The South Asia Channel

If You Love Something, Set It Free

If it’s meant to be, it will come back to you. It seems that’s been Hamid Karzai’s approach to political power in Afghanistan -- and it’s working.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (L) arrives for Eid al-Fitr prayer that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the presidential palace in Kabul on July 28, 2014. Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Fitr this week, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan during which followers are required to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn to dusk. AFP PHOTO/Wakil Kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The compound where Hamid Karzai is spending his post-presidency abuts the wall of the Presidential Palace, where he lived when he led Afghanistan for 13 years. His new compound used to be the Headquarters of the UNDP. The sandbags, boom-gates, and generators have been removed, the buildings have been fixed up and painted, and a manicured lawn leads towards the main villa that serves as his residence. There is a quiet, refined elegance to the compound that is reminiscent of the photos of Kabul before the wars. Karzai’s office is in a small house planted like an island in the middle of the property. Inside it is tastefully furnished, and discreet professional staff work in a surprisingly quiet atmosphere.

I had met Karzai many times before, mostly as a note-taker when I worked for the United Nations, but this was my first conversation with him.

“So,” he said as we sat down, “What have the Americans done with the snow?” It has been a dry and warm winter in Kabul. That makes for pleasant days today, but creates worries about a drought and miserable crop season next year. “As you can see,” I replied, “We have a lot of it back in the U.S.”

Karzai is said to be conspiratorial. He admitted as much during our conversation. “The United States has become what Britain used to be: the country that we Afghans blame everything for.” He recounted an old story in Afghanistan about a bookbinder in Kandahar. At one point, the bookbinder discovers a scuff on the leather he is using. “Damn British!” He says.

Karzai has previously claimed that the United States is using the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan in order to justify a military presence. Now, he told me, the interests of the United States are wider and the Taliban, being an Afghan national movement, are not the appropriate vehicle. Hence, the reports of the sudden appearance of ISIS — the extremist group that is currently occupying large parts of Iraq and Syria, and that claims to have re-established the Caliphate — on Afghan territory.

American and other policy makers are used to trying to convince Karzai that many of his frustrations with U.S. policy are not the result of a sophisticated conspiracy, but of clumsy policymaking and other factors, such as the various egos of ambassadors, generals, and special representatives that have come in and out of Afghanistan over the past decade. I take a stab at this myself. I tell him that longtime Soviet ambassador to Washington during the Cold War, Anatoly Dobrynin, once said that his main job was to convince Moscow everything they thought they saw as an American conspiracy was really American incompetence.

“Whether it is conspiracy or incompetence doesn’t really matter to me in the end. Both make it very difficult to work with America. In the end, though, I’d rather deal with a conspiracy, because at least there is something to understand.”

He elaborated: “If you slap me once, and then tell me that is not your policy, I will understand. But if you slap me again, and that’s not your policy, I will begin to doubt you. And if you slap me again and again, and keep saying that it’s not your policy, eventually as far as I’m concerned it is your policy.”

I asked him what advice he would give to American policymakers today. “America can do whatever it wants in Afghanistan. We are not strong enough to stop you. If you want bases you can have bases. But don’t hurt Afghanistan. We are a united country; don’t try to divide us, and don’t try to sell us to Pakistan.”

I tried to press him on specifics: Should the United States retain bases? Isn’t its support to Afghan security forces still necessary? He replied that he didn’t care about the bases either way, and that he never thought that Afghans needed U.S. aid to learn how to fight. It was clear that he was not interested in the details of this question. He fell back on his more general point that the United States could do what it wanted to achieve its larger designs as long as it did not “hurt” Afghanistan.

I was interested in his point about trying to divide Afghans. The current government is a “national unity government” — a forced marriage between the two presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, that was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last summer, when allegations of massive fraud brought Afghanistan’s political system to the brink of breakdown. What I had been hearing in Kabul was that the enduring, post-election divisions between Ghani and Abdullah were strengthening Karzai’s hand. His popularity was growing as Afghans remembered the progress made during his administration, and gradually forgetting the problems. They compared the masterful command Karzai had over Afghan politics with the presently split government which — nearly six months after its inauguration — has been unable to even form a cabinet. Karzai’s political influence in the government was also said to be growing. Not only was he being appealed to by both camps, but a number of political figures who have been marginalized by the current government were seeking help from Karzai.

I raised this speculation with him — that the divided government was strengthening his political influence. The question clearly displeased him and his answer was firm.

“For me to benefit from divisions among Afghans would be treason. I support this government and I am doing everything to make it work. I support it on all issues except its policy towards Pakistan.” He was referring to Ghani’s foreign policy gamble: to make concessions to Pakistan in the hope that Pakistan — facing its own growing internal insurgency — will cooperate with Afghanistan on rooting out the insurgency. Ghani’s hope is that Pakistan will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table or even close the sanctuaries that they provide the Taliban. On Ghani’s first official trip to Pakistan, he made an unprecedented visit to the General Headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi, which was widely criticized. Other concessions include canceling an arms deal with India. Even what appears as minor symbolic gestures, such as sending six army cadets to Pakistan for an 18-month training course, have generated huge controversy in Afghanistan — and was criticized by Karzai to me as well.

As he escorted me to the door, I complimented Karzai on the refurbishments to his office. He reminded me that a post-presidential office had been prepared for him on the grounds of the palace itself, but that he had yielded it to Abdullah Abdullah. The power-sharing deal, and the new position of Chief Executive Officer, had created an office space problem within the palace. Karzai had helped to solve it by relinquishing the space.

Despite his protests, it is hard not to think that the fractured government in Kabul does play to Karzai’s advantage. As I left the compound I remembered that one year ago, we were wondering whether Karzai would allow the election to happen and actually leave the presidency, or would he find some way to hang onto power. Now it struck me that he has managed to do both.


Scott Smith is the director for Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are his own.
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