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“Many Afghans were tired of the high-handedness of the West in their country and cherished Karzai for standing up, as it was seen, to the mighty U.S.,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

But it is of greater significance that Mr. Karzai failed to govern in a way that improved Afghans’ standard of living, he said, “and that’s finally what he needs to be measured against.”

The Karzai legacy will be hostage to the events that unfold in the next several years, Mr. Inderfurth said.

“Will he be seen as the bridge from three decades of conflict and repression to a more stable and prosperous future? Or will the gains made during his tenure in education and health care and women rights be swept away by a return to a radical, Islamist regime?” he said. “If it’s the latter, Karzai and the Afghans lose, and so will the U.S.”