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Afghanistan's Once and Future King

President Hamid Karzai will leave office after voters choose a new president this Saturday. But that doesn't mean he'll relinquish power.

by Gary Owen
Apr 2 2014, 1:55pm

Photo via Reuters

Afghanistan's 2014 presidential elections will be the first democratic transfer of presidential power in the country's history — and the first time since the passage of the 2004 constitution that Hamid Karzai will not be the person elected president.

An Afghan president may serve only two terms, and Karzai has come to the end of his second. Though he has stated publicly that he would leave office once the elections are completed, many people in Afghanistan long suspected he wasn't telling the truth. Current candidate Abdullah Abdullah told the AFP last year that, “President Karzai will make an effort to extend his tenure. The president's best option is to create an emergency security situation so everyone says, 'Under these circumstances, how can we have elections?'"

But election day is this Saturday, and Karzai is apparently going to vacate his post willingly … though he isn't vacating the presidential palace grounds. Instead, Karzai and his family will be moving into a mansion next door to — and within the same walls as — the palace, where he plans to continue his active role in Afghan affairs. Leaving office and remaining alive place Karzai in the minority of recent Afghan leaders, but that's not surprising; from the Soviet occupation, through the Taliban regime, into post-9/11 Afghanistan, Karzai has not only survived, but thrived in a complex political environment that would make Machiavelli cringe. Karzai is not a man who needs to be president to make his presence known.

Nowhere is Karzai’s ability to navigate dangerous waters more evident than in his relationship with the Taliban.

His story of success is a common one among the repatriated Afghans who returned after the American invasion in 2001. With the support of the US, they managed to assume positions of power in the new Afghanistan and have been doing well ever since. Karzai left Afghanistan for college in India in the 1970s; following the Soviet invasion in 1979, he was part of the mujahideen movement fighting the Russian occupation — and that's when he first came into contact with the CIA. This relationship would continue for years, the support the CIA provided Karzai proving at least partially responsible for his ability to gain and stay in power.

During the Soviet occupation, Karzai was heavily involved in the transitional government, and when the Islamic State of Afghanistan was established in Kabul in 1992, Karzai was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister. At the time, the Taliban were on their way toward eventual control of the entire country — a state of affairs welcomed by Karzai, who saw them as a stabilizing force capable of bringing law and order to a nation battered by war. But after growing increasingly concerned about foreign influences, he left the government in 1994.

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Nowhere is Karzai’s ability to navigate dangerous waters more evident than in his relationship with the Taliban. Public declarations that they are his brothers have never sat well with either his Western allies or Afghans who view the Taliban far less fondly than their president. His stance may seem incongruous with his credentials as an anti-Taliban fighter allied with the US-backed Northern Alliance, but his approach to the Taliban — call it nuanced or two-faced — dates back to 1998, when Karzai said that “there were many wonderful people in the Taliban, many moderate and patriotic people, but the control from the outside, the interference from Pakistan and the radical Arabs, made it hard for the moderates to stay there and help.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on January 25 emphasized his decision not to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States.

The idea that foreign actors are to blame for all of Afghanistan’s woes is one that recurs in Karzai’s comments about both Pakistan and US-led NATO forces. When those kinds of statements are directed toward the coalition, it raises the ire of Western observers. But they are yet another sign that Karzai the politician is looking ahead to his legacy post-election and prefers to be seen as the man who stood up to the invaders rather than the man who simply took bags of money from the CIA and did the bidding of his American handlers.

Any man who’s willing to take cash from both the Americans and the Iranians, and still say that “I have never asked the Americans for assistance or money for our country,” is a man more than capable of engineering a continuation of his power when he is no longer officially part of the Afghan political scene. In addition to his future mansion on the palace grounds that he refers to as “a very nice house, a very good one," there is the 2011 report from the German BND intelligence agency that Karzai was investigating a Putinesque model for succession when it came time for him to leave office. (When Vladimir Putin left office in 2008, he engineered an agreement with incoming president Dmitry Medvedev, allowing Putin to run again in 2012.) At the time the BND report was shown to the press, Karzai publicly stated that he was ready to become a “pensioner and happy citizen." But he was also looking for a handpicked successor who would give him unrestricted access to the presidential palace after the 2014 elections.

Karzai said that he was ready to become a 'pensioner.' But he was also looking for a successor who would give him unrestricted access to the presidential palace.

First reported by the German paper Bild, the BND report was dismissed by both Afghan and Western officials. “I think we should believe the words of the man himself," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said at the time.

In 2012, a similar question was raised with Ryan Crocker, then US Ambassador to Afghanistan. “Unless circumstances change dramatically," Crocker said, "I'm quite confident that President Karzai will not seek to amend the constitution.” Neither Hague’s nor Crocker’s statements, nearly a year apart, addressed the possibility — or probability — that Karzai was angling for a power-sharing agreement, or even setting up another run for office in the future.

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It is this public non-acknowledgment by Western officials of plans by Karzai to maintain control of the presidential office after the elections that lend the BND report additional credence; it paints a picture of a non-Karzai presidency that will have more than a passing allegiance to Karzai himself. It was Western funding and support that put Karzai in power beginning in 2002, but he managed to leverage that support into a power base that is entirely his own. What’s clear is that Karzai will leave office when he is legally obligated to do so — what’s not clear is how much he will influence his successor once he does. Karzai is not a man accustomed to sitting idle when power is in play.