A summary and analysis of the United States’ troubled relationship with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his sprawling, influential family.
Washington Post Mexico bureau chief (previously Kabul chief) Partlow provides an insightful, revealing dissection of the failures of the U.S government in Afghanistan by focusing on the multifarious, endlessly fascinating Karzai family. Naturally, Hamid Karzai’s American-aided rise to the head of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and his subsequent disillusionment with the American mission take center stage in the narrative. From the American perspective, Hamid went from “a compromise candidate known for compromising, the favorite of no Afghan group—even his own—but the least objectionable, and least threatening, to all” to, in the words of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, “not an adequate strategic partner.” Partlow takes pains to illustrate how civilian deaths and unfulfilled promises led to Hamid’s increasing skepticism toward the war effort. The author also spends a great deal of time on Hamid’s extended family, especially the business-minded dreamer Mahmood Karzai and Ahmed Wali, either a scheming Popalzai—the Karzais’ tribe—warlord or staunch American ally, depending on whom you ask. Partlow’s character portraits are masterful, often based on firsthand observations and relying on small but crucial personal details to convincingly render these complex, multifaceted men. The author’s reporting often leads to revealing tangents, including a deep dive into a decades-old blood feud between two branches of the Karzai family that gives Western readers a window into the role that honor and revenge still play in Afghan society. According to Partlow, the Karzais “stood at the center” of the hubristic U.S. effort to “remake an ancient tribal society into a modern democratic country.” The “Afghan disaster” is as much the result of cultural misunderstandings as it is misallocated funds and poor strategic planning.
An excellent introduction to the Karzai family and to the disastrous consequences of the Americans’ inadequate understanding of Afghan culture.