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The Mayor of Kabul: Hamid Karzai’s Balancing Act

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Afghanistan, he was greeted with a flurry of denunciations from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai’s rant accused the United States of double-dealing through negotiating with Taliban intermediaries in the Gulf to help smooth the transition of Western forces out of Afghanistan, while Taliban attacks continue throughout the war-torn country. Karzai accused the Taliban and the United States of cooperation, with insurgent attacks being a ploy to justify a continued American presence after 2014, when the United States and NATO is expected to withdraw. Meanwhile, Karzai has himself reached out to the Taliban, calling on so-called “patriotic Taliban” to defect and come forward for peace talks.

Yet, these tirades, not Karzai’s first conspiratorial outbursts, should not be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic. Instead, it is a part of a deliberate strategy on Karzai’s part, in an effort to burnish his nationalist credentials ahead of his retirement in 2014, maintain the delicate balance of Afghan politics, and build on his legacy and position of power. Karzai, ever a politician, has read the political winds. While he was once considered one of America’s great friends, anti-Americanism is a political winner today.

Hamid Karzai, of the powerful Pashtun Popalzai clan of Kandahar province, was born to be a politician. His grandfather was a deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s Senate, and his family was a major power broker in the country’s south. Educated in Kabul and India, Karzai joined the Mujahadeen, the loosely organized resistance to the Russian invasion and occupation of the 1980s. In exile in Pakistan during the war, he acted as a fund-raiser for the resistance, where he made his first contacts with the United States through the CIA.

Following the war’s end in 1989, Karzai was a minister in the transitional government, which quickly collapsed into full-blown civil war. Karzai, initially part of a group that attempted to reunify the Mujahadeen, would leave Afghanistan for Pakistan following the victory of the Taliban. In exile once against, Karzai would organize support for the overthrow of the Taliban, advocating the restoration of the Afghan monarchy. Karzai would build connections with the “Northern Alliance”, an anti-Taliban coalition of mostly Tajik and Uzbek warlords led by resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir”, who was tragically assassinated two days before 9/11.

In October 2001, with the American invasion of Afghanistan, Karzai would make a triumphant return to Afghanistan. Named the leader of an Afghan transitional administration due to his position as a traditional Pashtun power broker and his long-time presence in the anti-Taliban resistance, Karzai would be elected President in 2004. His relationship during his first years in power was broadly friendly with the West. However, points of tension emerged immediately. Karzai, who according to even his allies saw himself as fulfilling the role of the king, ruled with an autocratic style despite his nickname “the mayor of Kabul”, a reference to his lack of control outside of the capital city. Under Karzai, corruption surged, with warlordism and organized crime rampant in rural areas and a parliament dominated by unreformed strongmen and tribal interests. This corruption benefitted Karzai’s family and cronies heavily, most prominently his brother Ahmed, the governor of Kandahar province and a widely known drug lord. These corrupt and authoritarian tendencies became even clearer following the 2009 presidential election, where Karzai won a narrow victory in a campaign marred by fraud and intimidation on a gargantuan scale.

On the American side, the resurgence of the Taliban beginning in 2003 was widely ignored in favour of the growing fixation on Iraq, despite pleas from Karzai and others for more assistance. American aid was paltry and directed in a distracted manner, while counter-insurgency and nation-building efforts were half-hearted. By the time American attention turned back to Afghanistan in 2008, the Taliban were revived and firmly entrenched. American forces have been callously incautious in their actions, with high rates of collateral damage.

Today, the failures of the rebuilding of Afghanistan can be placed firmly on the shoulders of the West and the Karzai regime. The Taliban seem poised to, if not sweep back into power following a Western withdrawal, instigate a return to a brutal civil war. This explains the uncoordinated, largely failed negotiations of the Afghan and American governments, and even the Afghan opposition. With the American withdrawal in 2014 all but set in stone, it only makes sense for Karzai, a king in his own mind, to secure his legacy through a populist appeal to nationalism while negotiating with the Taliban to keep the country at peace. As the United States fades from Afghanistan, expect nothing but more rants from the mayor of Kabul.

– Alex Langer


(Featured Photo: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike World Economic Forum, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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