Bette Dam, a Dutch journalist, spent years writing a biography of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "A Man and a Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power" captures Karzai’s journey from an unknown figure to a popular statesman.
In an interview with RFE/RL journalist Malali Bashir, Dam said that Karzai was a pragmatic leader who differed with the U.S. over key issues, but helped stabilize his war-ravaged country by cutting deals with warlords and powerbrokers.
RFE/RL: Your book suggests that Karzai was an unknown figure in 2001. So, who came up with the idea that this man would be best-suited to lead Afghanistan and why?
Bette Dam: Karzai was not a very prominent politician before 2001, but his father was well known in southern Afghanistan and also in Kabul, and he himself worked hard to have good relations with everybody. He was quite pragmatic in that. He talked to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, he met the UN a lot in Islamabad [and] he talked to Pakistani intelligence. He talked to the CIA.
So, everybody knew Karzai and Karzai knew them. I got to know Karzai as a pragmatic local politician who wanted to become more influential before 9/11. He worked hard on that and managed to do that. So, when 9/11 happened, the Americans were not very well prepared about the new leadership of Afghanistan. They basically were completely new in the business, because after the [anti-Soviet] jihad [in the 1980s] they lost their interest in Afghanistan, so they were looking around for candidates. They knew Karzai and others knew him as well.
RFE/RL: When did Karzai realize he could be the man who might replace the Taliban government?
Dam: I asked this question to Karzai himself. He told me that after 9/11, he knew that everything would change in Afghanistan and that he would be on top of it. He would help the Americans to topple the Taliban and bring a new regime. He himself said, "I had no ambitions to become the president." I don’t know if that is completely true. I think he really wanted to mean something for the country and get a powerful position, namely as a minister. But halfway, when Kabul fell in November, he knew that he would become the president.
RFE/RL: People close to Karzai say he was not happy with the U.S. giving former mujahedin leaders a lot of power. How was his initial relationship with those warlords?
Dam: Karzai had good relationships with many [mujahedin] warlords in Afghanistan. He was in contact with the groups of [Gulbuddin] Hikmatyar and [Ahmad Shah] Masood. After 9/11, when Karzai himself became more prominent as well, I think he preferred to have a bit of a different cabinet.
Karzai tried to make a peace deal with the Taliban. He thought the Taliban were never informed about the 9/11 attacks by Osama Bin Laden, and he still thinks that the Taliban didn’t plan the attack on the United States. After the Taliban were toppled because they didn’t want to deliver Osama Bin Laden, Karzai gave amnesty to a lot of Taliban.
After that deal was made, the Americans intervened, because according to them, the Taliban were the enemy. [They said] it was the Taliban and Al-Qaida who were behind 9/11, which was not the case.
So, when Hamid Karzai came to Kabul with American helicopters, he arrived with a deal not with the Taliban, but with a cabinet full of warlords. That was a bitter start.
RFE/RL: Many Afghans believe that warlords were strengthened under Karzai. Why couldn’t he do anything about it?
Dam: I think Hamid Karzai tried to block some of the warlords, but I also think that he was a pragmatic, opportunistic leader who thought, ‘This is the new situation I have to deal with, and I will deal with it.’ [But] he didn’t manage to stop this cabinet that was based on friends, families, and on favoring others, and as a consequence, it [the cabinet] became more and more corrupt.
RFE/RL: What happened to relations between Karzai and the United States?
Dam: It’s not only Karzai who made the mistakes. It’s also the U.S. who didn’t have a lot of local knowledge of what was going on and fully supported, with their Special Forces, the warlords who should not have been in power.
RFE/RL: You argue that Karzai could be useful for peace talks with the Taliban. Why have Karzai's efforts to conclude peace with the Taliban failed?
Dam: Karzai made the biggest peace deal in Afghan history since 9/11 in 2001, but the Americans didn’t want it. Afterwards, the Americans were not supportive of peace. They were here to fight, supplying Kabul and other provinces with lots of soldiers and heavy weapons and F-16s to search for an enemy they called the Taliban. From the beginning, I think, the conflict has always been a political conflict where it would have been better to talk to the opposition instead of fighting them. That didn’t happen.
I talk to people around Karzai who tell me that he did approach the Taliban. But there was no support, not only from the Americans, but also from among Karzai’s own network of people that were strongmen who were after their own power and were not after sharing it. Plus, people from the Northern Alliance like [the late Vice President Qaseem] Fahim or [Governor] Atta Mohammad in Mazar-e-Sharif are not known for their initiative to make peace with the Taliban. The whole level playing field wasn’t after making peace. Only when the Americans wanted to leave Afghanistan, peace became an issue and was put on the agenda.
RFE/RL: Overall, what were Karzai's weaknesses and strengths?
Dam: Karzai was not strong enough to fire the violators of governance, like warlords. He didn’t have the support and he himself wasn’t the strongest to do that. It was a disadvantage to the country. I think Karzai was quite pragmatic, and made deals all the time trying to make a lot of people happy by giving them positions or giving their family members positions. He managed, at least, to have a rather stable Afghanistan that didn’t fall back into civil war. Hamid Karzai achieved that with schools open, new roads, etc. But corruption was very big and the economic situation of Afghanistan worsened.