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.

“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.