Why Hamid Karzai can’t be beaten

The staying power of Afghanistan’s unlikely leader

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It was a surreal moment in Kabul on Nov. 24. The streets in this teeming city of 3.5 million were unusually quiet. For days, government offices and businesses had been shut down while Afghanistan’s tribal elders, politicians, religious leaders and activists gathered in a traditional Loya Jirga to debate the future of American troops in their country. At the centre of the discussions was the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), a 20-page document outlining the responsibilities of U.S. soldiers and civilian personnel remaining in Afghanistan after the scheduled 2014 NATO-led troop withdrawal.

On that afternoon, the last day of the Jirga, all of the 50 committees that had been formed to pore over the minutiae of the deal unanimously agreed to sign it. The decision was not easy, according to those who were there. Religious leaders and members of the political left took issue with Article 13, guaranteeing U.S. personnel who had committed crimes against Afghans immunity from prosecution by Afghan authorities.

But the BSA was approved with some minor changes and the attendees assembled for a closing speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. What they were expecting was something anodyne, a protocol performance from a president who had demanded the Jirga himself so that representatives of the Afghan people could decide whether or not the agreement was in the interests of Afghanistan.

What they got was something else entirely.

“Karzai was obviously very angry,” says Timor Sharan, 30, a historian and representative of Afghanistan’s emerging intellectual class, who was present at the gathering. “He was erratic. He was improvising. What I kept thinking was that something must have happened behind the scenes to prompt this kind of outburst.”

In what some Afghan experts have characterized as an act either of madness or supreme egotism, Karzai rejected the decision of the Jirga. He would not sign the BSA in its current form, he said. Details still needed to be worked out, including new demands such as a total ban on U.S. soldiers entering Afghan homes. Failing that, the signing would have to wait until a new president is elected in April 2014. “The delegates at the Jirga were stunned,” Sharan says. “Everyone was expecting Karzai to rubber-stamp the deal.”

But if there’s one thing Karzai is not, it is predictable. Over the course of more than a decade of leading one of the world’s most ungovernable countries, he has proven himself not only resilient but also slippery and chameleonic. Against all expectations, he has challenged (and now seems to be out-manoeuvring) the U.S. and has kept Pakistan—Afghanistan’s nemesis—close enough to maintain a direct line with its prime minister without losing his ability to criticize the military’s meddling in Afghan affairs. His domestic politics have proven, if not brilliant, then sufficiently dexterous to keep a landscape riddled with tribal hatreds from tearing itself apart. And most importantly, he has proven himself an adept strategist in his quest to remain relevant after he leaves office this year, ineligible to run for a third term as president.

That Karzai has survived this long is remarkable considering the Herculean task he was handed in December 2001. Back then, he was an unexpected choice to head up the newly installed interim government. Most observers concluded that his appointment was the safe bet. Here was a face familiar in most Western capitals: Karzai had spent much of the late 1990s lobbying world leaders for support in the fight against the Taliban. He was a multilingual, intelligent man who everyone liked but no one took very seriously. And he was a Pashtun, the same ethnic group that makes up nearly 50 per cent of the Afghan population and the vast majority of the Taliban.

As the thinking went at the time, Karzai would be an inoffensive leader who could be managed. “This was the first mistake the Americans made,” one close confidant of Karzai tells Maclean’s, requesting anonymity. “Hamid may seem like a pliable man on the surface but he is complex in his thinking. He is a born strategist.”

So what is his strategy now? That question hangs heavily over the Afghan capital. Speculations abound, ranging from the patently absurd (insanity) to accusations of perfidy. Critics warn that Karzai’s belligerence will lead to the dreaded “zero option,” shorthand for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops and eventually other NATO allies, leaving the country’s fledgling security forces at the mercy of a reinvigorated Taliban.

Karzai’s spokesperson, Aimal Faizi, has brushed aside such apocalyptic predictions. “According to our calculation, there will be no zero option,” he told Reuters last week. “The U.S. is not here to leave the country and withdraw all the troops.”

Indeed, even a cursory look at the hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past four years on military base upgrades indicates the U.S. is planning to stick around. Add to that Iraq’s descent into chaos a mere two years after the U.S. pulled its troops out and the costs of abandonment in Afghanistan (including the blow to U.S. prestige) become unacceptable.

It would seem then that Karzai is playing all the right cards, albeit in an extremely high-stakes game. Standing up to the world’s superpower takes considerable moxie. “But it’s the Americans themselves who created the monster,” says another of Karzai’s confidants. “I’m not saying Hamid is acting monstrously, but after more than a decade of being treated like a pushover, the Americans have finally brought out the Pashtun in him.”

And that means trouble. The daring of Pashtuns is legendary. Looking back into their history yields a wealth of fantastic tales chronicling the exploits of kings who would be heroes and—more often—heroes who would be kings. A leader without a few acts of derring-do under his sash rarely survives the bravado of rival claimants, or, if he manages to survive, will nevertheless fade away from the collective Afghan memory. Karzai, sources close to him say, fears this.

“This is a keen observer of Afghan history,” says Sharan. “He knows that leaders are quickly forgotten in this country, whether they are killed or simply die off. Not many men manage to remain relevant in Afghanistan after their time in power is up.” It takes a legend to survive Afghanistan’s capricious history.

The past three decades have been a particularly fertile era for Afghan myth-making, with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir and leader of the Northern Alliance, who was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and the tenebrous Mullah Omar, the one-eyed preacher who would become the leader of a ragtag group of seminary students (the Taliban) and rise to rule much of Afghanistan.

Karzai’s place in that tumultuous history remains minor at best. Intelligence officials in Washington viewed Karzai as a small player, meeting with him out of courtesy but offering little more than moral support for his cause. His plan to raise an anti-Taliban revolt among the Pashtuns in Kandahar, their traditional heartland, was regarded as quixotic at best, even by Massoud.

But the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001 gave a restless Karzai the opportunity he needed. That story is the one legendary exploit he can lay claim to: A day after the bombing campaign—dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom—began, Karzai decided to make his move. He was living in exile in Quetta, Pakistan, at the time. His Popalzai tribe occupied huge tracts of land across the border in Kandahar. Karzai’s plan was to make a grand entrance on his home turf and foment a rebellion, right inside the hornets’ nest, in the Taliban heartland.

“We might be captured the moment we enter Afghanistan and be killed,” Karzai recalls telling his companions. “We have a 60 per cent chance of death and 40 per cent chance to live and survive. Winning was no consideration. We could not even think of that. We got on two motorbikes. We drove into Afghanistan.”

As daring as it might sound, the act in itself was nothing heroic. Mullah Omar himself slipped out of a besieged Kandahar in December 2001 in a convoy of motorcycles, escaping to Pakistan. Karzai came the other way, leading a pack of poorly equipped fighters and looking for the fight he’d been craving for years. But in Karzai’s case, the symbolism of the act far outweighed the reality.

How that motorcycle ride really played out is irrelevant now. When Afghan delegates at the Bonn Conference chose Karzai to head the Afghan Interim Authority in 2001, his legend was in its infancy. Over the years, it has fluctuated between Western puppet and staunch Afghan nationalist, at times coloured by accusations of self-interest, at others of plain buffoonery.

The debate over “who is Hamid Karzai?” now sits at the centre of Afghanistan’s political discourse. And his balancing act between West-friendly leader and Taliban apologist has been the trademark of his presidency: managing to maintain a precarious equilibrium in a country seething with rivalries while positioning himself as the keystone. “It’s a brilliant strategy,” says Sharan. “Karzai is holding the presidential candidates hostage; he’s holding the Americans hostage. He’s ensuring his own political relevancy.”

No doubt Karzai realizes that once the Bilateral Security Agreement is signed, he will quickly become a footnote in Afghanistan, limping to the end of his presidency in April, unless he can raise his status. Challenging the U.S. plays well on that front, particularly with Pashtuns who have suffered the most over the past three decades of conflict. The Pashtun-language Afghan press is filled with accolades for Karzai. He has been lauded for standing up to America. Even the Taliban have supported his stance on the security agreement.

His detractors, on the other hand, come largely from the political class and the Persian-speaking population who have a strong interest in an ongoing U.S. presence.

There is a potentially fatal flaw in Karzai’s thinking: the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan remains a divisive issue. The ethnic component of the divide is no coincidence and his position on the BSA has blown the dust off the ethnic fault lines that plague his nation. His aloofness has also proven detrimental. As it stands today, Karzai has very few solid allies among the powerful warlords. The game he is playing now, while adroit in terms of his personal ambitions, could lead to isolation and a host of enemies. It’s not hard to see a future in which Karzai is not only the target of the Taliban but of any number of political rivals.

And yet, the overarching theme that emerges from conversations with the people who know him looks suspiciously like a hero complex. Hamid Karzai is bracing for the grand battle he’d hoped to be a part of for the past two decades. Winning, as on that fateful day in Quetta in 2001, may not be a consideration. Karzai wants to be remembered, not as the U.S. lackey people have accused him of being, but as an Afghan leader worthy of myths and legends.