LONDON – Amid the dust and traffic of today’s Kabul, three things remain almost as they were a decade or so ago. In winter, and when the wind clears the smog that is a side effect of years of economic boom, the blue sky above the snowcapped peaks that ring the city is as impressive as ever. Then there is the Arg, the sprawling palace at the city’s center and the apparently calm eye of a turbulent storm of a country. The complex is home to the third element that has remained constant since the end of the Taliban’s grim regime in 2001: Hamid Karzai, now in his 13th year of power.
However, Karzai, 56, will soon be gone. He is constitutionally barred from contesting next weekend’s elections and soon this theatrical, mercurial, complex man will have to find a new occupation. Many, particularly in Washington, will be relieved.
Once, the prospect of Karzai losing power would have provoked a different reaction. Back in the chaotic days of late 2001, as the Taliban regime crumbled under the U.S. assault launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Karzai was seen as the man of the hour. He was the head of a major tribe, of Pashtun ethnicity like the apparently defeated Taliban and around 40 percent of his compatriots, but moderate, educated and pro-Western. Officials in Washington, Kabul and London enthused about their newfound Afghan hero. Few are as gushing now.
If, as three western ambassadors to Afghanistan said during their respective terms in the Afghan capital, the relationship between U.S. policymakers and Karzai was “like a marriage, with its ups and downs” this union has ended in definitive — and acrimonious — divorce.
Part of Karzai’s early appeal derived from the extraordinary way he came to power. Born in 1957 in the southeastern province of Kandahar, educated in Kabul and in India, he was one of eight children of the chief of the 500,000-strong Popalzai, one of the most powerful tribes.
When Moscow sent troops to bolster a faltering hard-line Marxist regime in Kabul, Karzai fled. In 1992 he was with the first group of mujahedeen leaders to enter a liberated Kabul and then watched the West ignore his country as it descended into anarchy and civil war. When the Taliban emerged in his native Kandahar, Karzai, like many Afghans, saw them as capable of bringing peace, or at least calm. He soon changed his mind and began lobbying for Western aid for an effort to overthrow the hard-line movement. This was a futile exercise until the 9/11 attacks, when everything changed.
Just under two months after the attack, Karzai, armed with little more than a satellite phone, some CIA contact numbers and the hoped-for loyalty of his tribe, drove into Afghanistan. Foolhardy perhaps, but undeniably brave. By December 2001 the Taliban had been displaced, if not defeated, and the old mujahedeen leaders were dead or discredited. Karzai was the right man in the right place. After consultations with representatives of key communities, he was installed, with some quiet celebration in Washington, as the leader of Afghanistan.
“The mood at this time was pretty positive. He was seen as a good guy — thoughtful, knowledgeable, good internationally, good credentials, known quantity. It wasn’t as if people said, ‘Hey, he’s all we’ve got’. It was much more positive than that,” said one former U.S. official closely involved at the time.
There followed something of a honeymoon, for Afghanistan and for the newly joined couple of Karzai and the U.S. Draped in a distinctive Afghan chapan coat over well-cut suits and a karakul hat, Karzai was feted around the world. Heads of state were charmed by his oddly plummy English vowels — a legacy from his studies at a university in a former hill station beloved of British Raj administrators in India — and his conversation too.
“He’s well read, funny and can talk about everything from 19th-century politics to poetry to pots,” said Rory Stewart, a British member of parliament who dealt closely with Karzai at the time.
Elections held in 2004 ratified Karzai’s rule. In Washington and elsewhere, it appeared that the Afghan leader could do little wrong. For those who had seen Afghanistan under the bleak rule of the Taliban, the transformation was astonishing.
Yet the next round of elections — in 2009 — saw everything change. According to former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Washington was so keen to oust the Afghan president that officials connived in delaying an Afghan presidential election in 2009 and then tried to manipulate the outcome in a “clumsy and failed putsch.”
How could so much go so wrong so quickly? The answer lies as much in the broader failings of the international effort in Afghanistan as in the specific relationship between its elected leader and officials on the other side of the world.
The relationship between Washington and Kabul was always much more complex than anyone wanted to recognize. Loyalists retelling the story of Karzai’s courageous bid to raise the tribes against the Taliban in late 2001 tend not to mention how the abject failure of a first attempt necessitated rescue by the CIA, nor how the success of a second bid was largely due to a squad of U.S. special forces keeping the future president alive. The U.S. version tends to leave out the friendly-fire incident that killed five Afghans, three U.S. soldiers and wounded Karzai himself.
Such differences in perspective — and yet such interdependence — did not matter in those early years when there was still much confidence in the eventual success of an increasingly ambitious project to rebuild and remake Afghanistan. Millions of refugees had returned, the economy was surging, ministries had been set up, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations were active and huge numbers of children were back in school. It was still possible for reporters to drive around much of the country, on roads that were slowly being improved.
Yet as progress slowed and as the Taliban, battered in 2001 but not defeated, began to make a comeback, the relationship came under great strain. Though bolstered for a while by a good rapport between Karzai and President George W Bush, and by key players in Kabul with knowledge of both the Islamic world and Washington, the strain soon began to tell. By 2006 the Taliban had filled the vacuum left by the West and the still pitifully weak Afghan government, re-establishing themselves in significant parts of the country’s south, east and center.
“I am proud to be a Talib,” Fazl Rahman, a fighter with the militia in the southern province of Helmand said that year. “Why should I deny it? Why should I be afraid? All foreigners are our enemy. . . . Afghanistan is the castle of Islam and the foreigners are destroying our religion.”
Karzai blamed the West and Pakistan. The West, in part, blamed Karzai. Like Afghanistan generally, he might once have been seen as exotic, romantic and broadly friendly, but now had apparently become fractious, prickly and increasingly independent-minded.
The system of government he had built was defiantly non-Western, relying not on institutions but on individuals, key power-brokers prized for their loyalty and forgiven for faults that horrified overseas observers. None of this had been in the game plan.
With Western troops in the lead but unable to contain the insurgency, rows broke out between London and Kabul over political and military strategy. Relations between Karzai — who likes English shoes, BBC sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine” and has “a romantic fascination with British royalty,” according to one interviewer — and British policymakers became venomous. Karzai and close associates, in private, referred repeatedly to imperial British administrators’ ousting of 19th-century kings who did not do their bidding. With some exceptions, Westerners in general were arrogant, blundering, ignorant and prone to giving lectures, they felt. Promises had not been kept.
Western officials made grandiose commitments — Bill Wood, the U.S. ambassador, said that though he could not guarantee U.S. support for Afghanistan “for the whole lifetime of the sun,” his country was committed for almost as long — which only reinforced the sense that the U.S. and other Western nations were tiring of Afghanistan.
One problem was the rapid turnover of senior Western officials in Kabul. “[Karzai] got very, very frustrated with dealing with an ever-changing set of faces and ever-changing set of policies,” said Graeme Smith, author and senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul.
Soaring civilian casualty rates, in part a consequence of the reliance of overstretched Western troops on air power, did not help.
In 2007, 1,500 Afghans died. In 2008, more than 2,000. Karzai’s blustering threats to ground the international forces’ jets and helicopters were politically useful, but his outrage and sense of impotence were authentic. The 2009 elections, marred by violence and fraud, damaged the relationship further.
The targets of Karzai’s often intemperate outbursts were equally frustrated, dubbing the president “feckless” and “unreliable,” briefing that he was “paranoid” and possibly abusing prescription drugs.
Many were aware of the damage the distraction of Iraq had done to the project in Afghanistan and were as frustrated as anyone locally by the apparent inability of Washington to stop Pakistan providing support for insurgents. But a U.S. troop surge, aimed at achieving the strategic breakthrough that a similar tactic had won in Iraq, failed. By 2011 the war had cost the U.S. more than $330 billion and nearly 1,400 soldiers’ lives. British casualties stood at nearly 400. Obama, who repeatedly snubbed Karzai, was very clear that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was finite.
As with many marriages, the end of that of Karzai and Washington involves bitter rows about money — aid to Kabul and subsidies for security forces — and access — the number of U.S. troops and bases that will remain after the end of this year.
“There is a general sense here that the West came, failed and is now going, and [there is] much resentment, and some fear, in the palace and in the street,” said one long-term Kabul resident.
Karzai is keenly aware that no recent ruler of his country has died peacefully. The example of Mohammed Najibullah, who ran the country under the Russians, survived until a bankrupt Moscow cut off the cash and was eventually strung up by the Taliban when they captured Kabul, looms large. It is perhaps a desire to mollify future political partners from among the insurgents and avoid his immediate presidential predecessor’s fate that explains Karzai’s stubborn refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the U.S. to keep about 10,000 troops in half a dozen bases.
But even when he leaves office, Karzai will still be hugely influential.
“Karzai was not just an individual but represented strong tribal interests and also a loose and feuding coalition of power-brokers,” said Smith, the Kabul-based expert. “He was intimately involved in how that coalition functions. And a new president . . . will still depend very heavily on Karzai’s system.”
In a corner of the Arg, there is much building activity, widely reported to be a new secure home for the former president. The construction is large and will overlook Karzai’s successor’s office.
There are still some, in the U.S. and elsewhere, who defend the president. “Given what we thought we’d be facing [at the end of 2001] — entrenched Taliban, maybe more catastrophic attacks [like 9/11], an immediate return to warlordism — things didn’t turn out horribly,” said the former senior U.S. intelligence official. “I think people today, when they look at Karzai, don’t have any perspective. And they never focus on what the alternative might have been.”