The Men Who Run Afghanistan

“Engineer Ibrahim’s word carries more weight in the government than anyone else’s—sometimes maybe even more than the president’s,” one former longtime aide to Karzai explained to me. Spinzada’s friendship with Karzai goes back decades, the aide said, and Spinzada was at Karzai’s side in the days following 9/11. “There is nobody closer to the president—not even his own brothers, his own family.”

On paper, Spinzada—a lanky, balding, and bespectacled former aid worker—is the deputy national security adviser, but in reality he is much more than that. His second-floor office in the library-like headquarters of the National Security Council handles Karzai’s most secretive projects. But even inside the NSC, he is more of a myth; he never attends departmental meetings, depending instead on a small staff of confidantes—mainly Mohammed Zia Salehi, the NSC’s financial chief and onetime Situation Room director—to carry out these tasks. For years, Spinzada served as Karzai’s deputy intelligence chief, operating out of the presidential palace rather than the intelligence agency. He remains the president’s liaison with foreign intelligence services and controls one of the two slush funds the president relies on for paying off lawmakers and local strongmen (the other is overseen by Karzai’s chief of staff). He led efforts to incorporate senior Taliban leaders into the government in the early days of Karzai’s administration, and he is still seen as the man facilitating Karzai’s contacts with the Taliban. His office has managed the release of Guantánamo prisoners in the past, and he visited the U.S. detention center in 2012 to speak to the five Taliban commanders recently exchanged for U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

A “benign character, but also shrewd,” Spinzada is “extremely loyal, highly secretive, and remains away from the public politics,” said the Karzai aide. In local and international media, and even on the Internet, there is only one picture of him, posted by the website of the Qatari emir when Spinzada delivered Karzai’s letter to him regarding peace talks with the Taliban. Even in the WikiLeaks files, a treasure trove of gossip by cabinet ministers behind Karzai’s back, there is little about Spinzada. Still, there are a couple of exchanges that offer a glimpse into his thinking, which seems to be in the same pragmatic, secular vein as Karzai’s. “Islam and politics are an explosive mix,” he told U.S. officials, according to one cable. “We like a strong Iran, as it helps keep Saudi Arabia in check,” he said at another point.

A former cabinet minister told me that Spinzada’s main talent is remaining under the radar. “Every leader invents such a character—it gives deniability,” the minister explained.

As Karzai’s presidency draws to a close, all these men are maneuvering for life after him. Spanta and Spinzada helped shape electoral tickets that vied to replace Karzai in the 2014 election. (Spanta supported Karzai’s older brother, Qayum, who dropped out in favor of Zalmai Rassoul, who in turn was backed by Spinzada and ultimately finished third in the first round of voting.) The vice-presidential candidate for Abdullah Abdullah, who faced Ashraf Ghani in a runoff election earlier this month, has said that Daudzai will likely keep his powerful post as interior minister if his ticket emerges victorious. As for figures like General Raziq in the south—one of the young strongmen Karzai and the U.S. military have empowered over the past decade—they will be a reality that Afghanistan’s next leader will contend with, no matter who that man is.

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Mujib Mashal is an Afghan writer based in Kabul.

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