Critics say Karzai has muddled through his presidency

President Karzai
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President Hamid Karzai at a ceremony of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in Kabul, March 22, 2011

The verdict from the Western diplomat in Kabul was rather uncomplimentary. Asked for his appraisal of the Karzai era, he said that since 2009 the President had only been concerned with family business and internal power struggles. He went on to say that Karzai's greatest failure had been to appoint "totally incompetent" people to key posts such as the head of the defence ministry. Instead of making appointments based on merit, Karzai had made appointments based on political factors. The diplomat went on to say that in addition, Karzai had allowed the international military mission ISAF to take sole responsibility for security in the country for far too long. The words he uses are "disastrous", "unsustainable" and "irresponsible". These days frustration at the outgoing president is rather high at many of the Western embassies in Kabul.

It's not long ago that the West was hailing Karzai as their great hope. Following the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in December 2001 he appeared to be the best possible candidate for the post of interim president and president in 2004. He looked to be the best man to solve the apparently irresolvable problem of bringing peace to the country after more than 20 years of war. In contrast to the Northern Alliance fighters who had driven the Taliban out of Kabul with support from the US air force, Karzai had no blood on his hands. In contrast to the technocrats who'd returned from exile in the West only to be derided by many Afghans as "dog washers", Karzai had never lost touch with day-to-day reality in Afghanistan. And the eloquent Pashtun was also well received by the Western governments that would in future be financing the Afghan budget. Karzai was not only a speaker of perfect English but he had also mastered the language of democracy, human rights and good governance. Among the Afghan population the relatively unknown Karzai quickly established a reputation as a figure of national reconciliation; someone who used token gestures to bring erstwhile rival groups together round one table.

Karzai and his "big tent politics"

The cold reality began to dawn finally with the resurgence of the Taliban in 2006. The president was denounced for his weak leadership and capriciousness after he spoke tearfully about rape victims only then to issue a pardon to a convicted rapist who came from the family of a key ally. Accusations followed of Karzai turning a blind eye to widespread corruption inside his government and of returning to power the discredited warlords who had destroyed the country through civil war. Karzai himself proudly called it "big tent politics" - a way of giving all political factions a voice even if that meant including the religious fanatics, warlords and drug barons. Critics say he lacked vision for the country. Those with more positively disposed say this was Realpolitik for a country that had never truly only been governed by Kabul.

So has the knight in shining armour been made a scapegoat overnight? "Karzai is being made responsible for things for which he is not solely to blame," says Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul think-tank Afghanistan Analysts Network. She says any blame for corruption and the ongoing influence of regional warlords has to be shared by the president and the international community and military.

In 2003 Karzai did indeed approach the then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to request help in reigning in the warlords. But his request met with dismissal. Rumsfeld reportedly responded: "Look, Mister President, these men are our friends." For years many of these 'friends' received regular payments from the US foreign intelligence agency, the CIA. People like the recently deceased vice president Muhammad Qasim Fahim whom Western governments had wanted to undermine after he defied efforts to disarm his militias, and as Afghan defence minister attempted to install his allies in leading military posts. Another person receiving CIA payments was the president's brother Ahmad Wali Karzai who was assassinated in 2011. He was suspected of links to the drugs trade. Eventually the US government came to regard his abuse of power as the unofficial governor of Kandahar as so damaging that it demanded he be removed from power - in vain.

Afghanistan - one of the world's most corrupt countries

Also on the CIA payroll was the former warlord and now vice presidential candidate Abdul Rashid Dostum – he's alleged to have carried out grave human rights violations. The return to power of these dubious characters is in part due to the methods used by the international military in awarding supply contracts, and to a lesser extent, foreign aid organisations' awarding of construction contracts. Numerous Afghan strongmen have set up logistics, construction and security firms, often in the name of family members, thereby gaining access to contracts worth millions of dollars. A US Senate inquiry in 2010 found evidence of "private security contractors funnelling US taxpayers' dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery as well as Taliban and other anti-Coalition activities." It's very likely that at least some of Karzai's perceived capriciousness had to do with the contradictory agendas of his allies. Karzai himself once described his job saying, "I had to get the USA and Iran to work in harmony in Afghanistan. I had to get other countries, Europe, to work in harmony. And the Muslim world. I had to make Afghanistan into a country where all others cooperated. And I did it."

Admittedly, President Karzai has contributed significantly to the fact that Afghanistan is one of the world’s most corrupt countries according to Transparency International. In their Corruption Perception Index the country ranks 175 out of 177. To date, not a single high-ranking politician has been convicted of corruption. In most cases the highest penalty for abuse of power is a transfer. The government systematically sought to hinder a corruption investigation into the Kabul Bank scandal in which Karzai’s brother Mahmoud as well one of Fahim’s brothers were directly involved. The two were never called to account. In its findings in November 2012 an independent inquiry said, “High-ranking members of the government clearly and directly influenced the penal process to the extent that they were prescribing who should be prosecuted and who should not be.”  

During his first few years in office, the Western media was fond of deriding Karzai as 'the mayor of Kabul.' But that largely overlooks the point that he had long since widened his influence over the provinces by shrewdly playing off various rulers against one another. In the north of the country he appointed members of the Islamist Hizb-e Islami party to key posts in order to dilute the influence of the particularly strong Jamiat party faction. Karzai's system is based on a complex network of forming alliances with opponents of his opponents. Those who play ball are rewarded with access to posts and corruption money as well as legal immunity.

The Karzai's system - a complex network of alliances with opponents of his opponents

In view of these kinds of alliances it's hardly surprising that the president, initially lauded by many civil rights activists, should fall so short on his human rights record. "Everything we have achieved, we have achieved with Karzai’s help," said a leading human rights activist in Kabul. She goes on, "But we could have achieved much more if he had had a vision for this country." Instead of governing, Karzai just muddled through.  

The verdict on the president's peace talk efforts with the Taliban is also rather mediocre, despite Karzai himself declaring peace negotiations a priority of his second term in office. Apart from some desperate appeals to "our brothers, the Taliban" and occasional meetings with those said to be representatives of the extremists, there is little sign of a consistent strategy on the part of the government. However, it must be said, the Western allies match that inconsistency.  

Karzai's ties to Afghanistan's most important ally the United State have been dealt a lasting blow. Right from the start the relationship was mired by paradox: the Afghan government is almost 100 percent dependent on foreign financial donors, something that has always undermined the legitimacy of that government in the eyes of the people. This paradox at least partly underlies Karzai's anti-western rhetoric and his confrontational stance against the US and Britain. In addition, there's been growing mistrust of Washington's motives ever since the elections of 2009 with Karzai accusing the US government of trying to push him out of office. The recently published memoirs of the then-defence secretary Robert Gates appear to support that at least partially, with Gates speaking of a "clumsy and failed putsch" that seriously damaged Afghan-US relations.

Now Karzai's refusal to sign the security pact that he himself negotiated with the US has not only annoyed the Americans, but also steered his country towards a phase of great insecurity with an uncertain outcome. The economic costs are already immense: Afghanistan’s national currency has lost considerable value and many potential Afghan investors have taken their money out of the country.

Diplomats and Afghan government workers say Karzai measures the legacy that has been so much the focus of his final months of presidency by other standards – and another timescale. As one government aide explained, Karzai doesn’t want to become a second Shah Shuja, the 19th century Afghan rule who was despised by many Afghans as a lackey of the British.

But despite all of the criticism and missed opportunities Karzai has every chance of going down in Afghan history as a great statesman. He's the first leader of his country to freely hand over power to a successor in a democratic process. He's the first Afghan ruler who hasn't been murdered, sent into exile or driven from office in a century. And contrary to many fears, he hasn't clung on to power at all costs. He has neither amended the constitution to allow himself to run for another term in office, as many feared, nor has he sent a puppet into the presidential contest and secured victory for "his own" candidate by manipulating the poll. The run-off election will be contested by two of Karzai's staunchest critics: former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Permitting that to happen must surely be one of the biggest successes of President Hamid Karzai's more than 12 years in office.