12.21.09

The Karzai-New York Times Feud

Another Times story on Afghanistan's first family, another angry outburst from the Afghan president's brother. Gerald Posner on why Mahmoud Karzai thinks ace reporter James Risen should move to a "socialist country."

An escalating feud between The New York Times and close kin of Afghan President Hamid Karzai heated up over the weekend, as the newspaper reported that a distant relative of the president’s had been killed—and that the man suspected of the murder is Hashmat Karzai, 40, described by the Times as “a first cousin of the president and the owner of a private security company that has close ties to the Afghan government and millions of dollars in contracts with the United States military.”

I reached Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother and a close confidante of the Afghan leadership, this morning in Kabul. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Mahmoud distanced himself from the alleged killer—indicating that Hashmat will not have the Karzai family’s support on the legal path ahead—but also took another shot at James Risen, the Times’ well-respected national security reporter and author of the story in question, charging that he and the Times had a vendetta against the Karzai family and suggesting that Risen should move to a “socialist or a communist country.”

"Mr. Risen works against capitalism any way. My advice to him is that perhaps he will be in peace with himself if he moves to a socialist or a communist country."

The feud between the Times and the Karzai clan has been brewing for months. This past October, the paper ran a front page story disclosing that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, was not only suspected of being a reputed drug lord, but had been on the CIA payroll for years. Earlier in the year, Risen had done an expose of Mahmoud—who had gone from owning several Afghan restaurants in America to becoming by some accounts the wealthiest man in Afghanistan all while his brother was the country’s president. Risen’s reporting raised serious questions about whether Mahmoud’s rise to prominence was greased by insider deals and special favors.

In midnight calls with me, the two Karzai brothers—both of whom are close to President Karzai, and were intimately involved in his recent contested election--let loose in exclusive interviews. While they energetically defended themselves against the Times reports, they also unleashed considerable venom at the Times and Risen in particular, something that Afghan watchers say would not have been possible without the approval of President Karzai, who is savvy about how his family and government are perceived by decision-makers in the West.

“We [the Karzais] are being harassed by The New York Times,” Mahmoud told me then. “This is a smear campaign. James Risen has a vendetta against us. And the Times is obviously being fed by the far-left lobbyist groups who are paying them to do this. These leftists want Afghanistan destabilized, they want the Karzais out of power so there is a vacuum, and then they can say it is such a mess that the Americans should abandon the country. This is a coordinated plan, have no doubt about it.”

Ahmed Wali also blasted the paper. “It doesn’t bother me that much because no one in Afghanistan believes what The New York Times prints anyway,” he said. “No one here gives a damn about the Times. It is discredited among the Afghan people. Everyone here knows it is against the Pashtun tribe, my family and the best interests of this country.”

The Hatfield-McCoy war between the Karzais and The New York Times was in full swing.

Yesterday, The New York Times published the next salvo, another front page story by Risen, “Killing Bares Karzai Clan Feud, and Doubts on Afghan Justice.” It was a detailed and fully reported account of the murder of Waheed Karzai, a distant cousin of the president, this past October. The man accused by other family members of the murder turns out to be another Karzai relative, Hashmat Karzai, 40, described by the Times as “a first cousin of the president and the owner of a private security company that has close ties to the Afghan government and millions of dollars in contracts with the United States military.” For his part, Hashmat told Risen “I had nothing to do with it.”

When I spoke with Mahmoud Karzai this morning, I wanted to know what the Karzai inner circle thought about the new Times report. What was clear from the get-go was that the accused killer, Hashmat Karzai, was not going to get any family support from the president’s palace in Kabul.

“Hashmat Karzai is not a good man in my opinion,” said Mahmoud. “I do not associate with Hashmat Karzai and he is not our family. He is our step cousin.” That was the equivalent of being shoved out the door of the close-knit Karzai clan.

Risen had reported that, “There has been no investigation of the shooting by the Afghan government nor any mention of it in the press.” Mahmoud was quick to address that. “The president has said that the murder of this young man is a criminal case and the courts will handle it. The Afghan prosecutors and courts shall peruse the case; after all, Hashmat Karzai is accused by the family of the deceased of the crime.” He pointed out that the victim’s family had already filed an official complaint against Hashmat in the Kandahar district.

Why hasn’t a prosecutor taken action thus far? Hashmat not been charged. “The district attorney is on vacation,” Mahmoud averred. “I am sure that the courts will call on Hashmat Karzai. Yes, there will be an investigation. I would say that the Afghan justice system needs many years of work, but cases of murders are brought to justice.”

What about the Times reporting that the murder might have been payback for an “honor killing” of Hashmat Karzai’s father nearly 30 years ago by the father of the victim? Mahmoud confirmed it was the motive. “The issue of the honor killing is true, the victim's father killed Hashmat's father about 25 years ago and Hashmat has always talked about revenge.” Although Mahmoud and Hashmat were not in touch, the story of the honor killing had passed along the Karzai generations as an infamous family tale, Mahmoud said.

The Times also said that Mahmoud’s brother, Ahmad Wali, had blocked the investigation into the murder in Kandahar, where the latter is a powerful provincial leader. While I couldn’t raise Ahmad Wali on his cellphone, Mahmoud spoke for him and used it as an opportunity to get in his digs at the Times. “Ahmad Wali is very close to the victim's family; as you know, the deceased is also a Karzai. Risen is dead wrong on this. In fact, Ahmad Wali is more friendly with the family of the victim then he is with Hashmat Karzai.”

What of the claims that Hashmat has gotten rich from U.S. military contracts? Again, Mahmoud took the question not only as a chance to bolster his own reputation but also to further attack the Times. “Hashmat made money through U.S. contracts. Risen as usual once again brought my name into every piece that he writes about Afghanistan. My work is noble, I bring investments to the country and employ people. While I invest what I made in the U.S. for the last 30 years, most others take money out of the country to Dubai or some other places. Mr. Risen works against capitalism any way. My advice to him is that perhaps he will be in peace with himself if he moves to a socialist or a communist country.” (Attempts to reach the Times for comment were unsuccessful).

The Times versus the Karzais. Washington policy makers are going to go with the paper absent convincing proof from the Karzais that something is amiss in Risen’s reporting. But it seems ironclad. Still, as the U.S. learned firsthand during the recent charges and countercharges over whether Hamid’s election was inalterably tainted by fraud, the Karzais aren’t going to sit by quietly as the stories develop.

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, on topics ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.