On His Own

14 minute read
Aryn Baker / Kabul

Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to know exactly what the U.S. wants from his country. It’s simply not possible, Karzai suggests over the course of an hour-long interview with Time, that after 10 years and more than $533 billion, the world’s most powerful military hasn’t been able to subdue a ragtag militia. And then there is the matter of the botched 2009 Afghan presidential election. International election observers reported massive fraud conducted on behalf of Karzai’s winning re-election campaign, but the 54-year-old accuses the West of trying to rig the election against him. “That makes me think as to what their intention is in this country,” he says, leaning forward on the polished expanse of his desk at the presidential palace in Kabul. “That is why we are so suspicious, that is why we are turning every stone to find out if there is something else in the corner waiting for us.”

Before my visit to see the President of Afghanistan, I had been warned that Karzai was on the verge of a breakdown, that his temper was out of control, that he was paranoid and had taken to dressing down subordinates in public. I dismissed those rumors as the gripes of those who had fallen out of favor. But once inside the palace, I was surprised to hear a few Karzai loyalists cheerily confirm one of the rumors as fact. “Oh yes, Karzai likes to yell,” says Anwar Hamidi, an aide who handles catering at the palace. “His doctor told him to, that it was unhealthy to keep it bottled up. It’s better for his heart to let things out.” Though most Afghans would be shocked by such an obvious loss of self-control, Hamidi has learned not to take Karzai’s occasional tantrum personally. “He shouts, and then he forgets. Who can blame him? It’s a difficult job, and he’s been doing it for 10 years.”

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That job is about to get a lot harder. On May 21, at the NATO summit in Chicago, U.S. President Barack Obama and Karzai announced that NATO forces would step back from combat operations to allow the Afghan army to take the lead in securing the country over the next year. Obama made it clear that his plan for withdrawing the nearly 90,000 U.S. troops currently operating in Afghanistan by 2014 was on track. Speaking to Time, Karzai suggests that foreign combat forces could leave as early as 2013, a year ahead of Obama’s schedule. Within six months, he says, the Afghan army will be responsible for securing 75% of the country. The transition “is good for us,” Karzai says, “and good for them. It’s our country and we must defend it.”

Brave words, but it’s not like he has a choice. Just as Karzai has his suspicions about his American sponsors, so does the West have its doubts about Afghanistan. So while Obama announced at the NATO summit that it was time to “responsibly bring this war to an end,” the only thing that will really be ending over the next two years is the West’s responsibility to Afghanistan. The rest is up to Karzai, who, after a decade in the political passenger seat, must now take the wheel. And he must do so under the cloud of a faltering peace process with a resilient Taliban insurgency responsible for an unending stream of civilian and military deaths.

For Karzai — who has struggled to balance the needs of his broken nation against the demands of a coalition of Western powers determined to root out terrorism at any cost — it will be the ultimate test. After a decade of failure marked by accusations of egregious government corruption, can he finally become the leader Afghanistan needs? And even if he can, will he be able to hand that power over to a new democratically elected President once his own term ends in 2014? “You could foresee a situation where those elections in 2014 don’t go well and we don’t get a broadly supported government,” says former Bush Administration National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. “You could be handing over security to a government in the middle of a political meltdown, and that would not be a recipe for success.”

Karzai has been the President of Afghanistan for 10 years, but now he truly has to lead — and little in Karzai’s past suggests that he has the will, let alone the ability, to take on the challenge.

Fear in Kabul
Karzai thinks he’s winning his war. “I can tell you with confidence that the Taliban as a force to threaten the government of Afghanistan, or the way of life we have chosen, is no longer there,” he says. But Karzai’s optimism seems absurd in the face of brutal facts outside the presidential palace. The Taliban have gained ground in the north and east, areas they had failed to conquer even when they were in power before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Last year’s 3,021 civilian deaths marked the fifth straight year that the toll has risen; three-quarters of those killings have been attributed to the insurgency. Taliban commanders consistently tell Time that they want nothing to do with Karzai’s peace overtures. The morning I met with Karzai, gunmen assassinated a prominent member of his High Peace Council. I ask if the assassination, attributed to a Taliban splinter group, would derail the peace process. “Not at all,” he answers. “We cannot abandon seeking peace. It will happen.”

MORE: Obama’s Afghanistan Problem: Neither Karzai Nor the Taliban Like the ‘Reconciliation’ Script

Yet the Afghan army meant to give force to Karzai’s words is still embryonic. The goal is to reach 195,000 trained troops by October, along with an additional 157,000 police. As NATO forces hand districts over to the Afghan National Security Forces, some international troops will stay behind in an advisory capacity. Others will be redeployed to fill security gaps elsewhere in the country. The rest will go home. According to General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, 23,000 U.S. troops will be on their way out before September, leaving some 68,000 American military personnel in Afghanistan — the number of troops present before Obama’s 2009 surge. As NATO stands down, Afghan forces will need to stand up.

For now, though, there’s a vacuum — one with consequences for the Afghan economy as well as security. When foreign forces depart, so too will the wartime funding and development aid that have inflated the Afghan economy. Uncertainty about the future has stifled the Afghan private sector and paralyzed foreign direct investment. Even comfortable Afghans are mired in malaise, afraid that the good times — such as they are — won’t last. “When the Americans leave, the Taliban will come the next day,” says Mohammad Jabar, a 25-year-old university student who likes to spend his Saturday afternoons bowling in Afghanistan’s only alley, which opened in Kabul last fall. “We are praying to God not to let them come back.”

That pervasive fear has spread to affluent Kabul neighborhoods like Sherpur, where wedding-cake narcovillas, once impossible to rent for under $10,000 a month, now stand unwanted. Some people are voting with their feet — last year 30,000 Afghans legally sought asylum abroad. Corruption is mounting, as everyone from high-level ministers to traffic cops stuff their pockets before funds dry up. The Afghan central bank reports that $4.6 billion in cash was taken out of the country last year, a flight of capital nearly equivalent to the country’s $4.8 billion annual budget.

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The insecurity and corruption cannot all be blamed on Karzai, but he’s done too little to stem it. “There is corruption in Afghanistan, no doubt,” Karzai admits. But he adds that international donors have themselves fueled that corruption with opaque contracts and attempts to curry favor with prominent politicians. Before I could point out that corrupt parliamentarians were the government’s responsibility no matter where the money came from, Karzai changed the subject.

His unwillingness to see the bigger picture does not bode well for his ability to take Afghanistan through this difficult transition, says Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the AfPak region. “I don’t think he really understands the problem. He is thinking narrowly of his own survival, his family’s survival and regime survival, and not what is best for the country.”

The Unlikely Leader
But then, Karzai was never really meant for power. The middle son of an influential tribal leader from Kandahar, he was sent to study in India in 1976, where he embraced Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and, to a certain extent, vegetarianism. (In a country where the powerful eat meat at nearly every meal, Karzai notably limits his consumption — and that of the palace — to three days a week.) When an international conference on Afghanistan appointed Karzai interim President in 2001, it had little to do with his leadership abilities. He was the lowest common denominator, inoffensive in a country plagued by ethnic divisions where few leaders could boast clean hands. “Karzai is a good person, pure and sincere,” says former Afghan President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. “But he is not a person who is really strong, who can be a big man and control everything in the country.”

At the same conference, Karzai was presented with a ready-made Cabinet designed to balance ethnic rivalries for power. It would soon become a liability. He had no political power and no ability to direct, or sack, members of his Cabinet. When Karzai was elected in a landslide in 2004, he could have taken a stand, dismissing the power-seeking warlords and political operatives that had corrupted his Cabinet. But by then it was too late. “He can’t be blamed for how he got his start,” says former spokesman Waheed Omar. “What he can be blamed for is that when he got into a position where he could reverse those early, bad decisions, he did not.”

The result has been an inconsistent Afghan government that lacks the enforcement power needed to root out corruption and put an end to opium farming and heroin trafficking. The West, and particularly the Americans, became increasingly frustrated, as former U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry put it in a 2009 diplomatic cable that was subsequently leaked: “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. [He] continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development.”

MORE: Obama’s Afghanistan Plan: Echoes of Vietnam in the U.S. Exit Strategy

That cable, along with public accusations of fraud during the 2009 presidential election, marked the nadir of U.S.-Afghan relations. They have never really recovered; as a former U.S. government official tells Time: “Karzai has pushed the U.S. from crisis to crisis.” An enraged Karzai responded by turning away from Washington, replacing advisers he suspected of being pro-Western with a cadre of anti-American ideologues. “The West has been against me, clearly,” says Karzai.

The irony is that with no party and no natural constituency in his native country, Karzai’s power has largely stemmed from his ability to command international forces and funds. With both vanishing by the day, Karzai is finding that his needs may be diverging from those of his nation. In order to keep Afghanistan on a stable path, he will have to sublimate self-interest to the greater good.

The early indications are not promising. Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, cites the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was signed in early May after a contentious process. Karzai’s insistence that certain elements of the compact — which lays out security and economic relations between the two countries for another decade — be put aside for later consultation appeared to be a stalling tactic designed to preserve his own power for at least another year, at the expense of Afghanistan’s security. “It is in Afghanistan’s interest to have a strong relationship with the U.S., both as a deterrent to the Taliban and to guard against interference by neighboring countries,” says Wilder. “The longer that process takes to finalize, the greater the chance that interest in the U.S. will dry out.” And with it, Karzai’s last remaining bargaining chips.

(MORE: A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?)

After Karzai
Karzai says he is troubled by Afghan fears that the NATO withdrawal will bring a Taliban conquest in its wake. He chalks it up to media propaganda seeking to justify a continued international military presence in his country. Karzai believes the departure of NATO will mean that the bulk of the Taliban will no longer have a reason to fight. “When [NATO leaves], the Afghan people will be more effective in their fight against terrorists,” he says emphatically. “So I have no worry about that.”

But Karzai may be out of touch with what’s actually happening in his country. Security restrictions keep him bottled up inside the presidential palace. It’s been seven years since Karzai last walked around his capital, seven years of assassination attempts, bombings, attacks and riots. Still, he says he longs for nothing more than a stroll down the newly paved streets, a moment to consider the crystalline growth of blue-glass office blocks and half-finished shopping malls that are the hallmarks of Afghanistan’s faltering wartime economy.

In two years, Karzai will get his wish. By law he will have to step down at the end of his second term, clearing the way for Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic transition of presidential power. Even though speculation is rife that Karzai will attempt to prolong his presidency, he says he has no intention of staying a day longer than his allotted term. “Beyond that I will be illegitimate,” he tells Time. But while Karzai may be willing to leave the palace, he’s not entirely willing to relinquish power — at least not yet. Finding a successor, he says, is “one of my perhaps most important responsibilities” — but does Karzai want a strong successor, or just a weak proxy?

Afghanistan will be vulnerable enough once foreign troops depart, but if Karzai continues to manipulate the levers of power, the outcome may be even worse. “If there isn’t a credible election, this could be another fault line for greater instability,” says Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Whether Karzai can stand back and let the Afghan people decide where they want to take their country, or whether he might swing the election illegally, will determine the future of Afghanistan as much as the contentious debate over how many foreign troops should stay on past 2014.

“The best thing Karzai can do to be a historic figure is to allow a peaceful transfer of power and not go the Putin route,” says U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican highly involved in Afghan policy. “[Karzai] does have the right to help pick the next President, but if they try to do it in a way that’s outside good business practices, it will ruin his legacy.” Karzai himself knows the next two years will be decisive for his career — and his country. “Eventually it’s the Afghan people and what they do that will determine the future of Afghanistan,” he says. “If we as a nation do the right thing and establish a government that is in the service of the Afghan people, we would not at all be damageable.” The question, after all this time, is whether Karzai is the person to do it.

with reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington and Walid Fazly / Kabul

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