Hamid Karzai: The kingmaker?

How Afghanistan can overcome the complex transition hurdles standing along its path.

Karzai has tried to foster a perception that he is the de facto kingmaker in the April vote [AP]

The controversial release of 65 detainees this week from Bagram Airbase is only the latest bilateral bone of contention between Kabul and Washington. Like many of the other divisive issues that have emerged in recent years, it really represents one layer, among many, of a strategy as part of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attempt at a grand finale before his 13-year presidency ends this year.

More than a question of security versus sovereignty, the political transition highlighted by this April’s presidential elections and a reconciliation bid with the country’s armed opponents, is the catalyst that shapes Karzai’s transition and post-2014 calculus.

The Afghan president has set seemingly unrealistic conditions for signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US, opened back-channel contacts with various Taliban and other renegade factions (with some level of Pakistani encouragement) and attempted to foster a perception among Afghan and foreign constituencies that he is the de facto kingmaker in the April ballots.

Karzai clearly appears to be trying to impact elections through pre-and post-election bargaining in an effort to produce a successor who will be pliant to his wishes.

Karzai clearly appears to be trying to impact elections through pre-and post-election bargaining in an effort  to produce a successor who will be pliant to his wishes.

He has proven his critics in the punditry wrong once again by disowning the lame duck status for a few more weeks. But many believe that he is overplaying his hand, and risking not only his own standing in the international community, but also his place in history by alienating his own population who see him as a risk-taking gambler willing to bet big with a weak hand.

Some are wondering whether Karzai, plagued by mistrust of his western partners, is moving toward the ultimate hedging strategy. That would mean sidestepping the US and Western donors, keeping India and Iran on his good side, giving assurances to Russia and China, and speeding up the outreach to Taliban factions (via Pakistan) and other fringe groups.

A provisional accord?

Some Afghans even speculate that he aims to postpone elections or annul them if a new power-sharing arrangement, that would maintain his influence, can be worked out as part of a provisional accord.

There are reports that current and former Taliban officials have met in the United Arab Emirates  mid February to respond to Karzai’s overtures in light of worsening relations with Washington.

Under such conditions, the preferred scenario would be to shape the outcome of elections with the help and participation of agreeable Taliban and fringe factions (needing Pakistani blessing). That would be sufficient to assure a larger voter turnout but may not be enough to assure the desired outcome.

But if the Taliban or decision-making factions within the movement do not play ball and do not enter the fray in good faith by April, then Karzai has to step back and allow the democratic process to go forward without them. Any attempt at delaying or annulling the process would jeopardise the gains of the last 13 years, create deep rifts within society and strengthen the hand of extremists on all sides.

In either case, signing the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghanistan, and pursuing normalised relations with the US and NATO, will not harm shared interests unless the Taliban want to dominate the landscape. In that case, reconciliation would be a one-sided solution not acceptable to most Afghans.

Afghans, including presidential contenders, need to keep a close watch on these developing trends, and not allow any mortgaging of their country’s future.

The international community, on the other hand, should focus on the country’s prospects, on how to help it navigate the rough waters of transition, and not obsess about one person or manage relations on the basis of psychological profiling.

Instincts and interests

All stakeholders need to contend with the fact that Hamid Karzai did the best he could under the circumstances over the last 13 years as an engaged caretaker leader; that he defined, prioritised and acted upon instincts and interests, and surrounded himself with individuals and cliques whom he considered as loyal or that could at least for a moment be co-opted.

In any event, and certainly in the absence of the dramatic but low probability scenarios mentioned, Karzai will be leaving a plate full of challenges to his successor.

Whoever that may be, he seems bent on assuring continuity of his policies and key positions for his loyalists, by being a supra-mentor to the new president living in his newly refurbished villa adjacent to the presidential palace.

Whether the scenario pans out as he expects or not, it would be a sign of respect for the process if the election winner gives the departing president a dignified sendoff, with full pension and immunity as prescribed by law.

As Afghans, we need to make sure that the age of rancour and vindictiveness, abundant in our history, is behind us. It would also be apt to assign the first post-Taliban leader with a ceremonial position that would channel his best intentions in support of a noble cause of his own choosing.

For his part, the outgoing President should realise that as his term comes to an end, he is responsible for the smooth and timely transfer of power to a new elected leader.

This act will surely seal his legacy as long as the process leading to elections and the changing of the guard is viewed by most Afghans as relatively credible and legitimate. The absence of such assurance would inevitably lead to internal ruptures and international backlash.

That is why the next few weeks leading up to elections on April 5, and then the days leading to ballot box result tallying, are of utmost importance in terms of allowing the process to take its course according to election laws and pledges of non-interference by government agencies and authorities, and the many interested foreign governments.

Furthermore, the election commissions must show their true independent colours and not allow undue influence in the vote collection and tallying by patronage networks trying to sway the results.

While the detainee saga may loom large and hurt deep, it is only one part of a grander puzzle that is currently at play. Donors and others need to adjust their postures accordingly.

Time being of the essence, it is only by remaining engaged and coordinated with the donor community, committed to the democratic process, acting as a unifier and not overplaying one’s hand that Afghanistan can have a chance at overcoming the complex transition hurdles standing along its path.

Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).