x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hamid Karzai, Kabul's cocooned charmer

Cut off from the realities of his strife-torn country and unable to control its brutal warlords, Afghanistan's president is about to receive a reality check.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

To understand what it is like to be the president of Afghanistan, a visit to Hamid Karzai's home and office in the Arg palace in the centre of Kabul offers some clues.

Several heavily armed guards escort visitors single file through a tiring ordeal that involves at least three security checks, several metal detectors and a body search. Snipers keep watch from rooftops. Conversation are kept to a minimum as you march through the historic palace, notorious for its coups and deadly intrigues. Two hours later you must wait a bit longer for the president to arrive, usually surrounded by half a dozen officials in suits whispering in his ear, attentive to his every whim.

If he travels at all outside the palace, it is by helicopter. If a car must be used, streets are closed for a several hundred metre radius to prevent attackers from getting near the presidential convoy. Cocooned by layers of security, surrounded by advisers who cannot or will not tell him the truth about popular anger caused by corruption and a fierce insurgency, and rarely meeting ordinary people, it is perhaps little wonder Karzai is isolated.

Next week he will have to confront the reality of his terrible relationship with America when he travels to Washington to meet Barack Obama on Wednesday. It will be their first meeting since Karzai bizarrely threatened earlier this year to join the Taliban if "foreigners" did not stop meddling in Afghan affairs. A former American diplomat then hinted that the Afghan leader was a drug addict. For a while it was touch and go whether the Washington visit would even happen. The White House refused to confirm the invitation until several weeks ago.

Tempers have since cooled and Karzai will attend, accompanied by the steady hand of Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, and one of the few leaders with whom Karzai is on good terms. The Washington visit is critical. The Americans desperately need him to build tribal support for the next phase of McChrystal's counterinsurgency campaign, which will be launched in Kandahar in a few weeks. Kandahar is an epicentre of the Taliban-led insurgency.

It is hard to believe Karzai was once the most popular politician on the planet. In 2002, he could do no wrong. Whether it was the tilt of his elegant lambskin hat so admired by Gucci designer Tom Ford, or declarations of sympathy for the tragic plight of Afghan women, Karzai was the great hope of the West, looking to relieve the guilt of abandoning a country ripped to pieces by the legacy of the Cold War.

But nine years and several hundred billion dollars later, with little to show for it, Karzai increasingly sounds to his imperial benefactors in Washington like an ungrateful potentate, a treacherous and unreliable easterner who cannot rule his subjects properly. How did it get to this? Karzai, 52, is the head of the Popalzai clan from Kandahar, which led a major, but unsuccessful, rebellion against the late king Zahir Shah in 1959. Yet Karzai is a distant relative of the king which, as a Pashtun aristocrat, has given him a further claim as a legitimate leader. Historically, Afghanistan's leaders have hailed from Kandahar.

Before the Soviet invasion the Afghan monarchs kept the country together by delicate diplomacy. Unruly tribes were kept on side through bribery, charm and coercion. Bringing everyone together in a tent and consulting all local leaders is a cornerstone of successful Pashtun diplomacy but it has driven the diplomats in Kabul, who would prefer western-style dressing downs and sackings, crazy. Karzai's style of rule by consensus has meant that some of the most appalling characters in the recent period of Afghan history, with long and bloody records of human rights abuses, are in power. Murky allegations that one of his brothers is deeply involved in the narcotics trade have not helped either.

It has cost his government its credibility among an Afghan population disgusted by predatory warlords and double standards for the rulers and the ruled. Like millions of educated Afghans, Karzai left his homeland during the Soviet invasion. He was 22. He studied political science at a university in Simla, India, which has always irritated Pakistan because Karzai, like most of the Afghan elite, has a pro-India stance.

He was briefly part of the Taliban movement as they evolved from being the simple "motorbike mullahs", so called because they zipped around the south on their motorcycles, eventually seizing power in 1996. They invited Karzai to become UN ambassador. He declined. The movement had by then become hardline, as al Qa'eda moved its training camps into the country and wielded huge influence over the leadership.

The Taliban may have also assassinated his father. In the years running up to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Karzai travelled to western capitals to convince politicians that the Taliban were a threat. Several weeks after al Qa'eda's attack on America, he bravely smuggled himself on a motorcycle from Pakistan into Afghanistan and tried to whip up support to overthrow the regime and drive out al Qa'eda, with assistance from American special forces.

Deep in Taliban territory, he called the US embassy in Islamabad and pleaded, "I need help", he once said. "Then they came and helped, dropped parachutes." Those first parachute drops of food and weapons on a mountaintop in Kandahar quickly became a billion-dollar-a-year military campaign, which is still dragging on nine years later. In December 2001, two months after the American bombing campaign began, he was appointed interim president at a meeting of Afghan exiles, sponsored by the United Nations, in the German city of Bonn. He was easily elected in the first presidential elections in October 2004, with 55 per cent of the vote.

Despite the pretence of elections and democracy, and his bravery in fighting the hated Taliban regime, Afghans knew he was a puppet who could not survive a day without American support. But they were content to ignore that because there was no alternative to the line-up of brutes who pass for political leaders. The majority of the intelligentsia was dead or in exile. The monarchy was abolished for good, partly on America's say so, in 2002.

Karzai was a decent man who wanted to help his country, a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day and never drank alcohol. It has never really been clear how much of the mess that Afghanistan finds itself in is due to Karzai himself or his American supporters because it is not obvious where one ends and the other begins. He was extremely close to Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador who was an Afghan-born US citizen. The two had dinner together most nights and Karzai leaned on him for emotional support. Each Afghan cabinet minister had an American counterpart who advised him or her on policy.

A member of the cabinet once privately complained that Karzai treated his ministers like friends but never colleagues because he rarely took their advice. Karzai's accusations of too much foreign meddling have some substance. Most of the billions of dollars of aid money promised by various countries has never arrived. Much of what is donated bypasses the government and goes into international aid organisations or the United Nations, who have their own agendas.

Reconstruction has in any case been piecemeal: a few wells and schools in the safer parts of the country that fell apart almost as soon as they opened. The deprived south was ignored completely. Karzai and many others complained long and hard but America was distracted by Iraq. By the time the West woke up to the malaise, the rot had set in: Afghanistan had become a criminal syndicate bent on protecting its chief source of income, heroin.

Karzai was perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the fawning press coverage around the world, impressed by his easy charm, banter and graceful manners. Many Afghan women were disappointed that he would not allow his wife a higher public profile. Zenat Karzai, whom he married in 1999 in an arranged match, would have been a great asset. She is a raven-haired beauty and clever too - she was a gynaecologist in Pakistan. But in keeping with the most conservative traditions of Pashtun families, she is rarely seen in public.

The couple have a young son, Mirwais. Karzai enjoyed a cosy relationship with George W Bush. The US president held video conferences twice a month with him. Most of the time they chatted about family life, with Bush occasionally interjecting to make encouraging comments about the good work Karzai was doing. The Obama administration, fed up with the lack of progress, abruptly put an end to the positive reinforcement sessions. The new approach was to threaten Karzai with sticks and offer fewer carrots. It does not seem to have worked.

The image of Afghanistan as an exotic, romantic country headed by a handsome, equally exotic ruler, waltzing around western capitals in his silk overcoat, is gone. Hard decisions will have to be made by Obama over the next year to bring the insurgency to an end and extract the US without any loss of face. That may mean making deals with some unsavoury Taliban leaders. It won't be palatable. But Afghanistan is a difficult country which has a long, complex and painful relationship with the West. Much like its leader.

* The National