Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Book Excerpt: Scenes of Afghan History – Hamed Karzai before 2001

Bette Dam 8 min

As many influential Pashtuns, in the country and the diaspora, the Karzai family – and Hamed Karzai himself – offered support to the Taleban after they emerged in 1994 but were rejected by the movement’s leadership. They turned against them and – after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – made overtures to the ‘Northern Alliance’ for a joint resistance. The Karzais used old ties with the US to mobilise political support and resources. As a follow-up to our review of Bette Dam’s A Man and a Motor Cycle: How Hamid Karzai came to power this morning, we publish here – with the kind permission of the author and her publishers – parts of chapter 3 of her book (“A Diplomat Among Warlords”) which details the outgoing Afghan president’s dealings with the different actors. (Changes in the text made by AAN, for contextual understanding, are in squared brackets.)

Hamed Karzai as translator for Pir Gailani, likely in 1992. Source: archive/unknown (please let us known when you have the copyright for this)Hamed Karzai as translator for Pir Gailani, likely in 1992. Source: archive/unknown (please let us known when you have the copyright for this)

When the Taliban rose to power in 1994, Karzai was at home in Quetta. Earlier that year he had resigned as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs after a dispute with President [Burhanuddin] Rabbani and Mohammed Fahim who was intelligence head, and [later] Hamid Karzai’s vice president. Karzai had been accused of insulting the regime by contacting their enemy Hezb-e Islami, and was subsequently interrogated. While he was in an interrogation room in Kabul, where rockets still struck daily, a projectile – accidentally or not – hit the building. He escaped, slightly injured and reportedly managed to get to Pakistan with the help of [Hezb leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. After this run-in with Rabbani he returned to Quetta to live with his father. He was in his late thirties then, but contrary to Pashtun traditions he wasn’t yet married or engaged. His ministerial position had given him a diplomatic passport that he used in the subsequent years to travel all around the world.

Hamid Karzai – or Hamid Jan as many called him then, a term of endearment for a sweet, likeable boy – wasn’t well-known at the time, but the American ambassador in Islamabad knew him to be well-informed. He had quite a few Taliban representatives in his network. Mullah Ghaus, who would become the Taliban minister of foreign affairs, was a good friend of his. Karzai was also in touch with Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the governor of Herat (and released from Guantanamo Bay after 13 years in prison [in 2014]). And Karzai knew Taliban prime minister Mullah Mohammad Rabbani ([he died in April 2001 from cancer] not to be confused with President Burhanuddin Rabbani), who had initiated the manhunt for the deposed communist president Najibullah that ended with his gruesome murder [in 1996 when the Taleban took Kabul]. Karzai called the action “unfortunate”. He believed Rabbani was a “modern Taliban leader.”

In 1994 Karzai had surprised the Western diplomats in Pakistan. He often dropped by their embassies to talk about his homeland, sometimes so frequently that the Westerners found it hard to devote so much time. For German diplomat Norbert Holl, the head of the UN mission in the region, Karzai was his ‘main interlocutor’. Hamid came so often ‘to talk about peace in Afghanistan’ that Holl joked that the table they were sat around on would become historical if they managed to stop the war in Afghanistan. Yet the interviewed diplomats all say Karzai was only a mid-level player in terms of his influence, and that he wasn’t the only Afghan to visit and ask for Western support. Norbert Holl says that Karzai, ‘a man with limited potential’, tried hard to bring new initiatives on a daily basis.

In 1994, however, Karzai’s advice to the diplomats was that they should support the Taliban. American diplomat Richard Smyth, the US consul general in Peshawar at that time, remembered him coming to his office. “Karzai said: ‘they are disciplined, they have vision and its not based on parties like we have right now.’ I think Karzai thought this system would help him also. To be any kind of leader, you are what the country needs at that time. Karzai was ambitious, for the good of the country, I think.” Smyth was sceptical, but he asked Karzai to arrange a meeting with the Taliban. “That took a while, but he arranged it in the end.” The Taliban asked for support according to Smyth, but the diplomat said they were not taking sides. Karzai went one step further with his friend Norbert Holl and asked him if he should work for the Taliban. “He went several times to Rome to meet the King in exile, but also met the Taliban in Gulf states.” Holl said that “trying too many things at the same time would jeopardise his credibility”. Karzai would ignore that advice and until the end of 1996 was in the race for a job with the Taliban. […]

When the Taliban first appeared on the stage in 1994, Karzai was enthusiastic about the new movement. […] Thanks in part to his support of the Taliban, Karzai became a candidate for the position of United Nations ambassador for the Taliban administration. It was a tit-for-tat deal. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, had supported these tribally-related Taliban in early meetings in 1994 in Quetta and in Kandahar, and wanted something in return. The Taliban of the Popolzai-related tribes offered the UN post to the youngest son. But however generous Karzai was toward the Taliban, he couldn’t gain the trust of the senior Taliban rulers or Mullah [Muhammad] Omar himself. He first sent his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai to Yar Mohammed […] and then to Mullah Ghaus ([both] Popolzai Taliban) who were both in Kandahar. Please let him be the UN ambassador, his half-brother said. Both said that Mullah Omar didn’t support the idea. After another visit, Mullah Ghaus said: Mullah Omar prefers a little Talib over Hamid Karzai, sorry.

In the meantime the lobbying for Karzai went on in Kabul and an approval letter was drawn up in the ministry of foreign affairs. But the author of the letter told me it was never sent to the UN headquarters in New York. “Mullah Omar had problems with trusting Hamid Karzai. He had too many links with the foreigners.” Also staff members in the ministry had doubts. “He is working for the CIA, I am sure”, they assumed.

By the end of 1996, after it became clear Hamid Karzai would not get a job at the UN, Karzai was in the office of the US Secretary of State in Washington, begging for American support for ‘modern, educated Afghans’. “It’s the only way to weaken the Taliban’s views,” he argued. It was obvious that the Popolzai Taliban were losing influence, and Hamid Karzai wanted to intervene. To Karzai, the other Taliban were “a group of simple, undereducated people” who would throw Afghanistan into international isolation with their conservative policies. […]

Meanwhile Karzai’s father had grown increasingly annoyed with his son’s behaviour. Family friends say that it really bothered the elder Karzai that his son made no clear-cut choices. He wanted to be friends with everyone: with America, with Pakistan, with the Taliban, with the old warlords, and with the royal family who were still in Rome. The American ambassador [sic] Richard Smyth said that it was Hamid who reached out to them, not Abdul Ahad. “I wasn’t talking to his father, because it was too hard to get him.” Hamid also intensified his grip as patriarch of the Karzai clan, and in Quetta he met with several influential people without including his father. […]

The Karzais’ non-profit organisation, Environmental Awareness Federation of Afghanistan (EAFA), was created by Qayoom Karzai in the early nineties and continued operating during the Taliban time with a spacious office in Kandahar city. Again, the Popolzai Taliban Yar Mohammed and Abdul Jalil supported them. “You can stay, don’t worry”, he told one of the interviewed employees of EAFA. For several projects EAFA got accreditation letters from the Taliban. From the administration [documents] of EAFA seen by the author, it’s clear Ahmad Wali was often in Kandahar to take care of dozens of development projects in mostly only Popolzai areas in Uruzgan and Kandahar. It’s unclear why the Karzai’s mostly helped their network of tribal people, except that it gave them credibility as family. Also, the Popolzai Talib Mullah Ghaus got a project – a dam – in his area in Char Chino in the Taliban time. The World Health Organisation and several UN-organisations were funding these EAFA programs. It was mainly Hamid Karzai who arranged the funds after his visits to the Western organisations based in Islamabad. According to an employee he just ‘snapped his fingers’ and the international community agreed to work with them.

While helping his own people with development projects and jobs, Karzai also became more politically active. After he was rejected as an UN ambassador, he became part of the opposition against the senior leadership of the Taliban, people like Mullah Omar. After al-Qaeda’s attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, his relations with the Americans, who were seeking new allies in the fight against Osama bin Laden, grew closer. He also invited old Uruzgani tribesmen to Quetta more frequently to discuss Afghanistan’s future. He arranged visas for old mujahedeen who were driven out by the Taliban, so that they could attend conferences on Afghanistan in places like Frankfurt, Istanbul or the United States. Two hundred Afghans attended a conference in Germany in 1998. Interestingly, Taliban delegates had been invited to the conference as well. So it would seem that Karzai and his allies made a distinction between the native Taliban and al-Qaeda, which were perceived by many Afghans to be a foreign invading power. But the Taliban weren’t interested. Although representatives of the exiled king in Rome frequently went to Kandahar to talk with them, the discussions went nowhere.

In 1999, around two months after Hamid Karzai’s mother died of cancer, Karzai’s father was murdered. He had recently returned from America when on July 14 two gunmen shot him to death from a passing motorcycle as he walked to the mosque. Though the media and the family itself blamed the Taliban, the motives for his murder were never clear. Was it the Taliban? A family rival? The Americans sent their condolences. He was buried in Kandahar. Karzai, who had received death threats from one group of Taliban, was able to attend the funeral under the protection of his own connections with the Taliban. He arrived secretly in the night and brought his father’s dead body to the cemetery the next morning. He didn’t have a lot of time; the Taliban’s militia were on their way to surround Karzai’s EAFA office in Kandahar, ready to attack. Karzai was warned, and fled from his father’s funeral to return to Quetta. Ahmad Wali, his half-brother, had better connections in Kandahar and stayed on. […]

Karzai continued to drop in at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad on a regular basis, often accompanied by Jan Mohammed [Uruzgan governor after 2001, assassinated in 2011] and ‘his’ men from Uruzgan and Kandahar. They told the Americans they planned to organise military resistance against the Taliban from Uruzgan, as had previously been done successfully against the Red Army. The Russians supported the Northern Alliance in the fight against the Taliban, and Iran supported ethnic groups like the Hazara. So the Americans could do something similar in the south, they argued. To Jan Mohammed, the mountainous terrain was ideal for quietly building up lashkars, or tribal militias. Before their plans could be set in motion he was betrayed, arrested by the Taliban, and imprisoned – and with that Karzai’s principal support in southern Afghanistan evaporated.

Karzai persevered. In 2000 he sought contact with the Northern Alliance. It was an unusual step, especially given his history with the group. Many Pashtuns believed that the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara who were the Northern Alliance had no right to any power since Afghanistan, after all, was established by Pashtuns. But it was typical of Karzai to keep his options open, eventually sealing an agreement with the Alliance’s leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, about mutual support. The initiative could count on political support from the State Department in Washington […].

[Massud] intended to build up pockets of resistance here and there in the north and west. As soon as the Taliban reacted to these little flash points, he would move against them with more heavily armed militias. It was also part of the plan to include Uruzgan in these pockets of resistance. Massoud already understood that moving directly on Kandahar city wasn’t an option. They also discussed how best to free Jan Mohammed from prison. It was important that he joined Massoud’s cadre of insurgents. They agreed that the men Karzai gathered in Uruzgan would go to the north using the Panjshir Valley – a beautiful, verdant region that wasn’t yet in Taliban hands – as their starting point. After that, these men and Massoud would establish operations in the south, perhaps in the mountains of Uruzgan, and slowly move toward Kandahar. […]

When Pakistan wanted to stop Karzai and sent Karzai a letter saying he wouldn’t get his visa extended after September 2001, Karzai was able to rely on the help of the US. “At that point,” he said, “I think the US intervened and told Pakistan not to expel me. But I don’t know if it had an effect. I told the US that I was expelled, and [asked] if they could help. I am sure they did something.”


From: Bette Dam, A Man and a Motor Cycle: How Hamid Karzai came to power, Amsterdam: Ipso Facto, 2014, 246 p. ISBN 9789077386132. Available from 2 September 2014. Available as an E-Book on Amazon from 1 September 2014. US$ 15.30 (print), US$ 11.04 (E-Book).


Northern Alliance Kandahar Uruzgan Taleban Hamid Karzai Hamed Karzai