Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

With a Little Help From His Friends: A new biography of Hamed Karzai

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

With only a few days left in the last of Karzai’s two 5-year tenures as head of state (the inauguration of his – still unknown – successor has just been postponed again), Dutch journalist Bette Dam presents the reviewed and updated English version of her biography of the politician who has shaped Afghanistan’s last 14 years as almost no one else has done. It is not the first, and will not be the last book about Hamed Karzai and it covers the different periods of his life in varying depth. Although it leaves a few key questions still unanswered, it is the most detailed and well-researched account of the man so far. It differs favourably from some of the earlier snapshots that were mainly boasts about the authors’ access to Karzai. Thomas Ruttig(*) here reviews the book and says it is simply journalistic work at its best. We will publish an excerpt of the book later today.

At the centre of Bette Dam’s research(1) stands the crucial question: how did Karzai become president? Who had the idea and who chose him? How big was the role of his later, alienated American friends? And where did Karzai actually come from? In order to answer these questions, she has meticulously tracked down and interviewed almost everyone among the Afghans and many of the key players among the internationals who had a hand in Karzai’s foray, after the 9/11 attacks, into Uruzgan and Kandahar as an anti-Taleban guerrilla leader. This later established his claim to the Afghan presidency, not least through his famous and largely unexpected call to the Bonn conference on its opening day on 27 November 2001 directly from the Afghan battlefield. The episode is rendered in Bette Dam’s book.

She travelled extensively, over seven years, and in deteriorating security conditions, not only to Kabul and Kandahar, but also to Tarin Kot, Deh Rawud and Chora in Uruzgan (from where she also reported as a freelance journalist during this time). Among her sources are Karzai’s brother Qayum and those who hosted and hid Karzai from the Taleban in Uruzgan, ministers and former Taleban, the then UN special envoy, Francesc Vendrell, United States ambassador James Dobbins and even the leader of two US Special Forces teams that were sent in to support Karzai militarily on the ground. More importantly: although she bases her narrative on those different renderings, her juxtaposing of them reveals a lot of contradictions and gaps in the official stories.

Even Karzai himself had to admit her thorough preparation: when Bette was granted an interview with Karzai in the palace and he was about to evade some of her questions in what Afghans would call a tamasha (performance or show), she presented herself as so well versed in even the slightest details that he was forced to take her extremely seriously. She was also given the chance for a second interview that turned out to be much more enlightening.

Bette gives an exact, almost day-to-day account of how Karzai’s small military expedition into Uruzgan and Kandahar went and who was part of it. She shows the dithering of many of his potential allies on the ground, until US weapons drops started convincing them that Karzai really had the support of the superpower. She renders how Kandahar was taken from the Taleban in mid-November 2001 and how tribal cleavages played into it. She also shows how his contacts and views on the Taleban evolved, from his attempt to join them between 1994 and 1996 and become their representative at the UN (unofficially, as the Taleban was not recognised diplomatically by almost all countries) – which was rejected by Mullah Muhammad Omar – to his wavering between calling them ‘brothers’ and trying to negotiate with them and having his US allies fight them during his presidency. In this part, one of the shortcomings of the book becomes apparent: there are simply not enough exact dates in the text which forced the reviewer to go back time and again and calculate himself. Also a separate chronology as an annex could have solved this and should be added in the next edition.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the role Karzai played, long before he became known to the world, as a facilitator of the mujahedin resistance based in Quetta. Not everything is new in this part, but it is a much more detailed and enriched account than anything written before and represents the first time much of what was scattered information about this early but key period has been gathered together. Already at that time, in the 1980s, Karzai had literally talked himself into a position which gave him access to US actors, which would play out favourably for him in 2001. The book presents him as extremely talkative and a jack-of-all-trades, not only working for the benefit of the ‘party’ he belonged to – Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojaddedi’s Afghan National Liberation Front – but also for other tanzim like Hezb-e Islami:

When Karzai returned from [studying in] India, he started helping his father with the jihad. To earn some money, he also got a job as an English teacher at IRC, an English language institute in Peshawar. … At the time, he was seen as an ordinary boy moving around the city on his bicycle, but because of his foreign language skills and his father’s prominence, he soon became heavily engaged in the jihad against the Soviets. He interpreted at meetings with Afghans and Pakistanis at Western embassies, regularly arranging interviews, trips and other requests from journalists. … As a result, Karzai got increasing access to these foreign funds to support the fighting against the Red Army. He opened his own office in Quetta. … He also journeyed to the battlefields in those areas himself, where he would call on fellow tribesmen like Jan Mohammed and others he would also enlist for his uprising in 2001. He occasionally had truckloads of food driven to his support base in Kandahar city and Tarin Kot. … He also managed to arrange medevac flights.

Bette Dam also cleans up a myth or two. One of them is the widely-held theory that Karzai, while making his unexpected phone call to the Bonn conference, was on an US aircraft carrier. He wasn’t. He was in Tarin Kot, with the US special forces and CIA operatives who had rescued him from a Taleban onslaught that, just three weeks earlier, had almost ended his mission.

Secondly, she also comes to the conclusion that Karzai – as is also widely believed – had not been groomed by the US to become Afghanistan’s leader in the long-term. According to her sources, the Americans knew Karzai long before 9/11, but he did not really have much of their attention until the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The Americans were only mildly concerned with driving out the Taliban. They were more focused on bin Laden, who had been operating under Taliban protection in Afghanistan since 1996. He was considered the brains behind the attacks in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and the more recent attack on the USS Cole, a US Navy destroyer. “We want Osama bin Laden,” the Americans told Karzai repeatedly. “And you must negotiate with the Taliban about his extradition.” … There were no plans for regime change.

That changed fundamentally after 9/11. Although she does not give the exact dates, Karzai himself thinks it was the US that prevented Pakistan from cancelling his visa “in September 2001” which would have cost him his base of operation.

While the [US] money started to flow in the north and in Islamabad, Karzai, like many other leaders in Quetta, was meeting secretly with the CIA. He approached a secret agent who called himself Graig. He and Karzai already knew one another from before 9/11, and had met a few times in Quetta. … In the Serena Hotel in Quetta, where the red-haired American received ‘numerous’ Afghans, they discussed options for entering Uruzgan. (Graig [Vogel] would later become the CIA station chief in Kabul) He provided Hamid Karzai support in the form of money and satellite phones, although it was uncertain whether the CIA agreed with Karzai’s plans. …

Karzai was now on Washington’s radar… His name featured in CIA director George Tenet’s briefing to President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld [after Operation Enduring Freedom started on 7 October].

Bette also dug out an early Karzai interview with an Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, on 24 September 2001, in which he appeared to already be toying with a presidential role for himself.

The man, who possibly paved the way of Karzai into the presidency in practice – Ambassador Dobbins – claims he his heard Karzai’s name from US CENTCOM commander General Tommie Franks in early November 2001, but that Turkish and ISI interlocutors as well as Northern Alliance leaders had already had him on the list for the future leader of Afghanistan when he met them in the run-up to the Bonn conference where he headed the US delegation. Meanwhile, in early November 2001, Karzai and his closest Uruzgani allies were on a US military base in Jacobabad in Pakistan.

Dobbins: “I don’t think he was there to be interviewed about the presidency. He was almost captured by the Taliban and had to be taken to safety — that’s all. Looking back you can say it turned out that way, but I think that at the time no one was sure Hamid Karzai would become the president.”

Karzai also denied he was preparing his presidency in Jacobabad. “Everything happened without me,” he said. Although Karzai now insists he never left Jacobabad, two diplomats later reported seeing him at the U.S. Embassy residence in Islamabad.

That might be the case, or it might not. It can be assumed that the idea to bring Karzai into the play for Afghan presidency matured between 9/11 and the Bonn conference; two and a half months are a long time when conflicts stand on the knife’s edge. But Karzai had much earlier become known to actors in the US, who would become crucial players later on. One was Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American neo-con who was born in Mazar-e Sharif and became an American citizen in 1984. After 2001, he became the US special representative and then ambassador in Kabul in a viceroy-like role. There were widespread reports that Khalilzad, while at the Rand Corporation and doing a risk analysis for the oil company Unocal (now merged with Chevron) in the late 1990s which was planning to build a pipeline through Afghanistan and wanted to bring all Afghan factions on board, had hired Karzai as an advisor or consultant. These have not been convincingly sourced and were denied by Unocal and Khalilzad himself (see here and here). However, there was definitely some overlap between the two men: while Karzai acted as a facilitator for the mujahedin in the 1980s, Khalilzad was a Special Advisor to the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 1985 to 1989 , a position in which, according to The Washington Post, he “focused on Afghanistan policy”; since the late 1970s, Khalilzad had been “writing op-eds under the pseudonym Hannah Negaran to attack Soviet policy in Afghanistan”. In the 1980s, he was active in a lobby group for the mujahedin, the American Friends of Afghanistan. (In this capacity, for example, he accompanied Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during a US trip.) It would be surprising if the two had not met then.

Khalilzad’s insights, however, are missing in the book; he never gave an interview, Bette’s only phone contact with him was quickly terminated for what he said were time reasons. In the book itself, he only features in the post-2001 parts.

This book does leave some more questions and arguments open about this or that detail in Karzai’s political career, but this cannot be held against it. Rather, it is a good thing as it allows further discussion. Moreover, Bette does not present her findings as the final and only truth. Her chosen style of narration, writing as if she was present (she was not, but as she does not hide this fact and sources her work well and clearly) will not be agreeable to all readers, but that is more a matter of taste, rather than a substantial criticism. Also that it could have been more rigorously edited does not undermine the general value of this book and the detail and argument presented in any way. When it comes to what I have learned from any book on Afghanistan, A Man and a Motor Cycle, is probably in my all-time Top Twenty, far ahead of much that has been published recently by better-known names. This is journalism of the highest quality.


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

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(1) The original Dutch version was published in 2009 by Arbeiderspers (Amsterdam) under the title Expeditie Uruzgan: de weg van Hamid Karzai naar het paleis.

(*) Disclaimer: AAN contributed to the funding of the translation of this book from the original Dutch. The author of this review has been interviewed for the book.


Hamed Karzai Hezb-e Islami Taleban Uruzgan US Zalmay Khalilzad