The Men Who Run Afghanistan

A mellowed academic, a ruthless general, a shadowy spy: Inside Hamid Karzai's inner circle
Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta watches President Hamid Karzai at a press briefing in New Delhi. (Findlay Kember/Reuters)

Over the past 12 years, Hamid Karzai has relied on several trusted operatives to govern a fragmented country. The outgoing Afghan president has centralized power in his office, often bypassing government institutions in favor of informal networks that he’s developed across the country. Largely confined to the walls of Karzai’s palace in Kabul, it was these men—and their diverse ideologies and backgrounds—that influenced the president’s outlook and helped shape the Afghanistan that he leaves behind.

On big-picture politics, Karzai has turned to Rangin Dadfar Spanta, his national security adviser, and Mohammed Umer Daudzai, his longtime chief of staff and current interior minister. Spanta is a now-mellowed academic with a leftist past (a “revolutionary past,” in his own words). He was a vocal critic of the president’s softness toward warlords—whose religious and social conservatism clashed with his “social democrat, secular” values—before he joined them in the government. Spanta told me his life is a “paradox” now. Despite having a senior role in Karzai’s administration, he often criticizes government policies in private and academic circles, and continues to write for local papers under a pen name. This tendency to speak out, he says, has complicated his otherwise “close friendship” with Karzai. “We easterners expect a kind of unnecessary loyalty from personal friendships,” Spanta explained. “How do you balance between criticism and loyalty?”

A soft-spoken former aid worker, Daudzai served as the president’s liaison to the many warlords and strongmen he had to keep in check—both to ensure stability and to secure his reelection in 2009. While Daudzai was once associated with the conservative Hizb-e-Islami party, the 56-year-old, who holds a master’s degree in development studies from Oxford, is more pragmatic in his worldview. When Karzai made an ultimately unsuccessful push for reconciliation with the Taliban in 2011, he dispatched Daudzai as his ambassador to Pakistan. To express his displeasure with the Americans, who tried to oust him during his 2009 reelection campaign, Karzai replaced Daudzai as chief of staff with Abdul Karim Khurram, a conservative former culture minister with an anti-American reputation.

Until his assassination in 2011 at the hand of a friend, the president’s younger half-brother, Ahmed Wali, along with a generation of young but hardened leaders who blur civilian-military lines, served as Karzai’s powerbrokers in the volatile south, where the Taliban movement originated in the 1990s. After Ahmed Wali’s death, that responsibility first shifted to Asadullah Khalid, the rakish one-time governor of Kandahar who later became Karzai’s intelligence chief, and then the 35-year-old Brigadier General Abdul Raziq Achakzai, the Kandahar police chief who is now a regional powerhouse largely due to his allegedly ruthless methods against the Taliban as well as his rivals. On security matters, Karzai also relies on General Mohammad Ayub Salangi, a police chief of several key provinces over the past decade and now his deputy interior minister. Salangi was one of the Northern Alliance commanders who received the relatively unknown Karzai at Bagram airbase in 2001 when he arrived as the leader of Afghanistan’s interim government. Unsure of Karzai intentions for Afghanistan, Salangi performed an istikhara prayer—a ritual in which supplicants seek guidance from Allah on a matter they are unsure of, and then supposedly receive an answer in a dream.

“I dreamt that Karzai—his waist was tied with an apple-flower kerchief—was channeling water to the base of a tree. Its branches were dead, but its roots alive,” Salangi told me. “After the dream, I pledged to be at his side.”

Karzai walks with aides, including General Mohammad Ayub Salangi (left), at his presidential palace in Kabul. (Lorenzo Tugnoli)

But among all these advisers, there is one man who has been indispensable to Karzai over the last 12 years—and the extent of his influence is largely unknown except to a small circle in the government who dub him “the shadow Karzai.” After the president, Ibrahim Spinzada, or “Engineer Ibrahim” as he is known, is one of the most influential men in Afghanistan.

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Mujib Mashal is an Afghan writer based in Kabul.

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