After two terms in power, Afghanistan’s first elected president has left behind a profoundly transformed country, writes ALI REZA YUNESPOUR.
When Hamid Karzai was announced as the chairman of the Interim Authority at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in 2001, he was given responsibility for leading a country ruined by decades of war and poverty.
Karzai became Afghanistan’s first elected president, in 2004, and served for two consecutive terms, before relinquishing power after a long and disputed election earlier this year. Karzai’s transfer of power to his successor last month marked the first democratic and relatively ‘peaceful’ transition of power in Afghanistan’s history.
Although it is premature to assess Karzai’s legacy fully, it will be assessed differently—against the expectations and aspirations of the Afghan people on the one hand, and the international community on the other. For the people in Afghanistan, however, he is most likely to be judged against previous governments – particularly the Taliban in the 1990s and what they experience after him.
What is certain is that, during his term in office, Afghanistan experienced social, political and economic changes. Karzai tolerated his opponents to a degree unprecedented in Afghanistan’s political history and handed over a country with a constitution, an increasingly vocal civil society, and a security force.
Healthy international relations
Except for Pakistan, Karzai developed and maintained healthy relations with most other countries, including important rivals such as Iran and the United States. But under his leadership, Afghanistan also failed in other important fronts, most notably in quelling the Taliban insurgency, ensuring the rule of law and reducing the country’s dependency on foreign aid.
Karzai discouraged the formation of modern political parties and pursued a policy of divide-and-rule through the distribution of state patronage, which brought short-term political gain at the expense of the development of political institutions. His focus on the immediate task of keeping the peace also meant that he did not show any political courage, or interest, in addressing the more difficult but highly important issues such as transitional justice. Transitional justice became—and is likely to remain—a forgotten reality for the victims in Afghanistan.
From the early days of his political career, Karzai was well-known for changing his political allegiances. In the 1980s, he worked closely with the anti-Soviet movements and was an important point of contact between the various Mujahidin factions and the CIA in Pakistan. He served as deputy foreign minister in the Mujahidin government that came to power in 1992.
With the outbreak of the civil war in Kabul and the emergence of the Taliban regime in the mid-1990s, Karzai initially supported the Taliban. At one point, he was keen to take a role with the Taliban, as their UN representative. Unlike Karzai’s own initial account of his refusal of the UN role, Bette Dam, the author of the recent Karzai biography, A man and a motorcycle, has shown that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, did not offer Karzai the role because he did not trust him.
What is certain is that Karzai, with the help of the CIA, led some of the initial revolts against the Taliban in Uruzgan province, gaining him greater acceptance among members of the anti-Taliban alliance that dominated the post-Taliban Interim Authority.
Time in office
Karzai has left behind a profoundly transformed country. Afghanistan has embraced a relatively democratic constitution that combines modern human rights and the country’s traditional and Islamic values. The Afghan national security forces have grown significantly in number and capability, and provided the necessary security during the recent presidential election. More importantly, they remained unified during the period of political uncertainty following the disputed election.
Under Karzai, Afghanistan also made significant progress in key areas of the UN Millennium Development Goals—for example, around 9 million students now attend schools and around 150 000 students are enrolled in public and private universities. In addition, the media and civil society groups have thrived in the past decade. According to Amirzai Sangin, Afghanistan’s former Telecommunications Minister, as of mid-2014 the country had 35 television and 62 radio stations in Kabul, and 54 television and 160 radio stations in other provinces.
Moreover, Karzai tolerated criticism, of himself and his government, by political opponents, satirists, television commentators and individuals. His approach created a political culture in which various ideas and groups have flourished. The downside of a free media in a polarised society is that, potentially, it can aggravate social divisions.
Karzai, however, failed in peace negotiations with the Taliban. While he always blamed Pakistan and the United States for this, the truth is that he also pursued mixed policies towards the Taliban. The Taliban distrusted him, seeing him as a puppet of the West, and corruption and mismanagement in his government did not place him in a position to speak from the moral or political high ground. Afghanistan still faces serious threats from the Taliban and other insurgents, and will remain heavily dependent on outside assistance for the foreseeable future.
Karzai was also influenced by a close circle of acquaintances. That, combined with a divided political culture, meant, in recent years, he acted more as an elder of a particular ethnic group rather than the elected president of a country of diverse peoples and cultures. His refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, against the wishes of the majority of the Afghan people, saw his relationship with the West, particularly with the United States, reach its nadir by the end of his presidency.
It is also important to remember that Karzai led a country in which various local, regional and international actors were present. Each of those actors has had an interest and a role to play in some of the achievements and failures of his presidency. Until the last days of his presidency there were doubts about whether Karzai would try to remain in power. Suspicions of his intentions heightened during the post-election crisis that significantly hampered confidence in the country’s electoral institutions and further crippled an already poor economy.
Karzai’s decision to surrender power constitutionally surprised many of his critics. The peaceful transfer of power (10 transfers of power over the past four decades were all violent and mostly bloody) sets an important precedent for the future course of politics in Afghanistan: Karzai should, rightly, be remembered for his courageous decision.
It is now up to the new national unity government to maintain its delicate unity and institutionalise the peaceful transfer of power. It must also work to restore confidence in Afghanistan’s relationship with the West, restart the peace dialogue with armed opposition groups, and address the country’s enduring social and economic challenges.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens as United States President Barack Obama speaks during the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement signing ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, 2 May 2012 (White House Flickr account).