Afghan politics has always been a complicated and ruthless affair, yet Karzai has withstood the turbulence like no leader before him.
The former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has had several lives in the ‘Great Game’ of Afghanistan, a term first coined for the nineteenth-century rivalry between the British Indian Empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire in Central Asia.
Few, however, have survived in Afghan politics as long as Karzai and still maintained relevance. During the British and Russian times, there was a roller coaster of Shah Shuja, Mahmud Shah and Dost Mohammad Khan all rotating between Kabul, Kandahar and Attock – all this eloquently described in William Dalrymple’s seminal work, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan.
And unlike the misfortune of his two predecessors, Presidents Najibullah and Ustaad Rabbani, Karzai has not just survived assassination attempts by the Taliban but is now actively poised to bring them into government for the first time.
All this while being the favourite of the US turned scapegoat for their failures, and to now once again being sought after by the Americans as a go-between for the Taliban and the Afghan government.
From US favourite to whipping boy
Bette Dam’s book, A Man and a Motorcycle, How Hamid Karzai Came to Power, and Eric Blehm & Jason Amerine’s, The Only Thing Worth Dying For: How Eleven Green Berets Forged a New Afghanistan, go into some detail about the emergence of Hamid Karzai. The former president negotiated peace terms with Taliban leaders in Kandahar and Helmand, and he won over several prominent tribal elders to back him instead of the Taliban-allied foreign fighters of Al Qaeda.
A myth, some of it real, supported the American argument that Karzai was the only leader who could lead post-Taliban Afghanistan.
He was the toast of DC and other European capitals during the first years of the war. But soon the American version narrated that Karzai has gone mad, and no one in NATO trusted him anymore and that Karzai was the obstacle for progress in Afghanistan.
Karzai had gone from being the most liked to the most disliked. From being described as the most fashionable politician in the world, senior UN diplomats were saying that Karzai suffered from serious drug abuse and addiction.
This says more about the Western media’s obsession with individual leaders in developing countries but also how they first build someone and then try to destroy him. In Karzai, however, the West met someone they could not outmanoeuvre or destroy completely.
Karzai hits back
Indeed Karzai was no outsider who was parachuted from nowhere as many American accounts claimed.
He came from the all-important Durrani tribe that had forged Afghanistan in the first place, and his ancestors were tribal leaders always involved in regional politics.
Furthermore, without Karzai, there would have been no Bonn Conference, and it was Karzai who made the compromise between Iran, Pakistan, the erstwhile Northern Alliance and the Central Asian states to have a viable state when the Taliban collapsed in the winter of 2001.
It was Karzai who with dignity brought the Afghan King back and then allowed him to transition power to a new alliance. But as the Americans and British took their eye off Afghanistan and into Iraq, Karzai also noticed that the US and NATO were no longer a force for good in Afghanistan and that he and the Afghans had become a sideshow for Iraq and a more significant regional battle with China and Iran.
Karzai started criticising the Americans and their lack of strategy or progress.
He did not want to be the scapegoat for American and NATO failures. He also openly became the first Afghan leader to criticise US air strikes and did not want immunity for US troops in Afghanistan.
Whilst many called him a puppet – he was taking the fight to the Americans and pushing back against direct interference and hegemony in Kabul.
Karzai’s allegations against the Americans and other forces started gaining support, and after stepping down as president, he became more popular for his blunt manner. He also became a regular and sought after speaker at the world’s top conferences, from Moscow to Istanbul to New Delhi.
He was sharing the stage with world leaders more than his beleaguered successor, Ashraf Ghani. He had also started getting the Russians, Americans and Iranians all talking to the Taliban.
Behind the scenes diplomat and father figure
Long before it became fashionable, Karzai had called for peace talks almost a decade ago.
Indeed while the Americans removed the Taliban in 2001, he wanted amnesty for them knowing that the Taliban were different from Al Qaeda.
Now after almost 18 years the Americans are coming full circle and agreeing with Karzai and his earlier calls to include the Taliban in any political process.
The Taliban have not objected to any participation of Karzai in their recent meetings. Indeed it is Karzai and not Ghani that is talking to the Taliban and making way for reconciliation with Kabul, and Hanif Atmar has followed suit.
Karzai is also using his relations with Russia and China to good effect and positioning them as significant players in Afghanistan again.
Karzai has proven all his critics wrong especially those in the West who scapegoated him for all their faults. He is now an essential figure in the lobbies of power and is plotting the way forward for the Afghan government to reconcile and talk to the Taliban and new regional powers.
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