Afghan Biographies

Karzai Family

Name Karzai Family
Ethnic backgr. Pashtun
Date of birth
Function/Grade Structure of the Karzai Family
History and Biodata

The Karzai family’s rise to power was facilitated by the U.S. but it also owes much to the Karzai family’s mastery of political tactics and intrigue. In more recent years, the Karzai family has benefited from using the institutions of the Afghan state to its advantage, and in doing so, has formed important synergies linking politics in Kandahar and Kabul.

Generally, the four brothers who have led the family since 2001 – President Hamid Karzai, his older brothers Qayum and Mahmoud, and his younger half-brother Ahmed Wali – have presented a united front on significant political issues. Each of the four plays a different role and directs a distinct sphere of the family’s activity, but unity and some degree of coordination are maintained. Occasionally, hints of tensions, including between Hamid Karzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai, emerge. Thus, in December 2001, when Mahmoud and Qayum joined Hamid and Ahmed Wali in Afghanistan, the family was well positioned to make an informal division of spheres, such that each brother had his own arena in which to act. Hamid took the role of the great statesman, Mahmoud built a business empire, Ahmed Wali built an empire in Kandahar, and Qayum quietly manipulated things behind the scenes as the family’s éminence grise.

The key to understanding the actions of the Karzai family is an understanding of the terms in which it conceives of its interests. Ahmed Wali Karzai’s actions in Kandahar generally appear an ambitious pursuit of self-interest narrowly conceived. But for the Karzai family there does seem to be a more complicated conception of interests, shaped both by perception of threats to the family and to political order in Afghanistan, by which the family’s pursuit of its own goals is an element of a broader grand strategy for the Afghan state.

Starting in late 2002, a pattern of behavior from Ahmed Wali Karzai demonstrated a coherent strategy for Kandahar, in which ordering the province’s politics and advancing family interests were identified as mutually supporting goals. There is evidence that the strategy was coordinated with Qayum Karzai, and through him with elements of the Karzai inner-circle. Ahmed Wali Karzai’s approach to Kandahar is well summarized by his words to a reporter in 2009: “This is a country ruled by kings. The king’s brothers, cousins, sons are all powerful. This is Afghanistan. It will change but it will not change overnight.”

Ahmed Wali Karzai understood that the competing power interests in southern Afghanistan required that local commanders be managed, co-opted, and restrained by the state. This accorded with the historical patterns by which central governments exercised authority over Afghanistan. No groups could be allowed to be too strong, or too independent of the government. Ahmed Wali Karzai assumed for himself the role of manager in Kandahar.

In 2006, Hamid Karzai summoned the U.S. Ambassador and CIA and MI6 station chiefs in Kabul to ask if they had hard evidence of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s involvement in the drug trade. But these officials did not produce conclusive evidence, and Hamid has ultimately defended his brother’s role in Kandahar, displaying a solidarity unlikely to be broken. Ahmed Wali Karzai and Mahmoud Karzai repeatedly argue that exposés written about them by Western journalists are really meant as attacks against Hamid Karzai.

The solidarity that the president and his inner circle have shown towards the president’s brothers stems at least in part from a feeling that failing to support the president’s brothers would undermine President Karzai himself and be a fatal concession to foreign interference. The Karzai family at its core to be built on the shared interests and objectives of Hamid, Qayum, Ahmed Wali, and Mahmoud. Dozens of other Karzai relatives have entered Afghan politics in the past several years, and although they are important in advancing the family’s interests, these relatives are not necessarily working closely with the four leading Karzai brothers, nor do they have the same authority.

But within the Karzai family, according to reports, there has been a feeling that Hamid Karzai is not naturally inclined to deal with the rough-and-tumble power politics required to govern Afghanistan or secure the family’s interests. Hamid Karzai’s family is reported to see him as the sensitive middle brother who maintains an inclination towards idealism, reads poetry, and cries in public, and family members may feel it is incumbent upon them to more aggressively protect family interests.

Last Modified 2011-04-01
Established 2010-04-28