongdoing. Karzai never forgot it.

As the insurgency worsened, Bush administration officials grew critical of Karzai’s ad hoc governing style. They groused that he acted more like a tribal leader than the president of a modern nation. They also worried that the Taliban was exploiting popular dissatisfaction with his government’s corruption and incompetence.4

Meanwhile, Karzai also started objecting to incidents where US airstrikes killed and wounded innocent civilians even as the US forces treated such incidents as collateral damage in its war against terror. In 2008, a series of such incidents happened. In July, 2008, the US warplanes mistakenly bombed a wedding party near a remote village in Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan. The strike led to deaths of dozens of people including children. The US tried to cover it and issued a public denial which said the planes had struck a large group of enemy fighters on a mountain range and it was a ‘precision attack’.

Notwithstanding the US version of events, Karzai ordered an inquiry. A government commission investigated the matter and concluded that the group was indeed a wedding party. The commission’s report said that in this air strike 47 people were killed including the bride.

US military officials responded to this report by saying that they would conduct their own inquiry. It’s a different matter though that the findings of US’ own investigation didn’t come out publicly.

A month later, another bungled military operation exacerbated Karzai’s distrust. A combined force of US and Afghan ground troops, a low flying AC-130 gunship and a Reaper drone laid waste to the village of Azizabad in Herat province in western Afghanistan. The US military kept the full investigative report a secret until USA Today sued the Defense Department in 2018 to obtain almost 1000 pages of files. The newspaper published an expose of Azizabad attack in 2019.

The US military, immediately after this airstrike, had stated that this operation targeted a ‘high-value’ Taliban leader and there were no civilian casualties. The pentagon later conducted an investigation after Karzai visited the area and blasted the US government. According to Pentagon report, 22 insurgents and 33 civilians were killed in this airstrike. It justified this assault on the village saying that it was conducted in self-defense. The investigations conducted by the United Nations, Afghan government and Afghan Human Rights Commission came out with reports that put the number of deaths between 78 to 92. Most of those killed were children.5

Even as the US tried to covered up these botched operations, which were far more than few, Karzai’s objections grew louder and louder. This was bound to cause a lot of discomfort to the US further deteriorating a relationship which was already on downhill.

In fact, the US policies were largely responsible, though indirectly, for Karzai rigging the 2009 elections which proved to be another defining movement in terms of creating dissatisfaction among the masses. It led to loss of credibility of the whole effort to set up a democratic system in the country overriding the tribal factionalism. It created an opportune atmosphere for Taliban to strike back with vengeance. And arguably, the root cause was US’ about turn vis-a-vis Karzai who had now become a friend turned foe.

By the time, Democrat Barack Obama, took office in January 2009 as US President, the US’ relations with Karzai had almost hit rock bottom. The US casualties in Afghanistan were increasing and most top US officials and to political figures in the administration considered Karzai regime to be neck deep in corruption and they made no bones about it which at times became quite humiliating for Karzai.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan particularly disliked Karzai and barely concealed his contempt from the start. “Richard Holbrooke hated Hamid Karzai. He thought he was corrupt as hell, “Barnett Rubin, the Afghan academic expert whom Holbrooke had hired as an adviser, said in a Lesson Learned interview. (but) Karzai retained broad popular appeal in Afghanistan and was favored to win reelection. But Holbrooke and other officials stirred things up by openly meeting with Karzai’s rivals and encouraging them to run for president as well. Holbrooke hoped a large field would prevent Karzai from winning a majority and force him into a runoff, where he would be more vulnerable against a single challenger.6

The US scheming galled Karzai, who saw it as a treachery. Realizing, he could no longer trust the Americans, he scrambled to expand his political base and cut deals with old foes from different ethnic groups. Much to the dismay of human-rights groups, Karzai tapped General Mohammed Fahim Khan, the giggling Tajik warlord, as his vice-presidential running mate. He negotiated an endorsement from Ge. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the accused war criminal, who controlled a large bloc of Uzbek votes. As further insurance of victory, Karzai stacked Afghanistan’s election oversight commission with his cronies.7

Some US officials said the Obama administration should have realized that its gamesmanship with Karzai would backfire. “The reason Karzai made deals with the warlords and engaged in fraud in the election was that, unlike the previous election, when we had supported him, he knew we had walked away from him, so he basically said, the hell with you,” Robert Gates, the defense secretary, said in his University of Virginia oral history interview. One month after Karzai took over charge for another five-year term in 2009, Gates was at a meeting of the NATO defense ministers. He sat next to Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat who served as the UN Secretary General’s special representative to Afghanistan. The pair were friendly and had known each other for years. Before Eide delivered his status report on Afghanistan, he leaned over and whispered a message to Gates: “I am going to tell the ministers that there was blatant foreign interference in the Afghan election.” Eide said, “What I will not say is it was the United States and Richard Holbrooke.”8

(To be continued)



  1. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp175)
  2. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp175)
  3. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp175-176)
  4. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp176)
  5. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp177)
  6. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp170)
  7. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp170-171)
  8. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp171)