In Defense of Hamid Karzai

Discussion of the problems created by tribalism in Afghanistan often provokes from our own compatriots such outraged responses as, “Hey, who are we Americans to talk? We have our share of tribes too!” There’s no arguing with that. Here at home we’ve got the Bible-thumping cracker tribe, the latte-sipping liberal tribe and dozens more, all of which have to be catered to by the political process. To me though, the most useful American parallel to Afghan tribalism goes back to 1491—before the first European sail appeared off these virgin shores.

Tribal America

Pre-Columbian America was tribal from sea to shining sea. From the Mohicans to the Seminole to the Crow and the Apache, the land was a patchwork of warring, competing kin groups. Some, like the Iroquois and the Sioux, could be legitimately called nations; they were families and clans and sub-tribes united by ethnic/racial lineage and confederated, at least loosely, into a political whole. Like Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks, you could tell one from the other just by looking at them.

They were strong, they were free, they proud and virile and autonomous. But there was one thing they weren’t.

They weren’t a nation.

Could they ever have been? Can the Afghans be today? At least our Native American tribes were safe behind the Atlantic and the Pacific. Unlike the Afghans, their land was not the gateway to India or to Central Asia. They didn’t have to worry about superpowers vying in great games to turn their territory to the power’s own advantage.

Sympathy for the devil

Which brings us to this week’s Afghan elections. There was a very interesting article by Elizabeth Rubin in the August 9 New York Times Sunday magazine, titled “Karzai in His Labyrinth.” What the piece highlighted, at least to my reading, was the monumental barrier to true Afghan nationhood (the same one we would have seen in pre-European America): the political void between the tribes and a central unifying government.

Many have tried to fill this gap. Afghanistan has struggled under external invaders and conquerors, homegrown royal families; it had Communism for a while; then warlordism; then Talibanism. Now it’s got Hamid Karzai and us. I must say my heart went out to the Afghan president, reading Ms. Rubin’s article. I believe he’s a good man in an impossible situation. Consider Karzai’s plight. He has no real power in terms of guns or constituency. He has no militia loyal to him (unlike Dostum, Fahim or Hekmatyar), no great personal fortune, no vast landholdings. He has no religious or moral mandate as, say, his hero Gandhi did. What he had, once, was the favor of the Western powers, but now even that is deserting him. He’s trying to hold the country together with baling wire and bubble gum. He could probably do it too, the Afghan way, if the West would back off and let him. I salute him. He’s doing the best he can. From Elizabeth Rubin’s article:

“His father was head of the tribe, and in tribal culture you depend on loyalty of individuals rather than institutions,” says Ali Jalai, his former interior minister and a friend from refugee days in Pakistan. “You always try to be a patron to people close and loyal to you.” [Karzai] cherishes the values of democracy but has no faith in its institutions. “How he reconciles these competing demands creates his style of leadership,” Jalai said. In reality, said another friend, “he sees human rights, freedom of the press, the law, the constitution as chains around his hands and legs.”

Under pressure from the West, Karzai ousted from Kandahar Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, “probably the country’s most infamous drug trafficker.” What happened? The Taliban took over. Karzai has brought onto his ticket (the “warlord ticket”) Muhammad Fahim to bring in the Tajiks, the Uzbek warlord Adbul Rashid Dostum for his homies, and the Hazara politician Muhammad Mahaqiq to deliver those ethnic and tribal votes.

The West calls this corruption. Is it? What Karzai is up against is the Great Void between the tribes and the Kabul government. He’s filling it the most efficient way he can—with supertribal commanders, who can deliver the tribesmen and tribal contingents under them. What else can he do? He has had to accommodate everything, he says.

Everything, everything, everything! I had to balance the U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan. I had to balance other countries in here. I had to balance Europe. I had to balance the Muslim world. I had to make Afghanistan a country where all work together for it. And that I have managed. Fortunately. But, you know, at great personal stress and cost.

The other candidate seeking to fill this political void is of course the Taliban. They’ve done it before. We saw what that produced. The Taliban want again to be the super-tribe, the uber-tribe that can deliver a true national unity.

What is the missing link?

Afghanistan beyond the cities, it seems, is constituted of three political levels: the tribes in the villages, the central government in Kabul and the Great Void in between. What mechanism, what process might with legitimacy bridge this gap? Tribal confederacies have been tried before. They’ve worked before—just not for long. Loya jirgas have been convened, as one was when Karzai originally took office, with representatives from the vast patchwork of tribes that is Afghanistan. Could that work?

My guess is that, if any form of linkage ever does fill this void, it will be idiosyncratic and uniquely Afghan. It will be some hybrid form of governance—partly tribal, partly democratic, with no small measure of feudalism and cronyism thrown in. It will almost certainly require an international presence, for a long time, to serve as an honest broker, preventing some single tribal or ethnic element from dominating all others. This eventual government will probably be something that we in the West will find messy, corrupt and incomprehensible. But maybe it’ll work. Maybe it will stabilize Afghanistan long enough for peace and security to reach the people.

Oh, for wise Chief Seattle

It may help us Americans to try to imagine our native tribes struggling to put together the same thing. If we shrunk down our pre-Columbian borders to the size of Texas and crammed them full of competing tribes and nations, could these groups have gotten it together? Would the Lakota have cared what the Onondaga thought? Could the Kiowa have aligned their interests with the Crow? Now add superpowers on all sides, each with their own competing agenda. Could this crazy-quilt conglomeration find a way to come together as a nation?

That’s what Hamid Karzai is trying to pull off. Can we blame him if he’s coming a little unpeeled?



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  1. historyguy99 on August 24, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Great Post!

    You have an Interesting post that points out the differences between Afghanistan and Pre-Columbian tribal America, but there are many similarities. North America came to the attention of the Europeans because their territory was in the way of finding a route to Asia, and North American tribes did have to worry about the superpowers of the day, France, England and Spain vying for domination over trade, land and culture.

    The French, and later the English tried to find the middle ground or “Pays d’en haut” in an attempt to keep the various tribal factions at peace and open to trade with the Europeans without encroachment on their tribal lands. This all came to naught when the citizens of the new United States moved west and dislodged the tribes, eventually disarming and disabling their tribal autonomy.

    Afghanistan is a good example of what North America might be like today, without outside settlers.

    A good book that discusses the efforts of the superpowers of those days to engineer a peaceful co-existence with Native Americans, is Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Studies in North American Indian History)

  2. Daniel on August 24, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for your insightful commentary. I came upon your blog by reading your book “The War of Art” and I must say I have only the highest respect for your intelligent postings. Thanks for sharing your opinion with us.

  3. Jay Taber on August 24, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Using the Iroquois and Sioux as examples of original nations, it wasn’t necessary nor arguably desirable to have a centralized government in order to function effectively, let alone democratically. Cooperation among the sixty some tribes of the Coast Salish nation inside Vancouver Island on environmental restoration, evidently, is succeeding where the EPA and Environment Canada failed. As you observe, modern states can still learn something from tribes and First Nations.

  4. David Heyl on August 24, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    A good article putting some light on the reality of Karzai’s situation. But we (US Gov, NATO and the press) put unrealistic expectations and restraints on him. The academics and our government organs constantly chant we need to “respect” other cultures, to the point of dismissing our own. But really it is just talk, and we act like we can simply mold or change other cultures and reality at whim.

    You correctly cite as a principal problem the lack of unification, the patchwork of tribes. But it looks like we haven’t used the once unifying fear/distaste of the Taliban (and USSR invasion) properly to build upon something bigger in the void you mention than just returning to the local warlords and continued tribalism (I realize all of this is much easier said than done). We used the American revolution to build something bigger than our local tribes (colonies), although it took the civil war to unify us (remember Lee, etc..) nationally. And we had a few centuries of British/English nationalism behind us. Instead of such a focus on the national army (which seems successful) and police force (one of the biggest corruption problems, as always is in the lower than first tier countries), more emphasis on local and province level militias with emphasis on citizen building via the tribal structures would have helped (Ronderos-Peru). At least to get that level functioning, and then to cooperate with each other in a “intranational” manner would have seemed enough of a goal for several decades.

    But you must also look at the paltry levels of economic programs spent versus the military expenses. You don’t want the drugs grown, nor unrest because of the antidrug programs, don’t attack the life blood of the family and tribe (and warlord), just compete by paying double or triple the price for whatever other crop. Plan to sustain the economy for a couple of decades, gradually decreasing the support as the rest of the economy grows.

    In closing I really enjoy your video series and blog. Remember tribes can only act in a unified manner for relatively short periods of time, especially if the opponent acts sagely, buying off some while defeating others in turn (Cesar, Cortez, Pizarro).

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