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Afghans Unconvinced by Karzai Presidency

Straw poll suggests most Kabulis disappointed by Hamid Karzai after nearly a decade of his rule.
By Khan Mohammad Danishju
  • President Karzai attending a NATO summit on Afghanistan, November 2010. (Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider)
    President Karzai attending a NATO summit on Afghanistan, November 2010. (Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Nine years after Hamid Karzai came to power, Afghans have some harsh things to say about his performance. While some argue that his apparent shifts in position are the mark of an astute politician negotiating his way through difficult times, others say some of the compromises he has made have been disastrous for Afghanistan.

IWPR interviewed more than 100 Kabul residents from various walks of life on their perception of the Afghan president, who was appointed head of an interim Afghan administration at the December 2001 Bonn conference which shaped the contours of the post-Taleban era. He was elected president twice, in 2004 and then in 2009.

Alami Balkhi, a member of Afghan parliament elected in September, sees Karzai as a clever tactician whose diplomatic approach has kept a diversity of forces, domestic and external, on side during a period of ongoing crisis.

Balkhi he acknowledged that to achieve this, the president “sometimes shifts his position and views, so as to make peace and accommodate popular sensitivities”.

As a result, Balkhi said, Karzai had succeeded in smoothing relations with Afghanistan’s neighbours and with western states. This had allowed him to simultaneously build relationships with and secure assistance from rivals like the United States, Iran and Russia.

But for many other Afghans, this flexibility has gone way too far at times.

“I believe Karzai is like a circus artiste – on the one hand, seeking favour with those who dislike the Americans while also telling the Americans behind closed doors not to get upset as he’s just playing tricks on the others,” Murtazah, a 47-year-old resident of Kabul’s Chahardai district, said.

“Karzai is good at… dodging the big issues both in public and in private,” Murtazah continued. “He talks as though everything were fine. To achieve his aims, he’s always struck deals with powerful individuals and called it compromise. That’s why he is popularly known as the ‘deal-maker’.”

Another resident of the capital, Shah Mohammad, 48, added, “There are two kinds of compromise – the healthy kind and the unhealthy. Karzai’s kind is the negative, unhealthy compromise.”

In Shah Mohammad’s view, Karzai has recruited and worked with too many Afghan politicians who were implicated in past conflict and abuses, and has failed to uphold rule of law, security and justice.

“Such negative compromises have driven the country further into profound crisis,” Shah Mohammad concluded.

Another interviewee, 27-year-old Ahmad Murid, agreed that Karzai had become too closely involved with problematic figures whom he described as “criminals”.

“Over the last decade, I haven’t been able to discern this man’s true face, but the one thing that sticks in my mind about him is that his resolve is weak,” Murid said. “Sometimes he laughs, sometimes he cries. He may call someone a traitor and then describe the same person as a brother and patriot.”

Others believe that in reality, President Karzai has little say in Afghan politics and is at the mercy of bigger interests.

“Sometimes may Karzai thinks he’s the decision-maker, but there are other forces at play here which pressure him into changes of position,” Humayrah Haqmal, a lecturer in the Law and Political Science department at Kabul university, said.

Hakim Asher, head of the Government Media and Information Centre, rejected all the allegations commonly made against the president, saying he had never done deals with criminals and had consistently acted for the good of the nation.

The need to make reasonable compromises was part and parcel of the president’s job; current circumstances required him to “work with certain forces” in the “national and international interest”, Asher said.

He argued that victories in two presidential elections showed high levels of public support for Karzai.

Although Karzai was challenged by a range of candidates in the two elections, none of those interviewed named an obvious alternative.

“It’s true I did vote for Mr Karzai twice,” Kabul schoolteacher Nafisah said. “Among worse candidates, he was just bad, so I went for bad.”

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.

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