Benito Mussolini might have been speaking about the Afghans when he said of his countrymen, “It’s not impossible to govern Italians, it’s useless”. British, Russian and American efforts to impose effective rule over Afghanistan’s plains have brought only devastation to both governors and governed. Yet the Americans, despite a formal end to combat operations, persist in the Sisyphean struggle to bring their version of stability to the country.
Joshua Partlow, who covered the American war in Afghanistan for the Washington Post, has produced a book that is a cut above the usual journalistic fare of “I watched in horror as …”. The author is as sensitive to Afghan culture and history as he is to the difficulties faced by bewildered fellow Americans who have been thrust into a society they do not understand. This well-written investigation navigates the poisonous relationship between the United States and its ostensible client family, the Karzais, with sympathy for both.
The Karzai story itself merits an Afghan Cavalleria rusticana. In this version, the six sons of the Pashtun tribal chief Abdul Ahad Karzai go into exile when the Russians invade. Some take up arms against the foreigner, while others find fortune in far-off America. All return to claim their inheritance when soldiers from their adopted homeland drive out their enemies and instal one of their number, Hamid, as president. Hamid’s ingratitude perplexes his sponsors, and mutual animosity between him and the Americans plays out against a war that bleeds his country while enriching him and his brothers. All the while, another drama, of family vendetta, is unfolding…
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Main image: Hamid Karzai (left) speaks to a Hazara leader, Kabul, 2007 © Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images