The en­dur­ing pres­ence of Afghanistan’s ex-pres­i­dent

Karzai’s crit­i­cism of his suc­ces­sor has raised con­cerns that he wants to weaken the frag­ile gov­ern­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SU­DARSAN RAGHA­VAN su­darsan.ragha­van@wash­post.com Mo­ham­mad Sharif and Sayed Salahud­din in Kabul and Michael Birnbaum in Moscow con­trib­uted to this re­port.

kabul — Two days be­fore his pres­i­den­tial ten­ure ended last Septem­ber, Hamid Karzai de­liv­ered farewell re­marks to a group of for­eign diplo­mats. With his trade­mark flair, he be­gan by thank­ing them for help­ing Afghanistan, and by the end he was recit­ing lines from a Robert Frost poem.

In be­tween, he de­clared that he would re­main in the “ser­vice” of his suc­ces­sor, Ashraf Ghani, as well as Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, Ghani’s part­ner in the coali­tion gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial tran­script. The coun­try’s first peace­ful trans­fer of power, Karzai con­tin­ued, would be his “legacy.”

“Def­i­nitely, as a citizen of this coun­try, I will be fully in sup­port of the new ar­range­ment, the new pres­i­dent and the chief ex­ec­u­tive, and will do all I can but very qui­etly,” he told the gath­er­ing.

Ten months later, Karzai is any­thing but sup­port­ive or quiet. He has emerged as one of Ghani’s and Ab­dul­lah’s most vo­cal crit­ics, en­gag­ing for­mi­da­bly in the po­lit­i­cal, diplo­matic and tribal realms. That has trig­gered ten­sions at the high­est lev­els of power — and fu­eled con­cerns that Karzai is seek­ing to desta­bi­lize the frag­ile U.S.-backed gov­ern­ment, or at least seize po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, as it strug­gles with in­se­cu­rity, in­fight­ing and a flail­ing econ­omy.

“He clearly sees a role for him­self, and it’s not just as an el­der states­man. He sees a role as a player,” said a Western diplo­mat who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he in­ter­acts with Karzai and his as­so­ci­ates. “The more the vac­uum-con­tin­ues, the greater the op­por­tu­ni­ties will be for him to play that role.”

Karzai de­clined re­quests for in­ter­views. His al­lies say he is not seek­ing to un­der­mine Ghani or Ab­dul­lah nor re­turn to power but is only ex­er­cis­ing his rights as an Afghan. “He has not formed a shadow gov­ern­ment nor does he have the in­ten­tion to do so,” said Karim Kho­ram, who served as Karzai’s chief of staff. “He’s not even keen to form an op­po­si­tion party to the gov­ern­ment.”

Karzai’s resur­gence is the latest sign of the on­go­ing tus­sle for Afghanistan’s fu­ture, be­tween its old guard, steeped in a cen­turiesold sys­tem of pa­tron­age, and a new gen­er­a­tion of tech­nocrats seek­ing to mod­ern­ize the coun­try’s in­sti­tu­tions and codes.

Karzai headed the coun­try for nearly 13 years, first as an in­terim leader af­ter the 2001 fall of the Tal­iban, and later as the elected pres­i­dent for al­most a decade. As Ghani and Ab­dul­lah fought over elec­tion re­sults last year, Karzai’s fi­nal term stretched on months longer than sched­uled — an ex­ten­sion some observers said suited a pres­i­dent viewed as un­ea­ger to re­lin­quish power.

“But I have prom­ises to keep. And miles to go be­fore I sleep,” Karzai said that Septem­ber day, quot­ing Frost.

Since Ghani’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, Karzai has been not only con­sol­i­dat­ing his sup­port base, but also ac­tively work­ing to ex­pand it, Western diplo­mats and an­a­lysts say. On any given day, pow­er­ful tribal el­ders, for­mer min­is­ters and gover­nors, mem­bers of par­lia­ment, pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials and his clans­men line up at his stately res­i­dence to seek his ad­vice and help.

They in­clude many who have not re­ceived gov­ern­ment jobs or who oth­er­wise feel alien­ated by Ghani, who opted not to ap­point Karzai’s for­mer min­is­ters to his cab­i­net. Karzai is also reach­ing out to in­flu­en­tial for­mer mu­jahideen com­man­ders who fought the Sovi­ets and the Tal­iban, es­pe­cially those who feel side­lined by the gov­ern­ment. At diplo­matic par­ties, it’s not un­com­mon to hear high-level for­mer Karzai of­fi­cials pre­dict­ing the col­lapse of the gov­ern­ment and yearn­ing for an in­terim ad­min­is­tra­tion led by Karzai.

Karzai’s crit­ics con­tend that he wants to main­tain power to pro­tect his fam­ily and loy­al­ists from pos­si­ble cor­rup­tion charges. Some de­scribe him as an­gry that Ghani and Ab­dul­lah do not so­licit his ad­vice. Oth­ers say he wants to pro­tect his legacy by en­sur­ing that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment strug­gles.

Kho­ram re­jected all of the as­ser­tions as base­less.

Karzai con­tin­ues to meet regularly with for­eign am­bas­sadors and diplo­mats. He has vis­ited Rus­sia, China and In­dia to meet of­fi­cials and dis­cuss af­fairs con­cern­ing Afghanistan. He’s of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by for­mer of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing his for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and for­eign min­is­ter.

In Moscow last month, Karzai was af­forded many of the same cour­te­sies as a sit­ting head of state, and he met with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to dis­cuss the Tal­iban and the emer­gence of the Is­lamic State in Afghanistan. Putin has yet to meet with Ghani or Ab­dul­lah.

Afghan gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say they are not con­cerned about Karzai’s for­eign over­tures. They dis­miss his Rus­sia visit as an at­tempt by Putin to snipe at the United States, which Karzai has been hos­tile to­ward. But the of­fi­cials are con­cerned about what they de­scribed as Karzai’s in­ter­fer­ence in gov­ern­ment ap­point­ments and poli­cies. Karzai still has fol­low­ers in par­lia­ment — whom crit­ics say he in­flu­enced to de­rail some of Ghani’s cab­i­net nom­i­na­tions — as well as in the con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment and pro­vin­cial posts.

“He’s been do­ing a lot of things se­cretly, be­hind the cur­tains,” said a top Ab­dul­lah aide who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to freely dis­cuss the gov­ern­ment’s un­easi­ness with Karzai. “There are peo­ple who are loyal to him, and it will take time to wash them all away from the gov­ern­ment po­si­tions.”

Kho­ram de­nied the al­le­ga­tions. Pub­licly, though, there’s no dis­pute that Karzai is tar­get­ing the gov­ern­ment. Karzai and his deputies have vo­cally at­tacked Ghani’s poli­cies, such as the sign­ing of a bi­lat­eral se­cu­rity agree­ment with Washington.

“He sec­ond-guesses our for­eign pol­icy. He sec­ond-guesses the path to­wards peace. He sec­ond-guesses the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ments un­der­way,” said Mo­ham­mad Daud Sul­tan­zoy, a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in 2014.

In May, Karzai de­manded the can­cel­la­tion of an agree­ment be­tween Afghanistan and Pak­istan’s spy agen­cies, declar­ing it against the coun­try’s na­tional in­ter­est. A key aide, Ai­mal Faizi, de­scribed it as “sleep­ing with the en­emy” in an opin­ion piece pub­lished on the Al Jazeera net­work’s Web site. Last month, Karzai con­demned a U.S. drone strike that al­legedly killed civil­ians, while Ghani has re­frained from com­ment­ing on such at­tacks.

“Karzai is an in­tel­li­gent politi­cian,” said Ah­mad Saeedi, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Kabul. “He knows that anti-Amer­i­can and anti-Pak­istani stances have buy­ers in Afghanistan.”

Add to this the po­lit­i­cal in­er­tia and col­lec­tive frus­tra­tions over a lack of jobs and ris­ing prices, and Karzai’s pop­u­lar­ity has soared on the street. He ex­udes more charisma than Ghani, a for­mer World Bank of­fi­cial known for his brusque style. In in­ter­views, some Afghans ex­pressed hope he would run again for the pres­i­dency, even though Karzai held of­fice for two terms, the con­sti­tu­tional limit.

“My busi­ness was much bet­ter un­der Karzai,” said Mustafa Haidari, in his early 20s, who sells clothes from a road­side stall. “Since Ab­dul­lah and Ghani have got­ten power, they are busy with their in­ter­nal dis­putes.”

“One hun­dred per­cent Karzai was bet­ter than this na­tional unity gov­ern­ment,” said Ab­dul Qader, a tribal el­der from Sa­man­gan province. “A tem­po­rary gov­ern­ment should be formed un­der Karzai, and ev­ery­one will sup­port him.”

Sup­port­ers of Ghani and Ab­dul­lah ac­knowl­edge Karzai’s grow­ing pop­u­lar clout. But they also com­plain that they in­her­ited cor­rupt and poorly man­aged gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions, in a coun­try where most in­ter­na­tional troops have left and for­eign aid is shrink­ing.

“In Karzai’s time, they had jobs, they had more troops in the vil­lages, but now it’s chang­ing,” said the Ab­dul­lah aide. “That’s what makes peo­ple be­lieve Karzai.”

The gov­ern­ment, too, is re­spon­si­ble for Karzai’s ris­ing stature, Western diplo­mats say. Tied up with in­fight­ing, it has been un­able to de­liver any sub­stan­tial re­forms. It has also driven away in­flu­en­tial job-seek­ers linked to Karzai.

“Quite a large num­ber were able man­agers. Very few were ide­o­log­i­cally or trib­ally tied to Karzai,” said the Western diplo­mat. “It is re­gret­table how many pow­er­ful per­son­al­i­ties they have just pushed away from the gov­ern­ment. . . . It would be strange if Karzai doesn’t take ad­van­tage of that.”

Ab­dul­lah and Ghani are fight­ing back. At a gath­er­ing of mu­jahideen lead­ers in the spring, Ab­dul­lah pub­licly asked Karzai to stop en­gag­ing in Afghan pol­i­tics. Last week, Ab­dul­lah blamed Karzai’s gov­ern­ment for the coun­try’s eco­nomic woes.

In public, Ghani, who served as fi­nance min­is­ter un­der Karzai, has been deeply re­spect­ful of Karzai. Those close to him say he now con­sid­ers that a mis­take. Ten­sions be­tween the two have grown since Karzai blasted the spy agen­cies pact with Pak­istan, to the point that they are not talk­ing, ac­cord­ing to Western diplo­mats and Ghani aides. In re­cent days, both camps have at­tempted to smooth out the dif­fer­ences.

Ghani “fi­nally has come to un­der­stand that by giv­ing him re­spect as an ex-pres­i­dent, Mr. Karzai took that as a sign that he was able in­struct the pres­i­dent in the cur­rent poli­cies of the gov­ern­ment,” said Hash­mat Ghani, the pres­i­dent’s younger brother.

Lo­cal news media re­ported that Ghani last month told civil so­ci­ety lead­ers in Kan­da­har, Karzai’s tribal strong­hold, that there would be “no par­al­lel gov­ern­ments,” a veiled ref­er­ence to Karzai’s in­flu­ence. Still, Ghani in re­cent weeks has tried to ap­pease in­flu­en­tial peo­ple he has alien­ated. He has of­fered po­si­tions to the sons of for­mer mu­jahideen com­man­ders as well as to some Karzai loy­al­ists.

One for­mer of­fi­cial, at a re­cent diplo­matic party, said he had re­ceived an of­fer.

“I’m go­ing to dis­cuss this with Karzai,” he said with a smile.

ALEXAN­DER NEMENOV/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

The resur­gence of for­mer pres­i­den­tHamid Karzai, pic­tured last month in­Moscow, is a sign of the on­go­ing tus­sle for Afghanistan’s fu­ture.

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