[Critics say the former president of Afghanistan is working from the wings to destabilize his successor’s government.]
By Mujib Mashal
Mr. Karzai’s critics accuse him of working from the wings to destabilize the
government and exploit a moment of national crisis to try to return to power.
Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president and current antagonist to his successor’s government, likes to describe Afghan politics as a marathon.
To the long roll call of visitors he meets each day — regional power brokers and elders, government officials, religious leaders, well-wishers who reminisce longingly about his years in power — the metaphor is clear. Mr. Karzai has never stopped running, never stopped maneuvering, and he won’t.
Mr. Karzai’s critics, especially those close to President Ashraf Ghani, accuse him of working from the wings to destabilize the government and exploit a moment of national crisis to try to return to power — or at least to force some concessions. They say Mr. Karzai is actively undermining a vulnerable president, maintaining an alternate pole of political influence and patronage, and stoking protest movements that some fear could turn violent.
So what is Mr. Karzai’s answer? He flatly denies that he’s trying to harm the government. But then there’s the hint of a wry smile: “If there are some people running faster, those who are falling behind should not complain.”
Following Mr. Karzai through days of meetings — dozens of discussions, and interviews on and off camera — it becomes clear that he is still operating like a man in power.
His many visitors come to seek his leverage in the government, and he is happy to pick up the telephone to call a minister, a governor or an ambassador. He still communicates with world leaders, signing letters to them on weekly basis.
Much of Mr. Karzai’s politics happens around noon, when a larger crowd gathers for a group prayer on the grass outside and then follows him upstairs to a sunlit dining table for lunch. On a given day, there are former and current government officials, generals, judges, bankers, tribal elders, former members of the Taliban and preachers from Kabul’s major mosques.
A master storyteller and conversationalist, Mr. Karzai takes his seat at the head of the table.
“Who is raising this question out there, that I am returning?” Mr. Karzai began one recent conversation over stuffed peppers, vegetable rice, and chicken cooked with carrots. “I have made it clear I don’t want to.”
But that was good enough to stir a spirited conversation, full of anecdotes about his days in power and how people do not trust the current government. One former cabinet minister, who still serves as an adviser to Mr. Ghani, insisted that Mr. Karzai was the only natural alternative, and a great hope to the 90 percent of the country disenchanted with the current government.
Mr. Karzai listened attentively. He took another bite.
He seems to invite the question hanging over him: If Mr. Karzai does not want to return to power, just what is he trying to achieve by increasing pressure on a government already on the brink?
And it is on the brink. In private conversations, Afghan and Western officials alike worry that Mr. Ghani’s administration may be facing an existential crisis that could peak as soon as next month.
The end of September is the deadline for the government to meet the commitments of a political deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry after the catastrophic 2014 election dispute. By then, Afghanistan is supposed to hold a parliamentary election, enact sweeping electoral reform, and amend the Constitution to create the position of prime minister for Mr. Ghani’s election rival and current governing partner, Abdullah Abdullah. But staying on schedule was already impossible many months ago, and Mr. Kerry has publicly insisted that Mr. Ghani’s government will remain through the end of its five-year term, regardless.
That is just the beginning. The country’s security situation is worsening, despite the American military’s increased involvement in the fighting. The Taliban have seized many districts, and they threaten to take many more.
Mr. Ghani, the constant technocrat, has been forced to focus on security, and his economic initiatives have stalled. And suddenly he has also been challenged by a street protest movement in which ethnic Hazaras are accusing his government of systematic discrimination.
The most recent of the demonstrations was struck by a suicide bombing, claimed by the Islamic State, that left at least 80 people dead. Now the demonstrators accuse the government of purposefully leaving them vulnerable to attack, and they have given Mr. Ghani an ultimatum to meet their demands — another September deadline, as it turns out.
On top of all that, a new protest movement, potentially more dangerous, is growing just north of Kabul, the capital, calling for the government to rebury with dignity a bandit northern king who has been dead for nearly a century, shot by a firing squad. Among the people calling for the reburial, and threatening protests, are northern militia commanders who have long been skeptical of Mr. Ghani, and they have also given him a September ultimatum.
Government officials accuse Mr. Karzai and his allies of having a hand in the recent protests. But he says he is after neither the collapse of the government nor a return to power. “I have absolutely no doubt about that,” he said.
He just wants the government’s legitimacy affirmed after the September deadline, he said, and the only way left is to call a traditional loya jirga — a grand assembly of tribal elders from across the country.
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Mr. Karzai’s push for a loya jirga is the move most widely seen as a game plan for returning to power, or at least for negotiating more leverage. His strength is with the tribes and the power brokers he has maintained at his side, while Mr. Ghani has alienated many of them.
It helps to understand that Mr. Karzai represents an entire network of power — national as well as local — accumulated over 13 years and beyond. That network feels that it is slowly being uprooted under Mr. Ghani’s presidency, and that it could be vastly weakened if the current government survives the September deadline intact.
In Kandahar, powerful strongmen who owe their rise to Mr. Karzai’s protection have had standoffs recently with officials sent by Mr. Ghani over lucrative custom taxes and where the money goes. A northern lawmaker who stopped by to see Mr. Karzai complained that the government was cutting her off and working “so beautifully and systematically” to weaken their mutual support base. She might not return from vacation abroad, she said, if the situation continued and Mr. Karzai did not signal his plan clearly.
If it came to an open political struggle, it is unclear whether Mr. Ghani would be able to score points with what would be perhaps his best case to make against Mr. Karzai: that the seeds of both the current security and political crises were sown on Mr. Karzai’s watch, and that the former president left him a system suffocating in corruption and patronage.
That is in part because Mr. Karzai has been busy using his social acumen to try to shed a more favorable light on his legacy after 13 years in power.
Mr. Karzai, who lives a stone’s throw from the presidential palace, says his routine has changed little since he was president. He has more free time to relax in the afternoons, but his mornings are busier. He meets more people than he did when he was in power. On average, his office estimated, Mr. Karzai sees more than 400 people a month. Every Eid, three-day Muslim celebrations that come twice a year, Mr. Karzai opens his gates to a flow of visitors, reaching up to 6,000 people.
From the moment he leaves his residence in the morning, his two young daughters tugging at his trousers, he is a man on the move, trailed by secret service agents. Mr. Karzai, 58, describes himself as hyperactive, and he is rail-thin. He drinks four or five espressos a day.
He still moves with ease among drastically different groups of people, from Oruzgan elders who interrupt him with passionate diatribes, to groups of youths coming to present him with their latest research.
Mr. Karzai makes them laugh, and when they shed tears, as one group visiting from central Afghanistan did during a recent audience, he offers tissues.
As for what he might be seeking from all of this, Western officials in Kabul acknowledge that Mr. Karzai, a masterful tactician and politician, does not necessarily need to have a clear concept of what he wants. He can mount pressure on the government in ways big and small, throw many irons in the fire, and perhaps force a critical blunder from Mr. Ghani.
But Mr. Ghani is not without resources. Much will depend on how many opposition figures the president can co-opt to keep Mr. Karzai at least partly on the margins.
Mr. Karzai reserves his sharpest criticism of the government for what he considers its biggest sin: cozying up, “immensely, sadly,” to the United States and relying on it for its survival.
Mr. Karzai, who sent flowers to the American ambassador for the Fourth of July holiday and then signed a thank-you note to the ambassador for thanking him, said in an interview with The New York Times last week that “the Americans, whose primary slogan is democracy, are making a sham of democracy in Afghanistan.”
He is not fundamentally against the American presence, he says: He just wants them to stop bombing his country and interfering in the political process, which he accused Mr. Kerry of doing in the spring when he insisted on a full-term Ghani government.
“This is a blatant interference to undermine the sovereignty of Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said in the interview. “Look at this country: What do we have other than our pride and sovereignty? Then someone comes — from a good place, America — stands here in our country to determine the duration of our government as he sees fit? That is an insult.”
Meanwhile, the streams of visitors continue, and Mr. Karzai regales them with parables that at times seem like bids for redemption, and at others like foresight.
During one lunch, he told a story of a group of tired travelers in a desert who see a fire in the distance and hear drums. Men are dancing the circle-dance called Attan. The travelers decide to spend the night there, and to make their hosts feel comfortable, they join in the dance.
But the dance stretches on and on.
“One of the travelers is wise, he realizes it is the devil’s dance and it will go on all night,” Mr. Karzai told the guests. “When the morning comes, there would be no sign of a dance or the devils.”
He paused, then drove the point home: “We are stuck in the dance of the devil,” he said, to chuckles. “When the sun rises, the devils will be gone, but we will be left in this dry land.”
Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter @MujMash.
Reporting was contributed by Matthew Rosenberg from Washington, and Jawad Sukhanyar, Mohammad Fahim Abed and Zahra Nader from Kabul.