Can Hamid Karzai emerge as consensus choice for Afghan president?

Whether the Taliban will accept Karzai, a man with considerable charisma, distinctive and much written about capes and lambskin hat,  is still not clear. But he has struck a highly conciliatory note, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Jun 16, 2021
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Hamid Karzai with current President  Ashraf Ghani

Three months is a long time in the life of a nation, particularly a troubled one like Afghanistan, struggling to gain a semblance of stability as the US-led foreign forces leave by September 11. Amidst a near-consensus on prospects of continuing civil war and violence, with or without help from outside, former President Hamid Karzai is gradually emerging as the man who can probably prevent them.

As the man most acceptable – or with fewer adversaries, whichever way one looks at Afghanistan --- he could succeed President Ashraf Ghani, also his successor, in office since 2014.

Ghani was marginalized by the Americans who signed the February 2020 Doha Pact, talking directly to the Taliban, after battling them for nearly two decades. The Taliban do not recognize Ghani and are battling his forces in a surge across Afghanistan in 26 of its 34 provinces. It is a given that they will be part of any future government.

Karzai, 63, was the first elected president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that emerged from the Bonn Conference, from December 2001 to 2014, serving for two prolonged terms. Although out of office, he is considered the country's most influential politician. He is currently mediating between the contending elites in order to negotiate peace after the US withdrawal and to organize resistance against the Taliban.

Karzai part of solution?

His likely visit to Pakistan at the head of a high-level delegation, possibly with Western backing, appears to be part of the effort at a political solution. There could be more such visits to other stakeholders in Afghanistan’s peace.

Whether the Taliban will accept Karzai, a man with considerable charisma, distinctive and much written about capes and lambskin hat, is still not clear. But he has struck a highly conciliatory note. He told German publication Der Spiegel last month that the Taliban were "brothers".

He explained his stand saying, “I realized early into my tenure as president that this war is not our conflict, and we Afghans are just being used against each other - the republic against the Taliban and the Taliban against us. Both the Afghan Republic and the Taliban are victims of these external forces. That is why we are suffering.”

During the civil war in the 1990s, he had supported the Taliban and had served briefly as deputy foreign minister in the Islamic State of Afghanistan government. This was until his father was assassinated in July 1999.  He later stood against them in October 2001, when the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began. He led tribes around Kandahar against the Taliban and helped to overthrow their government.

Although the West helped him to power, both turned mutually critical later. His government was accused of large-scale corruption, while he, in turn argued that corruption was inherent in the way international NGOs, receiving huge funds, executed projects in Afghanistan.

Needs wider support

He may still be a safe bet for the West looking for a political solution to prevent civil strife and, given its inherent distrust, something that could dilute the Taliban’s dominance. Even the Taliban's principal backer Pakistan is nervous about it. Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed fear of continuing conflict to Reuters earlier this week. As the next-door neighbor, he lamented, Pakistan was always the "victim".

Pakistan’s distrust of Karzai when in power is well known. He would not yield on that "strategic depth" that Islamabad craved. Kabul was always sore about being landlocked by Pakistan, especially when it came to trade and communications with Delhi. Pakistan found him too “pro-India” which, as a matter of fact, is true. Much of the USD three billion India invested in Afghanistan’s development and to boost its goodwill among the populace, was during the Karzai era. India should have no problem with Karzai who studied in Shimla and had pleaded, without much success though, for Indian arms and military training.

Realizing the changed dynamics, India has belatedly begun sounding the Taliban. It was friendless in the early 1990s -- it risks becoming so yet again. It has a more daunting opposition this time from a China-backed Pakistan that considers anyone opposing the Taliban as spoilers.  Moscow is no longer sympathetic to New Delhi. nor is Tehran.  A Karzai return could make India’s task easier, but would need patient, multiple-level, handling. Any overt move would prove a kiss of death.

Indeed, any single stakeholder promoting Karzai is bound to fail since each party views the other as a spoiler. It would have to be a collective effort that would require correcting past mistakes and removing past misperceptions if a political solution is to materialize.

In the absence of a political settlement among the conflicting groups, there is palpable fear of a brutal attempt at take over by the Taliban resulting in a prolonged civil war. Minority ethnic groups, including the Tajiks led by Ahmed Massoud, son of the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud, are reportedly buying arms.

Governance experience

In strife-torn Afghanistan, rallying behind a single leader cannot be easy.  However, in a polity where tribes and tribal loyalties matter, Karzai is a Pashtun, the single-largest ethnic group, and is the leader of the Pashtun Popalzai. His government had minority Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, represented by veterans who formed the erstwhile Northern Alliance.

Karzai has experience in governance. Two presidential elections and a parliamentary election, however flawed, had taken place during his tenures. Development had taken place and infrastructure had improved. Socially, many women had emerged as lawmakers, had taken up jobs and had joined schools and colleges.

This was unthinkable during the Taliban era and is doubtful even now.  The Taliban have given little indication of a change. The Western world that seems resigned - and complicit - in their return to power is perplexed, and only hopes that they may have changed.

With Karzai or anyone else, a political solution poses a paradox: it is to soften the stridence – both military and ideological – of a surging force backed from across the border where various 'shuras' (consultative gatherings of tribal elders) thrived, and is gingerly engaged by a superpower desperate to quit. If it is achieved, and how will have to unravel over the next few weeks of relentless diplomatic moves. If that fails, another chance to correct that collective folly may take much longer to mature.

(The writer, a veteran journalist, co-authored Taliban & the Afghan Turmoil (Himalaya Books, 1997); Afghan Turmoil: Changing Equations (Himalaya Books, 1998) and Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Games and Gamesmen (Wordsmiths, April 2000). The views are personal. He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com)