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In Mind And In Sight: The Persisting Legacy Of Karzai In Afghan Politics – OpEd

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By Chayanika Saxena*

Following almost four decades of violence and conflict, a new political framework was introduced in Afghanistan on the back of international and regional material and moral support. Beginning 2001, Afghanistan was inducted into the world order as a nascent democracy and a new republic. What was called as the ‘Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions’ – more popularly known as the Bonn Agreement of 2001 – laid down and defined the political journey that this country charts to this date with its feats and defeats alike. It was during these negotiations that the leadership of Hamid Karzai, its former president, was given a definite role in the post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Leading a country whose political cleavages are organized around tribal and ethnic affiliations, Karzai, who was in New Delhi this week and has been seen as a friend of India, was no stranger to the politics of Afghanistan for he belongs to a highly politically involved and prominent Popalzai tribe. As a member of a tribe that was essentially the founder of the modern-day Afghanistan – Durrani Pashtuns – an educated, politically active Karzai had both the support and legitimacy of those ‘prominent Afghan figures’ who had gathered during the Bonn negotiations to determine the future course of this nation. Chosen as the Chairman of the Interim Administration for six month and then subsequently as the Interim President of Afghanistan by the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) in 2002, Afghanistan witnessed two consecutive stints of Karzai as its President – in 2004 and 2009.

Ratifying a constitution that bars a suitable individual from being elected as the President more than two times – consecutively or otherwise, it is known that unless for a change in the constitution, Karzai would not be able to return to power as the President of Afghanistan. However, even as formal provisions keep the former President from being in active politics in the capacity he had hitherto enjoyed, it does not limit him from taking up other posts or partake in the political and social processes that are active in the country.

Given the political clout he enjoys on count of his tribal affiliation and his holding of a formal, top-most office in a democratic, republic Afghanistan for almost 10 years, Karzai continues to enjoy the kind of prominence that makes him a galvanizing point in the country. Although he has himself expressed that he is not keen to re-join the formal political structures and that he will ‘participate in the politics of Afghanistan as a citizen’, he still has some political reins tucked in his pocket.

Much like all other political figures across the world, Hamid Karzai too has had and continues to have his share of detractors and those who see positives in him. It is believed that even as he was seen as the ‘safest bet’ as the leader of Afghanistan especially by the West, he did not so much subscribe to the structures of governance that a formal democracy is known for – rule of law, bureaucracy, institutions, checks and balances and the like. As a result, it has been reported that informal groups of political authority were promoted along traditional lines of ethnicity and tribe, and which instead of coalescing into political parties (as is the case in India, for instance) metamorphosed into units of legitimacy and power, almost parallel to the constitutional structures of authority. While this system of patronage could keep a country teeming with warlords together, and maybe it was the most effective way of keeping the lid on inter-ethnic pressures that had been running unchecked in Afghanistan for a while, but it surely undermined the formal structures of governance that were hoped to be given a solid ground in the country.

Karzai’s political arrangements continue to run in full steam in Afghanistan even as two years have passed since he demitted the office. While it is hard to bid farewell to tribal politics, which as many have observed are the basis for gathering political, social and economic legitimacy in Afghanistan, attempts are being made by the present government to give this country a semblance of formal governance structures. Yet, the system of tribal-ethnic patronage that was directly or indirectly embedded into a democratic, republic Afghanistan continues to be one of the dominant political strains in the country. Perhaps because it has been difficult to break away from this way of political functioning that even the present-day government, it has been alleged, too is sticking to the pattern and are conducting political functions along tribal, ethnic lines. For instance, where political positions are apparently being allocated on the basis of tribal loyalties on the one hand, it is being claimed that routes of transmission lines (TUTAP) too are ostensibly being changed to service vested ethnic interests.

But while Karzai’s style of governance might still find traction in Afghanistan, the former President and the current one were on a collision course especially during the initial months following the inauguration of the present National Unity Government. Where on one hand, continuous visits by the who’s-who of Afghanistan to Karzai, who compared to the present incumbent is known to have consciously promoted people-to-people and social ties, did come in way for Ghani to assume political power effectively, on the other, a public voicing of opinions against the current government deepened fissures within an already disaggregated political class. For instance, playing up the dominant popular sentiments against Pakistan, Karzai heavily criticized the moves of the present government to involve Islamabad in the peace process even as he himself had addressed this neighbor of Afghanistan as ‘brother’ and had visited it more than 20 times with similar appeals. Projecting himself as a ‘protector of national sovereignty’ as some claim, Karzai is frequently seen on trips to countries of significance to Afghanistan’s re-development, especially those who are wary of potential Afghanistan-Pakistan closeness.

Partly responsible for the persistent presence of Karzai’s influence is the style of governance of the current President and that of the National Unity Government. Ashraf Ghani is not known for his social flamboyance even as he is trying to make inroads into dominant these circles. Abdullah Abdullah for his projected ethnic affiliations (to the Tajiks) and for his preference for party politics on the other hand does not maintain a tribal pull that this country is being dominantly run on. As a result, political analysts on Afghanistan have claimed that Karzai appears to be the only ‘national leader’ of the country, who has all that it takes to be the fall-back option for Afghanistan – resources, political support and network of influence.

As Afghanistan stares at an impending ‘original’ deadline that will mark the expiry of the agreement that had put NUG in place, a political crisis looms large for this country. While Karzai cannot become the president once again, he does continue to wield clout that could make him ‘just the kind of alternative’ Afghanistan is looking for. Added to this, the present exasperation among the masses with the current government might just turn the tide in favor of Karzai, and put him back in active politics.

*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate and Web Editor at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi who specialises on Afghanistan. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]


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South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor is an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the whole Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news and views content related to the region.

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