Underrated: Hamid Karzai

The retiring Afghan President who, for all his faults, has defended freedom and democracy

When Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s long-serving president, finally relinquishes power later this month, there will be few in the West who will regret his passing. Ever since he came to power in 2001 in the aftermath of the West’s initial military intervention in the country, Karzai has been a perennial thorn in the side of Western policymakers.

Whether it is because of his trenchant criticism of the military tactics employed by Nato forces seeking to bring stability to the country, or the endemic corruption within his administration that has seen billions of dollars of Western aid disappear into private bank accounts in Dubai, his departure from the presidential palace will be greeted in many quarters with a deep sense of relief.As if to emphasise his total lack of concern about the sensitivity of his situation, during the summer Karzai and his advisers even managed to run up a staggering bill of £53,000 for a two-night stay at London’s Claridge’s hotel while having meetings with British officials over the future of Afghanistan. The cost will be borne by the British taxpayer.

And yet, for all Karzai’s faults and decidedly capricious conduct over the past decade, it is worth remembering that Afghanistan will be in a far better place when he stands down than it was when he first assumed office in the aftermath of the Taliban’s well-documented reign of terror.

Many of the changes that have taken place in Afghanistan are, to be sure, the result of the enormous sacrifices of blood and treasure made by Western powers. More than 3,000 Nato military personnel have lost their lives, while it is estimated that the cost of helping to rebuild the country after decades of misrule now exceeds that of America’s Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the devastation of the Second World War.

But despite the prohibitive cost of rebuilding Afghanistan so that it no longer affords a safe haven for Islamist groups seeking to attack the West, it is at least arguable that much of the progress that has been made would not have been possible without Karzai’s constant presence and support in Kabul.

The changes in Afghanistan are certainly modest when compared to what was in achieved in postwar Europe, but there have nevertheless been tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghans, both in terms of their personal security and the freedoms they now enjoy, as I discovered when I visited the British military base at Camp Bastion in July. For example, in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, the local markets are once again open and thriving, free from fears of intimidation at the hands of the Taliban.

The Western-trained Afghan army and police force, moreover, have acquitted themselves well in recent skirmishes with the Taliban, who, having pledged to disrupt this year’s presidential election contest, found themselves completely marginalised by ordinary Afghans. Given a choice between a return to tyranny or maintaining the democratic status quo, they overwhelmingly voted for the latter.

Karzai deserves much of the credit for this transformation. While he has not been the easiest of partners to work with, his devotion to establishing democratic rule in his benighted country has been unquestionable, and the fact that Afghan elections now attract a higher turnout than those in most Western democracies will go down as one of the crowning achievements of his era.

Nor should we forget that these achievements have come at some considerable cost to the Karzai clan. Apart from surviving numerous assassination attempts against his own person, the president has had to cope with the loss of his brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who was murdered in his Kandahar home by the Taliban and, more recently, of his cousin, Hashmat Karzai, killed in July by a suicide bomber who had reportedly hidden an explosive device in his turban.

Throughout it all Karzai has also had to contend with the violently changing mood of Western policymakers, who have fluctuated between wanting to flood the country with resources and heading for the exit doors at the earliest possible opportunity.

In particular, Karzai had every right to feel betrayed by President Obama, who, having authorised a military surge to inflict a resounding defeat on the Taliban in 2009, changed his mind two years later and last February unilaterally ordered all combat operations to conclude by the end of this year. 

As a result the eagerly anticipated peace talks with the Taliban never materialised, so that, when Nato forces complete their withdrawal at the end of the year, Afghanistan will find itself in a state of political limbo, with serious questions remaining over whether the Taliban will reestablish itself in power in Kabul.

Whatever the future might hold, though, the Karzai era will long be remembered as the time when, for the first time, ordinary Afghans were given the opportunity to enjoy democracy and freedom.

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