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An isolated president: Karzai’s future

May 06, 2013

AS the clock winds down on his presidency and the Karzai era, the Afghan president’s outbursts are becoming increasingly desperate. To be sure, given the complex role Pakistan has played in Afghanistan over the decades, there is some room for legitimate criticism of Islamabad by the Afghan government. But legitimate criticism has given way to an alarming spiral of allegations and irresponsible behaviour on the part of Mr Karzai. It is helpful to trace the trajectory of the Afghan president’s approach towards the Taliban over the past decade. Until the late 2000s, Mr Karzai was an implacable opponent of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, treating them as interchangeable with Al Qaeda and unworthy of being seen as a political force. Then, as the insurgency worsened and the US commitment to Afghanistan seemed to ebb, Mr Karzai appeared to change his mind, pushing for reconciliation, though wanting it to flow through his office — something the Taliban, perennially dismissive of the Karzai-led Afghan government, were not willing to countenance. Now, bizarrely, Mr Karzai has called on the Taliban to fight external enemies — presumably Pakistan — instead of destroying their own country.

Erratic as the Afghan president’s comments on Pakistan and the US have become in recent times and imminent as his irrelevance may be, there are two important aspects to Mr Karzai’s departure that will have to be handled with extreme care. First, the post-presidency future of Mr Karzai, both in terms of his physical security and finding some kind of sinecure or retired statesman role for him to keep him preoccupied. The history of the exit of Afghan leaders can only be disturbing for Mr Karzai and he will need some kind of reassurance about his physical safety while also having a public platform if he chooses to stay back in Afghanistan as he has repeatedly promised he will. It may appear odd that the future of one man, especially one on his way out and seemingly an irritant to all sides, can require so much delicate handling, but given his position and the office he leads, a botched exit plan can have significant negative ramifications.

The second aspect of Mr Karzai’s departure that will have to be managed carefully is the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban. With the Pakistani establishment and the US government seemingly converging on what needs to be done next and a critical phase in reconciliation lying ahead in the next year or so, Mr Karzai will need to be counselled to exhibit restraint — something he has not done in recent months.