Afghans Look Back at Karzai Presidency With Surprising Fondness


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May 13, 2015
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Afghans Look Back at Karzai Presidency With Surprising Fondness

Just seven months after Hamid Karzai stepped down from the Afghan presidency, leaving a tattered relationship with the Americans, a battered economy and worsening security, Afghanistanalready seems to be awash with nostalgia for the former president.

That would have been unthinkable not so long ago. But with President Ashraf Ghani increasingly antagonizing even some of his allies with a series of imperious decisions and continued struggles to complete a functioning government, many have taken to remembering Mr. Karzai fondly.

“The new government is a nightmare,” said Bashir, a 37-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul who like many Afghans has only one name. “I truly miss Karzai.”

The sentiment can be heard in many different corners of the country these days. It has been espoused by poppy farmers interviewed in the outer reaches of Helmand Province and whispered by bureaucrats in the government’s stagnant ministries.

But how can Afghans be nostalgic when it is clear that many of the problems they worry about — an ailing economy, increasing gains by the Taliban, and rampant corruption — were firmly entrenched during Mr. Karzai’s tenure and have been at the top of Mr. Ghani’s agenda to fix?

Further, how can Afghan officials be missing Mr. Karzai when he has not truly left?

In recent months, though he has been out of the public spotlight, Mr. Karzai has nonetheless been omnipresent on the political scene. He has set up shop a short walk from the presidential palace and is doing everything he can to cultivate those dispossessed by the new administration. He hosts expansive meals with a wide array of elders, politicians and luminaries, continuing a tradition from his time in the palace.

The Karzai camp has been ascendant again in great part because of the steep political costs to Mr. Ghani as he has tried to clean up a government that he once described as “a house that is burning.” In working to dismantle the lucrative patronage networks and power centers that defined the Karzai administration, Mr. Ghani has embittered a number of influential leaders who benefited from the status quo.

His manner has not helped. While no one expected him to exude the personal charm of Mr. Karzai, who could fire someone then dine with them the next day, Mr. Ghani has been all stick and no carrot. The signature accomplishment of his first seven months in office has been a mass firing — the unilateral dismissal of every serving cabinet member and provincial governor in the country, positions he has still not entirely filled.

“Ghani is highly educated, corruption-free and responsive to women’s rights,” said Farzana, a university student in Kabul. “But Karzai knew how to play the game.”

It is a game the former president has continued to play.

Among his guests lately have been former officials, tribal strongmen, religious leaders and even his erstwhile adversaries: the American military leadership Mr. Karzai spent his last few months in office deriding.

Many of these visitors are the outcasts of the Ghani government, men who have been fired, embarrassed, ignored or betrayed.

Consider Juma Khan Hamdard, a powerful governor who backed Mr. Ghani’s campaign at great political cost. A top leader of the influential Hezb-i-Islami party, Mr. Hamdard used considerable resources, both political and financial, to help Mr. Ghani during the election.

Then Mr. Hamdard was skipped over for a job in the new government.

The fallout was immediate: Mr. Hamdard and his party cut ties with Mr. Ghani, according to two people familiar with the disagreement.

“We helped Ashraf Ghani reach power, we gave him Islamic legitimacy when he was under fire from every side,” said one Hezb-i-Islami official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the party

And who was there to inquire not only about Mr. Hamdard, but about all leaders from his region who were not faring so well in the current government? Mr. Karzai.

Interviews with a range of government and diplomatic officials indicate that Mr. Karzai’s presence is increasingly being seen as a troublingly competitive power center by Mr. Ghani’s inner circle. Many of Mr. Karzai’s favored aides, men who helped run the government for more than a decade, remain fiercely loyal and have been active on the sidelines.

Still, the former president’s aims are unclear. Some speculate that Mr. Karzai is building a coalition in the event his political services are once again needed to guide the country. According to some of those who have met in private with him, however, he has insisted that the current unity government must be supported.

A looming concern among officials and others, however, is whether the fragile unity government that Mr. Ghani leads will last long enough to be supported.

Though tensions between Mr. Ghani and his supposed partner in the government, Abdullah Abdullah, date back to the thick of the harrowing election crisis last summer, recent events have pushed things closer to the brink. Last month, after several slights by Mr. Ghani, Mr. Abdullah began publicly acknowledging the government’s dysfunction and his dissatisfaction.

The comments on April 8 by Mr. Abdullah, who holds the largely undefined post of chief executive, sent Western diplomats back into crisis mode. Secretary of State John Kerry called Mr. Abdullah to try to cool things off. But many officials in Kabul began discussing concerns that the government could collapse.

Tempers have calmed somewhat. The American ambassador in Afghanistan, among others, cautioned Mr. Ghani to stop acting unilaterally and to respect his partnership with Mr. Abdullah. Others warned Mr. Abdullah to stop holding up progress in the government simply because he wanted to be consulted on everything.

But almost no one imagines that peace between the two camps in the unity government will be easy.

“In most of the world, there is one single president, but we have two,” said Hajji Abul Majeed Khan, a tribal elder and resident of Kandahar. “It’s like two men sharing one wife.”

One thing the men do agree on is that the biggest internal threat to them, aside from each other, is Mr. Karzai.

Privately, Mr. Abdullah has told Mr. Ghani that their government is failing and that the people are longing for Mr. Karzai, according to one person close to Mr. Abdullah, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid the anger of either leader.

But the perception that Mr. Karzai might pose a threat to Mr. Ghani’s government has been a recent development. During the election, Mr. Abdullah accused Mr. Karzai of helping to orchestrate what he said was the fraud that brought Mr. Ghani to power. And in the early days of his presidency, Mr. Ghani met weekly with his predecessor and often thanked him in public speeches.

But their relationship has cooled since then, according to aides of both men, largely because Mr. Ghani has blown through every red line that Mr. Karzai asked him to respect. Those include growing too close to Pakistan and the United States, two nations that Mr. Karzai feels are disingenuous.

One other departure from Mr. Karzai’s legacy that has raised eyebrows in the capital is the ethnic and factional balance of Mr. Ghani’s inner circle.Mr. Ghani has tended to select from his own Pashtun ethnicity for his cabinet members and top advisers, including his national security adviser, his media adviser, his cultural adviser, his economic adviser and his chief of staff.

For all his flaws, Mr. Karzai incorporated different factions into his government with painstaking attention.

Interesting. Perhaps U.S are not happy with Ghani?

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