Is Karzai Actually a Great Leader?

Don't be too quick to condemn Afghanistan's unpredictable president to history's dustbin.

David Goldman/Pool/Getty Images
David Goldman/Pool/Getty Images

Afghan presidents historically have never gone gently into the night — they have been variously shot, poisoned, suffocated by pillows, castrated, and hanged. This has never been a job with a comfortable retirement plan.

Except this time, the very first in Afghan history, when President Hamid Karzai — constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term — will transfer power to an elected successor. That process is set to begin on April 5, when Afghans go to the polls to elect their first and only post-Taliban leader.

It’s a process that could take weeks, and more likely, months if the election goes to a runoff. It will be messy. It will be difficult. It will certainly be dangerous. But it will happen, and nothing — no amount of complaints, compromises, or Taliban attacks — can take away the historic import of this ballot.

It’s also a testimony to Karzai’s survival skills in a country where competing ethnic interests, local powerbrokers, warlords, and foreign (U.S.) overlords need to be accommodated, mollified, and occasionally faced down — without the delicate edifice crumbling into war, as it has done in the past.

"If Karzai does end his term without dying, that in itself will be historical in Afghan terms," said Graeme Smith, an author and senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "He has survived the past decade by holding together a fractious coalition of powerbrokers, many of whom have fought with each other in previous decades. He has managed to keep them on side by cajoling, economic incentives, and all kinds of trickery."

The big question though, after all these years, is whether Karzai was, in the end, a great leader. Can he even hold a candle to the regional heroes he so publicly admires, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan?

Or was he more of a Shah Shujah, a fellow Durrani noble in the 19th century, who handed the famous Kohinoor diamond to Punjab’s Maharajah Ranjit Singh, served as colonial Britain’s puppet king, and did the craven alliance-appeasement thing until his assassination?

Was Karzai’s big-tent approach of accommodating powerbrokers, for instance, simply not appreciated by his bossy foreign overlords (who are not known for their cultural intelligence or diplomatic delicacy)?

Or does Karzai’s legacy lie somewhere in between?

Nearly 13 years ago, when he emerged on the world’s stage resplendent in his striped chappan robe and signature karakul hat, Karzai bore the hopes of his war-weary people and a fretful international community on his stylishly encased shoulders with aplomb. Over the course of a decade though, the image transformed into that of a mercurial, emotionally-precarious leader isolated in the heavily guarded Arg, as the Afghan presidential palace is known.

"In the beginning, Karzai was viewed through rose-tinted glasses," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Now, there’s a very negative view of him, particularly in the West — and that’s partly unfair. He’s being blamed for things that are not just his fault — like corruption and not dealing with strongmen. In that, he and the international community and international military have a shared responsibility."

One of the better known cases of shared international responsibility involved Karzai’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a prominent politician in his native Kandahar and a suspected player in Afghanistan’s booming opium trade. In 2009 — two years before his assassination — the New York Times confirmed what many Afghans and experts suspected: the corrupt Kandahar powerbroker was getting regular payments by the CIA.

The case of Karzai’s brother was just the tip of the iceberg. A report by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University found U.S. and NATO contingents had frequently hired private security providers linked to regional warlords. On the corruption front, the international disillusionment with the Afghan president was palpable in U.S. memos from Kabul to Washington published by WikiLeaks, which detailed at least one case of Karzai pardoning Afghan officials detained for their involvement in the opium trade.

But if the honeymoon between Karzai and the West was starting to sour in the second-half of the 2000s, it was the Afghan president’s 2009 reelection bid that drove the couple to Splitsville.

A bitter post-electoral process marred by allegations of widespread fraud, recounts and investigations by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) only ended when Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff citing lack of faith in the Karzai administration’s ability to hold a fair election. "The 2009 election was seen by Karzai as an intentional humiliation of him by the West," van Bijlert said. "In the end, the way he interpreted it was that the U.S. wanted to weaken him. He took it very personally."

Nearly five years later, in his memoir, Duty, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the 2009 poll was "ugly" and that Karzai was "tainted." But Gates also noted that "our hands were dirty as well" before accusing the United States of trying to manipulate the outcome in a "clumsy and failed putsch." The reaction in Kabul circles and among Karzai’s advisors was immediate. "I’ve been emailed pages from Gates’ book by different Afghan friends, sometimes with passages in all caps," Smith said. "Afghans were paying attention to that memoir. It confirmed their suspicions that the Americans were meddling."

"I’m sure [Karzai] felt vindicated by Gates’ comments," van Bijlert said. "But the real problem was that the 2009 vote was really hugely fraudulent. There was fraud done on all sides, but it was strongest on the incumbent’s side."

The rift, when it came, was accompanied by outbursts on both sides.

U.S. officials were withering about Karzai’s overwrought encounters with them and proffered suggestions that the isolated leader in the Arg palace was abusing prescription drugs. Shortly before leaving his Kabul posting, former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a crusty retired American army lieutenant general, had his own emotional moment when he slammed the "hurtful and inappropriate" comments by some Afghan "leaders" in a speech to hapless Afghan students.

Given how low the relationship had sunk, Karzai’s subsequent refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout should really have come as no surprise. But it did.

"Trying to psychoanalyze Karzai is not an easy game," Smith said. "Even those close to Karzai expected him to sign it."

Van Bijlert offers two possible explanations: "First, it is clear to him that the U.S. really wants the BSA and, in his view, if the U.S. really wants it, it can’t be good for Afghanistan. Second, he wanted to the use the BSA negotiations to force the U.S. not to interfere with the [2014] election."

But "interference" means different things to different people. Indeed, few Afghans believe Karzai’s promises that he plans to "move on" after his successor has been sworn in. In the lead-up to the April 5 poll, much attention has been focused on Karzai’s new home situated just outside the Arg.

The post-presidential residence is close enough to the Arg to be covered by the tight security ring around the palace. Afghan leaders, in and out of office, need protection. Karzai need only recall former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah, who was castrated and hung by the Taliban in 1996 after the Afghan military crumbled due to the withdrawal of Russian aid.

But still, Karzai’s upcoming proximity to the palace he has inhabited for over a decade is too close for comfort for many Afghans and the international community.

Once the polls have closed on Election Day, the focus will shift to the results as Karzai’s favored candidate, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, battles it out against frontrunners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

If none of the candidates get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff must be held, ideally sometime in May. That’s when many analysts believe Karzai may insert himself again, playing a role in negotiating an outcome using the age-old Afghan mechanisms of consensus building.

It’s the sort of elder statesman, loya jirga, fiery-speech thing that Karzai loves and the international community hates. But, as they say in French, on verra — we’ll see what happens next.

As for the big legacy questions, the experts say we still have to wait and see.

"The jury is still out," Smith said. "The real test will be in 2015, 2016, 2017, when Afghanistan will start to see sharp declines in foreign aid. We don’t know how the Afghan government will do in the struggle to control significant parts of the territory. If the state survives, Karzai can claim, quite rightly, to be the father of the nation and his place in history will be assured."

If it doesn’t, you only have to look to history and shudder. And that’s one thing Afghan presidents know very well. The international community may lose patience, fall out of love, divorce, and even cut the alimony to their former local partners. It will just move on. Problem is, moving on will be far more difficult for Afghanistan. But on verra — this particular chapter in Afghan history is still being written.

 Twitter: @leelajacinto

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