The South Asia Channel

Karzai’s Future and the Afghan Elections

Afghan presidential elections increasingly loom near, with voting scheduled for April 5 of this year. Few events could be more important in Afghanistan. With President Hamid Karzai due to step down, after reaching his constitutional limit of two full terms, the country is approaching what political scientists say is always important in a young democracy: ...


Afghan presidential elections increasingly loom near, with voting scheduled for April 5 of this year. Few events could be more important in Afghanistan. With President Hamid Karzai due to step down, after reaching his constitutional limit of two full terms, the country is approaching what political scientists say is always important in a young democracy: the first attempt at a peaceful, constitutional transfer of power.

And believe it or not, so far, so good. Most news reaching the United States about Afghanistan is troubling, but the election campaign is going reasonably well. Though much could, of course, still go wrong, the initial period of campaigning and preparation has been fairly promising. For a country with weak political institutions, a history of conflict and assassination, a citizenry traumatized by a generation of war, and a recent history of elections marred by fraud, there are ample reasons for hopefulness right now. Of the 11 presidential candidates, all favor an ongoing close relationship with the United States and the international community in general. None are running on a sectarian agenda designed to pit one group against another internally. None propose splitting the country or dissolving the government’s institutions. And — crucially — none propose putting Karzai on trial for his various policies and other actions while in office.

This latter point is key. Five of Afghanistan’s leaders since the 1970s have been killed for political reasons, most recently former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, when the latter was appointed as the head of the country’s High Peace Council. Karzai has suffered several assassination attempts already himself, and his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was assassinated in office in Kandahar several years ago. In neighboring Pakistan, putting leaders and former leaders on trial has been a tradition going back at least to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s (hanged by his successor). Other possible precedents — from President Nicolae Ceau?escu in Romania to President Augusto Pinochet in Chile to President Alberto Fujimori in Peru — raise the question of how Karzai can assure the safety and security of himself and his family at this juncture. We do not intend to fear monger or sow anxiety with this argument. But this issue is almost surely on the president’s mind as he wonders about the upcoming transition — which he has admirably supported to date. A chief goal of policy now should be to ensure that he keeps doing so.

How can we be sure that Karzai will really have the confidence to support the upcoming election and its outcome? It is hard to know. But one possibility is to find a way for him to play a prominent role in Afghanistan even after he steps down from office.

Karzai has hardly been his country’s George Washington, Mahatma Ghandi, or Lee Kwan Yew. But he does, by all accounts, wish to be seen as the father of the new Afghanistan, and to play some elder statesman role in his country’s future. Indeed, he has already built a house for himself inside the palace with hopes that he will remain a prominent power broker. He also likely aspires to be a chief advisor to the future president — whom he undoubtedly hopes to help select, hopefully through licit rather than illicit means (that is, by campaigning for him, not ordering the stuffing of ballot boxes or the overuse of government airwaves in support of just one person).

In fact, there are a number of ways that Karzai could stay involved in and be prominent for the country, even after stepping down. He could be an emissary, perhaps with a U.N. position, focused on relations between Afghanistan (or Central/South Asia in general) and the Western world. He could preside over loya jirgas — huge but informal and unofficial gatherings that offer up ideas and guidance to the official governing powers in the palace and decide on some major national issues.

Looking down the road, however, there will come a day when there are, perhaps, several surviving former presidents of the country. Not all will simultaneously be able to run a loya jirga or take on the international role of a super-diplomat. So it may be an opportune moment to broaden the issue beyond just this year and Karzai.

Considering the fact that it will be impossible to build a house inside the palace for every outgoing president, and acknowledging the need to dispel their fears and insecurities and create assurance and stability in the power transfer process, establishing a permanent mechanism is needed. After all, in uncertain environments, the struggle to survive is often any human being’s first instinct and concern.

The best solution may be to create an entity in the form of a council of experts where outgoing presidents will automatically become members. This will be a prestigious entity and its membership will provide legal immunity (the extent of which could be decided by lawmakers), respect as a former president, and more importantly, some leverage over the state. The members will also be requested to carry out the following tasks:

1.      Advise the president on national and international issues.

2.      Moderate between the government and the parliament when needed.

3.      Help develop and propose major policies for the country. Each outgoing president will have extensive governing experience, which should be taken advantage of.

4.      Play a leading role in gatherings for national matters such as loya jirgas and so on, even if only one could be its official leader.

The council could also have a research and analysis wing whose programs will be directed by the council members. Formation of such a council could be proposed by the current presidential candidates, political parties, and civil society, as well as the parliament.

Crucially, it is best that such an idea originate in Afghanistan (and for the record, it was the Afghan member of our writing team who had the specific idea behind this op-ed). But if it is floated in the coming months, the international community should support it — as a way of reaffirming the likelihood that elections will be held this spring on schedule, and as an additional means of improving the prospects that Afghanistan’s first ever democratic transfer of power will be smooth and peaceful.

Najib Sharifi is an analyst at Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul-based think tank. He can be reached via email at 

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, located in Washington, D.C.

A former journalist, Najib Sharifi is a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul based think tank. He can be reached via
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