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Interview: What Kind of Game is Hamid Karzai Playing?


This year will mark the withdrawal of the vast majority—and perhaps all—of the American troops in Afghanistan. The current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has enraged American officials and diplomats by refusing to sign an agreement that would keep an American presence in the country. Karzai and his government have also been increasingly vocal in blaming American forces for civilian casualties. 

To discuss Karzai’s tenure in office—set to end this year—and help make sense of the current disagreements between him and the Obama administration, I spoke on the phone with William Dalrymple, who recently interviewed Karzai for a profile in The New York Times Magazine, and who has written several books on Afghanistan and South Asia, the most recent of which is Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. We discussed Karzai’s mental state, his anger at the United States, and what will happen after American troops depart. 

Isaac Chotiner: What game is Karzai playing?

William Dalrymple: I think he’s actually playing a much cleverer game than he’s given credit for. It’s very clear. He knows the United States needs him so he doesn’t have to play to an American audience. America has invested too much in Afghanistan to just turn back and cut its losses--although the Obama administration is showing every sign of wanting to get out as fast as it possibly can. Therefore his concern is to leave a legacy, which he views as divorcing himself as much as he possibly can from the United States, while still gaining access to American money and arms.

IC: So he is doing this because he doesn’t want to go down in history as a puppet?

WD: Yes, that is the crucial factor. You cannot survive anywhere in the Muslim world but especially in Afghanistan if you’re seen to be an American puppet. You’ll last ten minutes. 

IC: He is going to be out of office this year. I don’t know where he wants to live, but will he be safe in Afghanistan without American support? His behavior seems awfully political for someone leaving office. 

WD: He wants to stay in Afghanistan. He’s built himself a house on the outskirts of the presidential palace. Even if his own brother Qayum does not get the presidency, and there is a small but still a significant chance that he could, he wants his man to be running the country after him. And the worry I think is that he will overplay his hand. That he will think America needs him more than it actually does. 

IC: There have been a lot of whispers saying that he’s either hooked on drugs or that he has some sort of mental imbalance, but you seem to be saying you don’t put much stock in that and you really think he’s cagier than people think. 

WD: I investigated it quite closely with people who were close to him. Even people who did not have a good word to say about him would not endorse that theory. I mean, I think he’s certainly highly-strung and he clearly changes his views between a meeting late at night and 9am the following morning. His staff is used to him being erratic. But that is not the same as being a drug addict, which people have accused him of being.

IC: Did you see the spectacle a couple of days ago with these villagers coming out and putting forward photographs of supposed atrocities? The New York Times reported that the photographs were actually from four years ago. 

WD: Yes, but again, one never knows the whole story and I read all the reports and I know Matt Rosenberg who wrote them. Whatever did or did not happen in that particular case, the fact is that American troops in Afghanistan have a long history of making serious errors and bombing the wrong people. A whole series of independent reports have shown that large scale civilian casualties are far more common than they should be, and this has created huge anger across the country, especially as such errors are usually denied and are rarely properly investigated. A huge number of Karzai’s own close friends have been killed by American forces at various points, which is why it’s all quite so personal to him.

IC: Okay but even if “collateral damage,” which is a terrible term, is not personalized here in the same way that is there, the American complaint would still go something like this: 80% of civilian casualties are coming from the Taliban and not the Americans, and that is where anger should be directed. 

WD: Yes, I’m sure that’s the case but equally, in the end, his audience is an Afghan audience.

IC: I would imagine that when Americans kills civilians it is more politically problematic than when the Taliban does. 

WD: Yes.

IC: The other thing he’s been erratic on, to use your word, is negotiations with the Taliban. Where do you think that stands now?

WD: There was a real opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban two months ago and the whole process collapsed with Karzai getting angry that the Taliban opened an embassy and flew their flag. Karzai thought it was an American/Pakistani plot. He thought he was made the fall guy for some pre-arranged deal, which I believe not to be the case. 

IC: So where are things headed then?

WD: An Afghanistan expert, Barnett Rubin, said last week that the changes are both irreversible and unsustainable. On the one hand, it’s unimaginable that the Taliban could return. Kabul has significantly more people than it did in 2001. Provincial cities have grown by a factor of five and whole generation is all lined up on the internet. And yet in all sorts of ways that world cannot survive. It is it is going to be an unhappy couple of years. I wouldn’t advise a friend to go work or live there right now. It’s going to be a very violent, very nasty few years. I do not think it will be an immediate apocalypse. I do not think it will be like Saigon, however, with people leaving on the helicopter. But it is going to be messy and violent and unpleasant. 

IC: And I assume too the Taliban does not have the popular support that the North Vietnamese did. 

WD: The Taliban does have the popular support in the rural areas in the south. It doesn’t have the support anywhere in the north or in urban areas. It is a strong regional player. I’d say you’re going to see a situation more like Syria. It will be divided, violent, and inconclusive. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.