'Kingdom' Examines Afghanistan Through The Prism Of The Karzai Family
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. In 2009, the largest American diplomatic mission in the world was in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the U.S. embassy's budget of $4 billion was four times the country's domestic income. President Obama was sending more troops and civilian personnel to reverse alarming gains the Taliban had made. And so much cash was flowing into the country that President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff had a money counting machine in his office.
Those are some details in a new book from our guest, Washington Post foreign correspondent Joshua Partlow. Partlow was in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, and his account of those years is a story of government dysfunction, rampant corruption and increasing civilian hostility to American military operations. Partlow looks at the Afghanistan experience through the prism of the Karzai family, the president and his brothers, many educated in America, who became important players in the political strife, corruption and violence in the country. Besides his tour in Afghanistan, Joshua Partlow has done reporting in Iraq and Latin America. He's now The Washington Post's Mexico bureau chief. His book is "A Kingdom Of Their Own: The Family Karzai And The Afghan Disaster."
Well, Joshua Partlow, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is a big family, an influential family in Afghanistan. It includes Hamid Karzai, the president, but many others. You know, we have famous political families in this country. I mean, the Taft's going way back, the Kennedys, probably the most famous. Tell us about this family and why you wanted to focus on them.
JOSHUA PARTLOW: This was the family who was in charge in Afghanistan and was involved in all aspects of Afghanistan when I arrived in the summer of 2009, just before President Hamid Karzai's election to his second term. And they had - they had come to define the decade-long war at that point. And they would be in power in the years that followed as well. And they had - they struck me just as a fascinating and frustrating and intriguing family, I mean, starting with the president himself.
He was full of contradictions. He was the commander in chief at a time when the U.S. military had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and yet he was - had these pacifistic tendencies. He was - he was extremely sensitive to violence. He would cry in public. He was - he had started the war in 2001 as a pro-American Muslim leader, and he had become the greatest critic of the U.S. military's presence in Afghanistan. And he was, you know, the leading figure in this family that had enriched itself during the course of the war, and yet he had these tendencies to live a very humble life. And he'd scorned material wealth, and he changed the way the palace was run in order to have things more plain and more simple. So I was intrigued by all these factors and wanted to explore this family more deeply.
DAVIES: I want to talk about some of his brothers and half-brothers who played really important roles in Afghanistan. But speaking generally, it's - what's one of the fascinating things is that these brothers, when the Soviets invaded in 1979, many of them made their ways - their way to the United States and had careers then. You want to just give us a little bit of a picture of these brothers and where they were in America?
PARTLOW: Yeah. The family was scattered by the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Some people, like Hamid Karzai, moved to Pakistan and got involved in the resistance to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, working with the mujahedeen groups. And others moved to the United States and had completely different careers.
Qayum Karzai was the first to arrive here. He was an elder brother, and he came on an Afghan air force program and trained in U.S. military bases in Oklahoma and then got airsick and realized being a pilot wasn't for him. And he scraped money together and drove a car cross-country and ended up in Washington, D.C. And he was - he found work as a waiter in restaurants that no longer exist here in Washington. He worked at a golf course. He had all sorts of jobs and established a presence here and his brothers quickly followed. And several brothers lived in Maryland. They set up restaurants here in Baltimore, in Boston, in Chicago, in San Francisco and had a fairly vibrant business career by the time September 11 happened.
DAVIES: It was striking to me that many of them really worked hard. I mean, they didn't have money. They worked as busboys and waiters to start. But then when their brother Hamid becomes president of Afghanistan, they go back and become big players.
PARTLOW: Yeah, it was amazing. There's a - there's a hotel in the D.C. suburbs, the Bethesda Marriott hotel that has a restaurant there. And almost all of the president's brothers worked at that restaurant as busboys or waiters. Many of the Karzai's attended community college at Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Md. So they have these deep connections to the United States. And they also after September 11, when there was the miraculous turn of events that their brother was selected the leader of the country, they - several of them took advantage of that to realize some of their even larger business ambitions and set these projects in motion that, you know, a decade later became these enormous business projects, in some cases scandals.
DAVIES: So let's kind of reset the scene here. In 2001, when the September 11 attacks had happened, the Taliban was in control in Afghanistan. They'd taken control after warlords fought one another following the Soviet's departure. You had the Taliban in power. The United States comes in after the 9/11 attacks, sweeps them from the capital and into the hills. And there's a need for a new government. The United States loves Hamid Karzai, makes sure he is the guy in charge. Why? What did he bring?
PARTLOW: He checked a lot of boxes that the U.S. was interested in at that time. He was a Pashtun. He came from the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, which they thought was crucial to - for the leader of the country. He spoke English. He was educated. He was rather moderate compared to the other political leaders in Afghanistan at the time. He was - he didn't have a lot of blood on his hands. He wasn't a militia leader who had war crimes in his background. He was somebody who was considered the least threatening politician by a lot of the interested parties. So the other ethnic groups were OK with him because he wasn't necessarily a threat. The Tajik, the Northern Alliance at the time thought he was someone they could work with, maybe someone they could manipulate. He was the least threatening candidate to all involved. It also happened to be that two of the other prominent charismatic Afghan political leaders were killed right before or after September 11.
DAVIES: So you have Hamid Karzai coming in, a guy who speaks English pretty fluently, as do his brothers, who is educated, seems to be open to, if not outright embrace, Western values. And then fast forward to 2009 when President Barack Obama has - you know, has won the election and been inaugurated. This is eight years later. While during the Bush administration there was all this focus on Iraq, things had changed drastically in Afghanistan. What were the American goals then when Obama came into power?
PARTLOW: Yeah. The situation with - in terms of the American relationship and President Karzai had changed dramatically by that point. He was seen as the leader of a corrupt government. He was seen as ineffectual in terms of developing the other institutions of government. He was widely disliked on a personal level. There had been fight after fight after fight with the United States, mostly about civilian casualties or the collateral damage of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan.
So he was seen as the source of a lot of the problems and a lot of - the reason why the United States wasn't succeeding in Afghanistan. And so when President Obama's administration came into power, the message to President Karzai was clear. It was we're not going to have the type of close, brotherly relationship that President Bush and President Karzai had. It's going to be much more distant. We're not going to talk to you as much. We're not going to meet with you as much. And President Karzai was both offended by that, but he also saw it as a sign that the U.S. government was trying to push him from power. And so while that election in 2009 took place, he became convinced that the U.S. was intent on making him lose the election and drive him from power. And so that set the tone for the relationship in the years to come.
DAVIES: That was the election for president of Afghanistan.
PARTLOW: Yes, that was the election in 2009 for president.
DAVIES: You know, the Americans seem to be saying to Karzai, well, we're not just going to keep spending money here. We want some change, and we want some results from you. What was Karzai's style as a leader? I mean, the Americans wanted somebody who would have an efficient administration, clear chains of command, make data-driven decisions. What was his style of leadership like?
PARTLOW: Right. He was much more of a tribal leader. He performed his - he presided over his citizens. People would come and have an audience with him in the palace. He greeted dozens of people each day, peasant farmers from around the country would come into the palace to air their grievances. And he would spend hours, late into the night with political leaders from all levels of the country and regular citizens across Afghanistan. And he - he did not have the type of organized, efficient palace operation that the U.S. wanted.
In the book, I discuss the National Security Council, which the U.S. government had spent a lot of time and money trying to set up and make it become an efficient organization to communicate with other branches of government and solve these national security crises that came up constantly in the war. And...
DAVIES: That's a national security council in Kabul...
DAVIES: ...An Afghan National Security Council.
PARTLOW: Yeah, the National Security Council in Afghanistan, which was - which basically mimicked the White House version of the same office. And they printed up these elaborate committee sheets and who would brief who and who would meet with who. And that all got disregarded. And people would gather in President Karzai's office or in informal settings and hash these decisions out amongst themselves when there were no Americans present. And he basically rejected the Western style of governance that was being imposed on him.
DAVIES: The other striking thing you write about in the National Security Council in Afghanistan was how many people were supposed to be employed and how many actually showed up for work.
PARTLOW: Right, yeah. There were these huge - and that happened across the government ministries. There were - there were the official roles of employees and paychecks going out the door to these people who either didn't exist or didn't show up. And that was part of the broader problem of corruption that you saw across the Afghan government. And it became the real fixation of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was how can we clean up this government? How can we make it less corrupt? And that really also set the scene for some of the greatest battles between the U.S. and Karzai's palace.
DAVIES: And how much of the salaries and other costs of the Afghan government were being underwritten by American aid?
PARTLOW: It was almost all of it. There was also other Western European countries that provided a lot of aid. But for the vast majority of the funding for the Afghan government, for their security forces, for their soldiers and police came from the U.S. government and U.S. taxpayer money. Just to give one example, the Afghan army and police force - it was more than $10 billion a year just to pay for their weapons, their trucks, their uniforms, their food. Everything they needed to operate came from the United States.
DAVIES: Joshua Partlow's book is "A Kingdom Of Their Own: The Family Karzai And The Afghan Disaster." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Washington Post foreign correspondent Joshua Partlow. He spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. His new book is "A Kingdom Of Their Own: The Family Karzai And The Afghan Disaster." Now, corruption was a huge issue. And let's talk about how the brothers of President Karzai figured into that picture. There are some interesting characters, one of them, Mahmoud, who you describe as the Afghan Donald Trump. Tell us about him.
PARTLOW: Right. He has a very enormous personality. He's - he's a talker. He has no filter. He'll say whatever he wants. And he also has these extraordinarily ambitious business projects. So he had been - had run restaurants in the United States and then moved back to Afghanistan. And his first big idea was to build a gated city in Kandahar, which is a dirt - you know, dirt poor desert farming community, extremely harsh conditions, houses made of mud, pretty rudimentary in a lot of cases, most people live in poverty.
And his idea was basically to replicate a subdivision from suburban Virginia or from suburban - in the Bay Area in California where he had lived and turn Afghanistan into this modern country that he hoped it could be. And he had received $3 million from the U.S. government to get this project off the ground, even though there were a lot of problems with his proposal and they had not raised enough money on their own to get it going, and plus the land was owned by the Afghan Ministry of Defense, which nobody was quite clear about at the beginning when it started. But so he put this grand project into motion, and he actually completed it and - until there was eventual struggles over the ownership of the project and the ownership of the land.
DAVIES: And this development called Aino Mina, you say like an American subdivision. Do you mean like with swimming pools and landscaping and nice houses?
PARTLOW: Yeah. It had a very Western, modern look. There were granite countertops in the kitchens. There were - there was regular trash pickup at the houses. There were swimming pools, manmade lakes, hotels, mosques, hospitals. It was a city in essence. Mahmoud had driven me around the subdivision at one point, and he was pointing out fountains that were in the median in one of the main highways. And he said he'd been in Rome, and he'd seen this fountain. And so he wanted to replicate it, and some of the apartment buildings he said had - were based on the ones in Concord, Calif., where he had lived before. So this was truly a product of his own imagination.
DAVIES: Yeah, and we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. I mean, no ordinary developer gets something like this. He was connected. Was there a market? Did people - could people afford the houses? Did they move in?
PARTLOW: People did move in. It was ultimately - he had built some of the houses to be low-income housing and he said that he wanted to cater to all the people of Kandahar and give them an opportunity to live inside here. But it ultimately turned out to be housing for the elite, the wealthy, the politically connected, including plenty of allegations of drug money being used to buy the houses or drug traffickers themselves.
It also became a place as the Taliban became more violent and Kandahar became a place where people moved because it was safer. And so the demand for these houses went way up as the war got more violent in, you know, the period around 2010, 2011, 2012 because he had plenty of police and security guards, and it was a gated community. So it was walled off to some degree from the violence outside.
DAVIES: So this is Mahmoud, a brother of the president. He was also involved in the scandal involving the Kabul Bank. This is a complicated story, but did he cheat? Did he make a fortune here?
PARTLOW: Yeah. This is a complicated story, but the short answer is yes. He took millions of dollars in loans from this bank that - and there was no intention or expectation that these loans would be paid back. He had told me at one point Kabul Bank was his dream business, and you could see why. It was a piggy bank of money for the politically connected and the wealthy in Afghanistan. It was set up by another businessman who had lived in Dubai and moved to Afghanistan.
And the idea was to take in - the way the bank actually worked was that it would take in depositors' money and loan that money out to the wealthy businessman in Afghanistan so they could jumpstart whatever other businesses or projects they had going. So Mahmoud used Kabul Bank to help finance a cement plant that he owned. He used the money for other business ventures in Afghanistan and that was common. The vice president's brother did the same thing, and several of the most prominent important Afghan businessmen used this bank in that way. And the bank ultimately came crashing down. And he was caught up in the repercussions of that.
DAVIES: So Mahmoud Karzai, the president's brother comes, makes a fortune on a variety of deals some of them enveloped in scandal. Let's talk about one other brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. He is in some ways the most interesting. Tell us about him.
PARTLOW: Yeah. He was an amazing figure. He was, in some ways, the most powerful of the Karzai brothers. He had been alongside the president early on. He had moved to Kandahar at the beginning of the war. He had worked closely with the U.S. Special Forces, with the CIA as they're setting up their bases in Kandahar to...
DAVIES: And let's just explain. Kandahar is a southern province which is the kind of ancestral home of the Karzai family, right?
PARTLOW: Right. Yeah. He had moved to Kandahar which was the ancestral home of the Taliban and was the - also the hometown of the Karzai family. And it was the place where both the Taliban and the U.S. military really fought for control over the course of the war. He had moved there with President Karzai in the first days after the Taliban were pushed from power. And he worked closely with the CIA and the U.S. Special Forces. He was the - a right-hand man for them to find fighters to join their militias that would work with the CIA to pursue Taliban targets. He was constantly providing intelligence. He was on the CIA payroll for the duration of his life more than a decade in the war.
At the same time, Ahmed Wali was at the center of allegations about being in control of a drug empire in Kandahar. He was accused of being the kingpin figure who presided over a vast heroin-shipping operation in Afghanistan and using that money to bolster the president's political popularity or pay off friends and rivals.
So when I was in Afghanistan that question about whether he was our friend or our enemy was central for the U.S. military and a lot of effort was spent investigating his personal life, his business life to try to find evidence that he was involved in the drug trade and that there would be justification for kicking him out of Afghanistan.
DAVIES: Ahmed Wali Karzai had a lot of businesses that made a lot of money, but he also had a - an unofficial but very powerful political role in the province, right? He wasn't the governor, but he ran things, right?
PARTLOW: Right. His official title was - he was the head of the Kandahar provincial council. But in reality, he was the most powerful man in Southern Afghanistan across several provinces.
DAVIES: Joshua Partlow's book is "A Kingdom Of Their Own: The Family Karzai And The Afghan Disaster." After a break, he'll tell us about some bitter feuds and rivalries within the Karzai family and the murder of one of its most powerful members. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Washington Post foreign correspondent Joshua Partlow. He was in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012 when President Obama was sending more U.S. military forces and civilian aid to stem alarming gains the Taliban had made in the country. Partlow's new book looks at President Hamid Karzai and his huge family, including many brothers who were powerful figures in the country. some deeply involved in the corruption spawned by the infusion of American dollars. Partlow's book is "A Kingdom Of Their Own."
The United States put a lot of effort into fighting corruption. They brought in investigators, a DEA agent named Kirk Meyer and some Army folks that were determined to investigate these figures, make arrests. And, of course, they made their case to President Karzai that this was terrible, it was undermining his authority, it was undermining the war. How did the president react?
PARTLOW: The president was furious. He saw these corruption investigations ultimately as an attack on his palace, as a way to weaken him in Afghanistan, to ultimately drive him from the palace. It was a - you know, it was a paranoid reading of events, I think. But these corruption investigators really took this problem personally.
Kirk Meyer, you mentioned, was a DEA agent who ran a group called the Afghan Threat Finance Cell inside the U.S. embassy. And initially it had been set up to cut off the funding for the Taliban. But quickly their investigations shifted to the Afghan government, to cabinet members, to Karzai's palace and family and inner circle. And he had all these tools and an Afghan police team working for him, and they had wiretapping. And they would - they started to understand more about where the U.S. taxpayer money was going and who was stealing it.
And they became infuriated, I think, both with the scope of the problem - and Kirk Meyer, in particular - and others who worked for them - he took it very personally. He saw this as taxpayer money that was being stolen right in front of their eyes. And he was willing to do anything he needed to do to stop it. And he set up a series of raids and investigations which culminated in the arrest of a man you mentioned, Mohammed Zia Salehi, who who was an aide in Karzai's palace. And he had worked with the CIA and had been involved in payments to supporters of the government. And he kind of worked in a behind-the-scenes, shadowy role. And ultimately, the - he was arrested inside his home. And President Karzai was infuriated, and he threatened to send Afghan troops to free him. It was another one of the fights between him and the U.S. government that really undercut this relationship.
DAVIES: And, of course, the U.S. investigators felt that, look, if we can arrest somebody, if we can charge them and make it stick, it will send a signal throughout the country that this kind - this stuff is over and that we're going to run things fair and square. What happened to this guy who was arrested, Salehi? Did it stick?
PARTLOW: No, it didn't stick. So a few hours after he went to prison, President Karzai ordered him to be freed. And the Afghan attorney general sent the order, and he was taken out of the American-run prison where he was being held. Beyond that, then Karzai issued a series of orders that prevented these U.S.-run Afghan teams from investigating corruption cases. They made it much more difficult for them to do their work. He ultimately did - he hadn't been paying much attention, to be honest, to the work of these groups before this arrest. But afterwards, he made it much more difficult for the Americans to pursue these types of cases.
And it was at the same time, incidentally, where the U.S. military really got involved in Afghan anti-corruption work. So at the same time as Karzai's decided he's going to shut this stuff down, whole other operations and teams get going to try to make him investigate the very same things that he's now opposed to accepting. So I think for the American anti-corruption investigators in Afghanistan, the whole experience was very - left them very embittered ultimately because they felt that the U.S. government and Washington didn't do enough to back up their warnings, basically. They felt that the U.S. government should have cut off some of the aid to Karzai's palace and that would be the only way that he would take this message seriously and that he would do anything about the corruption problem.
But to preserve whatever was left of the already tattered relationship, no one in Washington was willing to take that step. This was after all our ally in Afghanistan, and this is the government we had helped set up to try to fight the Taliban. And so we - they were - nobody was willing to go that far to actually weaken the government that we were there to work with.
DAVIES: When these investigators did their work, what did they learn about the scale of the corruption, how much U.S. aid might be siphoned off to corrupt activities, payoffs?
PARTLOW: They were stunned. People who'd studied corruption professionally described it to me as the first live kleptocracy they'd ever seen. There were tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars leaving the country on commercial airplane flights and gold bars. I mean, there was money flying out the door faster than anyone could keep track of it. The Kabul Bank scandal, which we talked about, ended up costing hundreds of millions of dollars and required a bailout that was ultimately American money and donor money to pay for. So we were paying for billions of dollars that were ultimately being stolen.
DAVIES: As much as 50 percent of the American aid was - what? - leaking into the corruption?
PARTLOW: Yeah, estimates as high as 50 percent of American aid was being squandered or stolen.
DAVIES: Ahmed Wali was murdered by somebody he knew. Do we know what it was about?
PARTLOW: Ahmed Wali was murdered by his closest lieutenant, his right-hand man, a man named Sardar Mohammed, who had been a bodyguard for the Karzai family. He'd been - he'd guarded an elder brother's home and cars. He'd guarded the family cemetery. He had - he held one of those hybrid rolls which was part militiaman, part Afghan policeman. And he was - he commanded a couple of hundred men in Kandahar, and he was accused of assassinations on Ahmed Wali's behalf.
And he ultimately walked into Ahmed Wali's home one afternoon in July of 2011 while Ahmed Wali was greeting his guests on the couch and asked for a private word in a back room and then shot Ahmed Wali pointblank. And there were a lot of explanations for why that was. I think the most likely explanation to me is that he had - Ahmed Wali had taken away a lot of his influence as a militia commander. He had lost control of certain checkpoints.
But there were also allegations that the CIA had killed Ahmed Wali. That was something that the - Pakistan's intelligence chief had told President Karzai directly that the CIA was responsible for the death. That was something I never really believed because Ahmed Wali had worked so closely with the CIA and was such an asset to them. There were other allegations that it - the dispute had to do with a rivalry over a woman or because he was molesting young boys. There were plenty of stories about him. But ultimately, Ahmed Wali was betrayed by one of his closest allies.
DAVIES: Before we leave the story of Ahmed Wali, I mean, one of the fascinating points that you make about the Karzai family, I mean, these were - there were brothers who made a fortune from their connections to the president. But in the larger family, there were rivalries that led to violence at times - you know, murders and retaliation.
PARTLOW: That's right. You know some of the worst most critical comments I heard about the Karzai's came from other members of the family, and this was a family that was divided. And what I concluded after doing this research was the course of the war, the infusion of so much money into Afghanistan and their rivalry for money and power really tore this family apart in a similar way that it tore Afghanistan apart.
It was a personal tragedy for many members of the Karzai family as they were pitted against each other for control of that country. There's one story that we used down through the generations of the Karzai's starting decades back when an uncle of the president was murdered by another member of the Karzai family, and his son devotes his life to avenging that murder. And that creates a series of killings over the years that sucks in the U.S. military and becomes on a minute level an illustration of how the U.S. military often got involved in these personal feuds and tribal disputes.
DAVIES: Joshua Partlow's book is "A Kingdom Of Their Own." Its about the Karzai family in Afghanistan. We'll talk some more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Washington Post foreign correspondent Joshua Partlow. He has a new book called "A Kingdom Of Their Own" about his time in Afghanistan with the Karzai family. You also note that in some respects, the Americans were having to relearn the country again and again because commanders and diplomats would rotate in and out so often.
PARTLOW: That's right. It was - there's a joke that it wasn't a 10-year war. It was 10 one-year wars. And that - there was - there were grains of truth to that. Every summer the - many of the diplomats in the U.S. Embassy would rotate out. The soldiers would be on one-year rotation. So all this institutional memory that would get built up over the course of someone's tour would then - it would then go back to zero and people would start learning the name of the provinces again, and they would start, you know, learning the basic facts about Afghanistan. And that was something that I saw a repetition of - of Americans investigating and thinking about the same questions that they'd spent months earlier debating and trying to find an answer to, and they would start back at the beginning again.
DAVIES: You know, it's fascinating because when I read this, you see the Americans coming in, you know, in good faith thinking they're there to defeat the Taliban and build relationships with the Afghan population. But these ethnic conflicts and tribal relations are so complicated, and they don't always get them. And it leads them to - blundering into mistakes or being manipulated into settling a personal grudge with U.S. military force. And it made me wonder that as you spent time there and spent time with these players and got to know them, do you feel - did you feel at times you knew more than the American military commanders about the country and what they needed to know?
PARTLOW: That's an interesting question. I feel like I had access to certain information that most diplomats, for example, or maybe commanders wouldn't know just because I was spending so much time with Afghans as a lot of the journalists there were. And the Karzai's are great for that. Also they speak English. You can - they can explain things to you in a way that, you know, if you're learning through translation, it's - a lot gets lost. And so yeah, I became very familiar with their political rivals, how things worked on the ground that I don't think you got that nuance if you were sitting in an air-conditioned office in Kandahar Airfield.
DAVIES: You talked to American military personnel a lot. Did you ever feel like telling them, look, you don't get this?
PARTLOW: There's a story that I thought was funny that I heard. There was an American general who - there was a killing that was this horrible atrocity that took place where an American sergeant went out and killed maybe 16 Afghans in a village, and he was later convicted - Sergeant Bales. And the general in Kandahar at the time was distraught over this, the American general. And he had asked the Qayum Karzai, one of the elder brothers, you know, how should I deal with this? How would an Afghan deal with this situation? Should I give the families - the victims' families money? Should I buy them livestock? And those were all practices that were common when the U.S. military would inflict some collateral damage.
And what Qayum Karzai said is you can't do it the way we would do it because we would give them a daughter. You know, we would trade a daughter to another tribe or family, and then, you know - and those types of customs were so foreign and so sometimes you talked to the Karzai's and you'd think I'm just like you. We both have this experience in the United States. But then there were the other aspects of Afghan culture that were so different, and were lost on a lot of Americans.
DAVIES: You're no longer in Afghanistan. You're in Mexico City now, right?
PARTLOW: Yeah. That's right.
DAVIES: What's your sense of where Afghanistan's headed and where American policy is headed?
PARTLOW: I'm really worried about what's going on now. I think the situation is a lot worse than it was even a couple of years ago. The Taliban's much stronger. They control more of the country. They're surrounding the major cities. It seems like the Afghan government basically only rules the cities now and the rural areas are the domain of the Taliban.
At the same time, the government's a lot weaker than it used to be. There's been a fragile ethnic coalition for the last couple of years that have tried to rule the country with a Pashtun president and a Tajik chief executive. And there are lots of strains on that relationship and threats that that government will fall apart. So I think the situation is much more precarious than it was even a couple of years ago.
DAVIES: You know, when you look at the story of Hamid Karzai in power, you see, you know, a leader who didn't have an interest in the military campaigns that the Americans were trying to run, tended to oppose and complain about American activities, tolerated enormous corruption within his government. And yet you write that a lot of people who found him so frustrating still regard him very fondly. What's your sense of him as a man and as a leader, his place in Afghan history?
PARTLOW: I developed more respect for him than I initially had when I got to Afghanistan. And he impressed me in several ways. I thought he was a real patriot, a nationalist leader and a man who ultimately cared about the suffering of Afghans and their well-being. And that was driving to a large degree his opposition to the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
I think he became paranoid about the U.S. role, particularly in the latter years. He started believing lots of conspiracy theories about what the U.S. government was up to. And I think he - what started out as opposition turned into something far darker and farther away from reality.
But I think his ultimate goal, the way I saw it, was to keep the ethnic groups of Afghanistan from reverting to civil war. I think what he considered the worst and most dangerous period of Afghan history was the civil war years of the early '90s, after the Soviets had withdrawn, when there were rockets in the streets of Kabul and widespread damage and refugees flooding out of the country. And I think he was willing to overlook a lot of other crimes if he could keep the warlords and the regional strongmen from fighting against each other. So he would let his friend or let some militia commander be in charge of an Afghan ministry. And if they stole half the budget, well, that was better than that person using their artillery to fight their rival. So I think he had different goals than the United States, and that was - and different interests - and that was the source of a lot of the problems.
DAVIES: Well, Joshua Partlow, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PARTLOW: Thank you. It's been great to be here.
DAVIES: Joshua Partlow is a foreign correspondent who's now the Mexico City bureau chief for The Washington Post. His book about Afghanistan is "A Kingdom Of Their Own." Coming up, Ed Ward tells the story of the earliest Beach Boys recordings. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.