- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hamid Karzai’s name was not on the ballot in Saturday’s elections, but the outgoing president of Afghanistan is expected to remain a key political player, possibly complicating the U.S. relationship with his successor.

Millions of Afghans turned out to vote in presidential and provincial elections, defying the Taliban’s campaign of violence that kept away international election monitors.

Polling places began shipping full ballot boxes to counting centers Sunday, as the international community expressed relief that no major acts of violence were reported and praised the rate of voter turnout. Definitive election results are expected within a week.

The three front-runners of the eight presidential candidates — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul — said they were confident that they could win, or at least advance to a runoff election. All promised to respect the findings of the Independent Election Commission assuming they are “credible,” the Associated Press reported.

Ahead of the vote, supporters of Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani said they had evidence of vote fraud, voter intimidation, stuffed ballot boxes and government interference in support of Mr. Rassoul. Most of the candidates deployed their own observers to monitor polling centers after the experience of widespread fraud in the 2009 elections.

Mr. Karzai, 56, who has served as president since December 2001, was barred by the Afghan Constitution from running for a third consecutive term.

Although the election results are uncertain, it is clear that Mr. Karzai will wield considerable influence in Afghan politics even out of office — and that may be bad news for Washington.

“It will complicate the relationship with Washington,” a former high-ranking U.S. military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address delicate issues, said of Mr. Karzai’s likely influence over his successor.

Mr. Karzai’s relationship with Washington has undergone a sea change from the days he was firmly backed by the West.

Ties have turned frosty as he publicly criticized NATO’s role in Afghanistan, complained about U.S. drone strikes on suspected terrorists, and released dozens of prisoners who the Obama administration said have U.S. and Afghan blood on their hands.

Washington’s deep frustration with Mr. Karzai — not just in the Obama administration but also on Capitol Hill — was reflected in statements after Saturday’s elections.

Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the Karzai government “was a case study in how not to win international support.”

The “election offers the chance for a fresh start with a new president,” Mr. Royce said.

Analysts doubt that a new president can bring that fresh start.

That is because Mr. Karzai will continue to play a significant behind-the-scenes role, said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the South Asia and Democracy and Rule of Law programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ms. Chayes and the former U.S. military officer said Mr. Karzai’s post-presidency role would be similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role from 2008 to 2012, when he served as prime minister to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr. Karzai is not barred from running for president in 2019.

Meanwhile, his proximity to power will be literal. He will reside in a secure compound a stone’s throw away from the presidential palace, the Arg, in Kabul.

“It will, literally, be a walk across the garden for him to meet the new president,” said the former U.S. military officer.

Security in balance

The elections present the opportunity for the first democratic transition in Afghanistan’s history.

President Obama applauded the Afghan people for participating in the elections, which he said are “critical to securing Afghanistan’s democratic future, as well as continued international support.”

International coalition forces will leave Afghanistan at the end of this year.

Mr. Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement he negotiated with the administration that would allow U.S. and NATO troops to remain as advisers and counterterrorism specialists after all combat forces withdraw.

The three front-runners — Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Rassoul and Mr. Ghani — have promised to sign the security agreement if elected, but a new president may not be in place until the summer.

To win, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote. A slate of eight presidential candidates makes it unlikely that any candidate can achieve this target in the first round of voting. The outcome is expected to be decided by a runoff vote.

In such a scenario, Mr. Karzai could remain president until late into the summer.

Analysts generally predict that Mr. Rassoul ultimately will win the presidential contest because he has the backing of Mr. Karzai’s clan and his political machinery.

If Mr. Rassoul wins, his first test will be whether he signs the security agreement.

“It will be truly interesting to watch whether Rassoul asserts himself and becomes his own man,” said the former U.S. military officer. “Medvedev did strike out on his own a few times.”

‘Mayor of Kabul’

Born in 1957 in the southeastern province of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai was one of eight children of the chief of one of Afghanistan’s most powerful tribes, the Popalzai. He was educated in Kabul and in Shimla, India.

Mr. Karzai joined the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and initially supported the Taliban in the early 1990s. He quickly grew disillusioned with the Taliban and began lobbying for Western support to help topple the hard-line regime that came to power in 1996.

In 2001, a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime for sheltering al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks. The West then installed Mr. Karzai as the leader of Afghanistan, and his rule was ratified by the 2004 election.

But his influence was limited by a resurgent Taliban, and he received the moniker “mayor of Kabul.” He also was tainted by rampant corruption involving his family.

By 2009, Washington was so keen to oust Mr. Karzai that it tried to manipulate the election in a “clumsy and failed putsch,” former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in his memoir. Mr. Karzai faced Mr. Abdullah in a runoff vote. Mr. Abdullah, claiming rampant fraud, quit the race.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations invested heavily in Mr. Karzai.

“They let Karzai boil it down to a personal relationship between the U.S. government and him. That was a mistake,” said Ms. Chayes. “There aren’t a lot of other countries where the entire institutional relationship with the population of that country boils down to a kind of psychodrama with one individual, which is the way the U.S. government has allowed it to devolve in Afghanistan.”

Washington and Mr. Karzai do not have a good relationship because he has “not provided an attractive alternative to a violent, backward insurgency for the people of his country,” she said.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the state of the U.S.-Afghan relationship, and it is unfair to place all of that on Mr. Karzai, analysts and former U.S. officials say.

“Responsibility for the downturn in U.S.-Afghan relations in the latter years under President Karzai was not his alone,” said Karl Inderfurth, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“As Robert Gates accurately described in his memoir, ‘Duty’: ‘Many of his outbursts were provoked by our failure to heed concerns he voiced in private — and by internal politics in Afghanistan,’” said Mr. Inderfurth, who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration.

A mixed legacy

Mr. Karzai leaves office with a mixed legacy.

Although his frequent outbursts directed at the U.S. strained ties with Washington, it built his image as a tough, nationalist leader at home.

“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.”

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