KABUL (dpa) – Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, 56, began his rule after being chosen, in absentia, to be the country’s interim president at the international Bonn Conference in Germany in 2001.
Thirteen years on, his tenure is ending with a democratic transfer of power, albeit with a political deal amid a fraud-tainted vote. Karzai has distinguished himself from every previous Afghan leader by ceding power, and “deserves some credit for that move,” political analyst Graeme Smith said.
US Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham said Karzai should get “tremendous credit” for the first peaceful transition of political power between one Afghan president and another.
Karzai, one of Asia’s longest-serving leaders, studied in India. He then became part of the Afghan resistance movement against the Soviet occupation in the late 80s, although not as a frontline commander.
For a brief period in 1992, Karzai was appointed deputy foreign minister during an interim government after the fall of the Soviet-backed government. He left the country soon after local strongmen started fighting with each other to grab control of Kabul.
Afghanistan’s former President, Hamid Karzai, arrives for the inauguration ceremony of the new president, in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 29. Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as the next president of Afghanistan in front of some 1,500 national and international guests inside the heavily fortified official palace
Outgoing Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, sits with Chief Executive, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, during the swearing-in ceremony of new President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 29 – PHOTOS: EPA
The 1992-96 civil war ended with the Taleban taking over the country. Karzai initially supported the movement, but soon joined the fight against them.
Political activist Wazhma Frogh said Karzai would be missed. “He brought us together, particularly after a government like the Taleban,” she said.
Karzai also survived multiple assassination attempts, after which he locked himself inside the palace. But he kept his doors open mostly to tribal elders from the villages.
Frogh applauded Karzai’s patience, saying he “always listened to us, even if he didn’t do what we asked him for.”
“The access that we have had to President Karzai has been amazing. I don’t think that any president in the world would be that accessible to the people,” she said.
“I think that is something that we will be missing.”
Frogh did criticize him for depending on an informal network more than his own government.
“He made a huge mistake by listening to the tribal elders more than to his own government officials,” she said. “He tried to become a leader of the people. Not a leader of the state, or a statesman.” Karzai often said the traditional form of local politics is “closer” to the people than the state is.
Many areas of the economy boomed, and local businesses flourished. Millions of students went to schools, and mobile phone coverage reached all corners of the country.
But Frogh called the 13-year success story “a bit superficial.”
“Yes, 9 million kids are back in the schools and 45 per cent of them are girls, but after the third grade you do not find any girls in schools,” she said.
The threat is not just by the Taleban, but also the local strongmen, and powerful religious clerics.
Karzai calls himself “a pacifist in his core belief.” He refers to the Taliban militants as “our lost brothers.” His administration was dogged with a series of problems, particularly corruption. Karzai was never seen trying to rein it in. Opium cultivation also reached an all-time high this year.
The security situation has also gotten worse this year, with the rebels launching large-scale attacks across the country. Peace overtures from the government have been rebuffed.
Even so, Karzai “deserves credit for lot of the advancements taking place in Afghanistan and for building a system that held together under a lot of stress over the years,” US envoy Cunningham said.
“He undoubtedly had one of the more difficult jobs in the world for a long period of time. I am convinced he really is an Afghan patriot who wants the best thing for his country.”
In recent years, Karzai’s relationship with the West has deteriorated, especially the US, with whose support he came to power and garnered legitimacy.
It hit a low after the fraud-tainted 2009 elections, when the US tried to replace him with his rival.
In his final address to government officials on Tuesday, Karzai took the opportunity to take a last jab at the US, saying the Americans did not want to bring peace to Afghanistan
The US envoy in Kabul called it “ungracious and ungrateful.”