Afghanistan after Hamid Karzai

Facing an uncertain future

In Afghanistan, people look with nostalgia upon outgoing President Hamid Karzai. But at the same time, they fear the uncertain future that his successor might very well bring. By Emran Feroz

Over the last weeks and months, and despite numerous threats by the Taliban, Afghans have voted twice in succession. But it is still unclear what the future holds for them. After preliminary results were made known in June, the situation threatened to escalate. A run-off vote was held after the first round of the elections, as none of the candidates achieved an absolute majority.

Abdullah Abdullah of the National Coalition, who is now far behind his opposing candidate, the independent Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, after the run-off, is refusing to accept the result. In the weeks before the results were announced, both presidential candidates showered each other with accusations. Through all of this, many people are looking nostalgically to the past. And their attentions fall on one man in particular: Afghanistan's outgoing President Hamid Karzai.

"This street was in disrepair for a long time. Now it's absolutely fine for traffic. As good as in Europe!" says Salim, a taxi driver. He likes to curse as he drives. He's also a crazy driver. Too crazy even for Afghan standards. It's almost like sitting in a rollercoaster. Then he suddenly slams on the brakes, as passersby tap their heads with their forefingers in disbelief.

The road Salim was talking about is the one that leads from Kabul to Paghman. And indeed, it's impeccable. "Karzai has helped us advance, I notice it every day," Salim continues his assertions. For this reason, he has even less sympathy with those Afghans who badmouth their outgoing head of state: "Those who complain about him will soon regret it," he says with conviction.

Karzai the moderniser

As abstruse as this view may sound, the more prevalent it currently appears to be in Afghanistan. It is first and foremost regular folk who are unsure what the post-Karzai future holds.

For this reason, they prefer to focus increasingly on the "achievements" of the Karzai government. The progress they praise depends on the profession of the person in question. While Salim the taxi driver is full of praise for the new roads, Abdullah, who owns an Internet café in the Kabul diplomatic quarter Wazir Akbar Khan, is delighted with the Afghan 3G Internet.

"It's not a problem to tweet here or check your Facebook messages on your mobile. There's also Wireless LAN. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago," says the euphoric young entrepreneur. "There are people here who vent their anger about Karzai on Facebook, while they can sit at home on their lap tops and be permanently online. It's a paradox, because without him they probably wouldn't even have an Internet connection," maintains Abdullah.

Female students at the University of Herat (photo: DW/Hoshang Hashemi)
Although the Afghan state failed in the realm of human rights and women's rights during the Karzai era, a considerable part of the Afghan population is sorry to see the outgoing president go

Belated kudos

More kudos is being bestowed upon Karzai shortly before he steps down. He is being viewed as a moderniser. His political abilities are also suddenly in the spotlight. And actually, the men supposed to succeed him share some of the responsibility for this.

While Karzai, during his 12 years in office, always presented himself as a statesman who could take criticism, the two remaining presidential hopefuls have been demonstrating for some time now that this is a trait they do not share with the outgoing leader. Journalists asking critical questions have been frequently abused or silenced, and the candidates' rhetorical talents have left much to be desired.

Apart from that, Hamid Karzai always managed to get all conflicting parties – regardless of whether these were former Taliban fighters, Communists or warlords from the Northern Alliance – around the same table.

This situation is now threatening to implode. And that is why many Afghans – primarily in large cities like Kabul – would rather have a stable status quo than an uncertain future. This means that they are often happy to overlook mistakes made by the Karzai government.

Apprehensive about the post-Karzai era

Since the man with the Karakul took control of the country, corruption and opium production there have increased. It has long been an open secret that people directly involved with Karzai – first and foremost his own brothers – were, and still are, heavily implicated in the drugs business.

Under the rule of Hamid Karzai, who was in the past often mockingly referred to as the "mayor of Kabul" as a result of his limited powers, the Afghan state and most of its institutions completely failed to deliver in many areas, primarily in relation to human rights and the rights of women.

But would corruption not have entered the presidential palace with any other candidate? "Everyone is corrupt here in any case. In the end, it depends on whether something changes for regular people," says Zaman, who earns his living selling fruit. "At least there's a certain degree of peace and security here in Kabul. Everyone is afraid that once Karzai goes, this will no longer be the case," says the old man.

This fear, which is shared by many people, is not unjustified. It is, however, linked less to extremists such as the Taliban, than to those set to replace Karzai.

US foreign minister John Kerry, centre, with Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, left, and Abdullah Abdullah (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
US foreign minister John Kerry, centre, travelled to Kabul to mediate between the two Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah

Dubious heroes

The atmosphere was tense in Kabul ahead of the final result of the run-off, which was held in mid-June. Over the last days and weeks, accusations of fraud have grown louder and louder. Once it was officially announced that Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was ahead, the first unrest began.

While Abdullah Abdullah did not want to recognise the result, some of his supporters ran amok in the streets, giving vent to their displeasure. Because both Ahmadzai and Abdullah have rallied the support of bloody warlords, the danger is that rival militia might suddenly attack each other, even in the middle of Kabul.

The two candidates have since "reconciled" their differences, after US Secretary of State John Kerry came in person to mediate in the dispute. But it is questionable how long this will remain the case. Above all, the Taliban continue to benefit from this situation, and because they reject both candidates, it is likely that they hope that the rivalry will persist.

Meanwhile, it's not just dusty election posters that feature in the streets of Kabul, but also images of faces from a bygone era. The most numerous are those of the former president of Afghanistan Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, as well as the former leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Both men were murdered and are to this day celebrated as heroes by various sections of the population. Their mistakes and their crimes are also conveniently forgotten. Instead one gets the impression that their faces are omnipresent, mostly on cars and the sides of houses.

The next few months will show if a third man has what it takes to be accepted into this dubious band of heroes. In Hamid Karzai's home town of Kandahar, there is nowhere to escape the noble gaze of the man with the Karakul.

Emran Feroz

© 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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