Hamid Karzai may have handed over the reigns of power in September 2014, but his influence on Afghanistan’s politics did not end. His calls for a Loya Jirga, as the National Unity Government approached its two-year anniversary, represented a danger to that government. However, political groups and influential individuals, even those who had previously been his closest allies, did not take up his call. Rather, some of his recent comments have met clamorous pushback and the expressions of support he did receive, mainly from people in government, only increased the controversy that surrounds him. AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili (with parliamentary reporting from AAN’s Salima Ahmadi and input by Thomas Ruttig) looks at a number of recent incidents, their fallout and what they tell us about Karzai’s political clout.Former president Karzai, flanked by Ustad Sayyaf, tries to quiet the crowd after a heckler shouted "Death to Karzai." Photo: screenshot from video.
Ever since he left office in 2014, former president Hamid Karzai has maintained a shadowy presence on Afghanistan’s political scene. In his compound not far from the presidential palace, he frequently meets those who feel belittled by the National Unity Government (NUG), or who have an axe to grind with it, often hosting elaborate luncheons. (The new president, Ashraf Ghani, has abolished such practices in the presidential palace.) There are rumours that the former president has been tacitly conspiring against the NUG (see this July 2016 Los Angeles Times article or this June 2015 Radio Free Europe article, both by Afghan authors), an accusation he has denied. More overtly, he has frequently granted interviews to the international media, opining on a wide range of topics. He told the German news agency dpa there were ‘no tensions’ between himself and his successor Ashraf Ghani, but that he would make his voice heard “when he had the feeling that the country was moving in a wrong direction on essential issues.”
“Death to Karzai”
Over the last few months, Karzai has been involved in a fair share of controversy. The most notable incident took place on 30 September 2016 in the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul, during the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s death. Rabbani was killed on 20 September 2011. (This year’s ceremony was held ten days after the date itself due to preparations for the signing of a peace deal with Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, on 29 September 2016; see AAN analysis here and here). Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and his two deputies, Vice-President Muhammad Sarwar Danesh, several cabinet members, jihadi leaders and other politicians, including Karzai, participated in the ceremony.
The incident took place during the speech of former MP Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf – a key Karzai ally and former ‘jihadi leader’, now head of the Council for the Protection and Stability of Afghanistan (CPSA) or Shura-ye Herasat wa Sobat-e Afghanistan (see this AAN analysis ) – which focused on the virtues of the jihad and the mujahedin. A participant stood up and started shouting “Death to the Taleban” and “Death to Karzai.” The tent erupted into chaos. When Sayyaf finally managed to calm the crowd, he said this was “not a gathering for abuse and insult, but of honour and homage.” When another participant loudly demanded that the man be thrown out of the tent for insulting his ‘elders’, things in the tent once again became chaotic. Karzai, flanked by security personnel, mounted the platform and tried to quieten the crowd.
When Karzai later took the stage to deliver his own speech, he was again heckled several times. Karzai urged the crowd to “let them [the hecklers] speak”, saying there was freedom of speech in the country and “the Americans chanted ‘Death to Karzai’ every day.” He went to great lengths to show his respect for Rabbani, apparently in an attempt to mollify an emotional audience. (Karzai succeeded Rabbani as head of state following the 2001 Afghanistan conference in Bonn. Rabbani stood down only after some pressure, including from his Jamiat party’s own ranks.) At the end of his speech, Karzai called the man who had shouted at him to the platform. He hugged him, saying, “This is Afghan unity. Foreigners should know that they cannot divide us.” The man was asked to apologise, which he did, and subsequent speakers, such as Atta Muhammad Nur, a leading Jamiati and governor of Balkh province, said they were sorry for the incident and praised Karzai for his bravery and for handling the incident the way he did.
The incident reverberated throughout the press and on social media. In Afghanistan’s political culture, where leaders and elders are generally shown public respect and where arguments tend to be couched in polite words, this was a rare public insult – showing how emotions ran high with regards to the former president and his statements.
Coming to Karzai’s defence, but not helping
In the days following the incident, several government officials came to Karzai’s defence. One of them was the powerful police chief of Kandahar, Abdul Razeq, who owes his position to Karzai. He became the strongman of the ‘Greater Kandahar’ region following the assassination of Karzai’s brother and Kandahar ‘proconsul’, Ahmad Wali, in July 2011. In an interview on 1 October 2016, commenting on the incident in the Loya Jirga tent, Razeq said, “It was a very bad incident. We no longer allow such things. We will follow up and ask why it happened.” (1) He then went on to criticise the leading mujahedin of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taleban struggle (he did not name names, but it was clear who was meant). In contrast, he described Mullah Omar and Mullah Dadullah as “the best and most deserving mujahedin.” This surprised many, given Razeq’s militant anti-Taleban stance on the battlefield. It strongly suggested that his remarks, apart from being an emotional statement of loyalty to the Karzais, also had an ethnic dimension (although he did also praise the late Jamiat commander, Ahmad Shah Massud). Karzai, Razeq and the two aforementioned Taleban leaders – both now dead – are Pashtuns, whereas many of the mujahedin leaders he implicitly criticised are not.
Next, the office of the National Security Council (NSC), led by Hanif Atmar, released a formal statement on 3 October 2016, hailing Karzai as one of the “effective and honourable personalities of the country’s contemporary history [who], as a former president and national leader, has special respect among the people, the National Unity Government and with current President Ashraf Ghani.” The statement further lashed out at the anti-Karzai sloganeers at the Rabbani commemoration, saying that the Afghan value of respect for elders was being trampled on by “specific circles … hired and paid by foreign intelligence services.” The circles, the statement claimed, had “started a chain of efforts towards the character assassination of our national elders and personalities” and warned that this “will not have good consequences.”
The NSC’s statement specifically mentioned that Karzai had been at the commemoration ceremony as a guest, although, according to a statement by Jamiat-e Islami, he was not an invited one. This statement, that was posted on Foreign Minister Salahuddin (son of Burhanuddin) Rabbani’s Facebook page, among other places, said that Karzai had expressly not been invited to the event, due to a series of controversial comments he had made with regard to the Taleban. (2) When Karzai came to the ceremony anyway, politeness demanded he not be shown the door. Jamiat further requested that the NSC office share details on its claim that specific circles were supported by foreign intelligence services, saying the NSC statement was “unnecessary and not in line with national interests” – thus politely rejecting the accusation that anyone in their ranks had foreign backing. It finally called on the NSC office not to “raise the voice of division and factionalism from the address of national institutions.”
Karzai’s earlier remarks about the Taleban
In the months leading up to the incident in the Loya Jirga tent, Karzai had, on several occasions, made comments that seemed to imply verbal support for the Taleban. While in power, Karzai had often referred to the Taleban as “disgruntled brothers” who had to be brought back into the fold, often hinting that the real enemy was elsewhere. Washington Post journalist Joshua Partlow, in his recently published Karzai biography, quoted the former president as reacting to the fall of a remote town to the Taleban by quipping, “So it was liberated.” (3) Recently, Karzai has become even more explicit. One of his most controversial comments came in response to the requests for the honourable reburial of the remains of Amir Habibullah II (‘Kalakani’), which prompted dismissive reactions in some Pashtun circles (see an AAN’s report here). In a video dating from early September 2016, Karzai responds to a person asking for his views on the reburial by saying: “Was Mullah Muhammad Omar a shah [king] or not? Where is he? Bring and bury him with honour, too.”
Given the fragile security situation and concerns over politicians’ increasing tendency to frame their grievances in ethnic terms, his comments did not go down well with many people. Expressions of outright anti-Karzai sentiments in some sectors of the media and the political arena, especially among Jamiat-e Islami supporters, reflected competing historical narratives about the country’s chequered past and the role of the Taleban. On 7 September 2016, in a speech commemorating the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massud’s death, Chief Executive Abdullah also responded to Karzai’s comments, saying:
Mullah Omar, unlike Mr. Karzai’s claim, was not and is not the king of Afghanistan and the people had not accepted and do not accept him as their king. Mullah Omar was a criminal and a murderer, and, just like today the Taleban hold sway over parts of the country, at that time too they had occupied parts of the country.
Karzai’s second lot of controversial remarks were made during an interview with the BBC on 24 September 2016, in which he said that the Taleban were “an Afghan force that [can] come and capture a territory” and that the Afghan National Security Forces, also an Afghan force, did not have the right to retake that territory from the Taleban: “If we are all Afghans, why should one Afghan tell another Afghan that you cannot capture this area?”
The remarks prompted another round of anti-Karzai responses. For instance, on 2 October 2016, Hasht-e Sobh’s columnist, Ferdows, wrote that Karzai hurt the sentiments of the entire anti-Taleban constituency, describing this constituency as:
…not only the areas of influence of politicians such as Atta Muhammad Nur, Salahuddin Rabbani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The whole urban and law-abiding population of Afghanistan is against the Taleban and Talebani culture. The educated class, democrats, the media, civil society organisations, human rights activists as well as a significant segment of the general public of Afghanistan constitute the anti-Taleban constituency.
In parliament, on 28 September 2016, Ghor MP Sayed Nadir Shah Bahr asked how a political figure who had ruled the country for more than a decade could say that the Taleban had the right to capture any place they wanted, while large parts of the population supported the government’s armed forces? He added that such remarks would weaken the morale of the country’s security forces and asked that the government prosecute Karzai for his sympathy towards the Taleban – a call that was repeated by a few other MPs. Others called on the government to cancel his financial benefits. Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, the Speaker of the House, declared that the security forces who were fighting the insurgents and sacrificing their lives for their homeland, were the true sons of the country and that the Taleban were the enemy.
The Panjshir Young Elites Council (Shura-ye Nokhbegan-e Jawan-e Panjshir), a group of Tajik youths from Panjshir and Shomali, went a step further and issued a statement accusing Karzai of altering the constitution and making the national anthem monolingual, releasing Taleban prisoners (when they should not have been released) and having a hand in the assassination of figures like former Deputy Interior Minister General Muhammad Daud (in May 2011) and even Rabbani, himself (in September 2011). They called for his name to be removed from the title of Kabul’s international airport and launched a social media campaign to that effect (the name of the airport was changed to Hamid Karzai International Airport during President Ghani’s first cabinet meeting). Jombesh-e Islami, the party led by first Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum, joined the chorus with a statement on 19 October 2016 that, among other things, seemed to describe Karzai as the original plotter of the extension of the Taleban’s war into the north.
In response to these fierce and sometimes ridiculous denunciations, Karzai sought to clarify his remarks. In an interview with Voice of America, he said:
The question was about air strikes [saying] that you [Karzai] are against US air strikes, while the current government is in favour of them. I told them that I was against air strikes from the very first day of my government and I am still against them. I have said this and have not denied it until today, my position has not changed. Then I was asked, if the Taleban capture some parts of Afghanistan, are you still against that, I said, yes, I am [still] against the air strikes. But if the Taleban capture parts of Afghanistan and establish their government there, I am [also] against that. If I had been in favour of that, I would have accepted the Taleban’s flag [to be raised over their liaison office] in Qatar. I do not want the Taleban to capture parts of Afghanistan. But I am against war. (For details on the argument surrounding the opening of the Qatar office, see AAN’s previous reporting here).
Karzai’s political position
In his September 2016 interview with the BBC, Karzai seemed to have chosen Ghani’s side in the on-going impasse with the National Unity Government. When asked whether the NUG would still be legitimate after the NUG agreement’s original ‘expiry date,’ he said:
The constitution of Afghanistan elects the president for five years, the people of Afghanistan vote for the president for a period of five years. So based on Afghanistan’s election, the term of Ashraf Ghani’s government and presidency is not coming to an end [now]. But the agreement that Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah reached between themselves with the US intervention, [about] their government‘s term, the term of this arrangement that they made between themselves that one be the president and other the chief executive, should at the end of, or during, the two years be reconfirmed by calling a Jirga or [the country] returned to the presiden[tial system].
In a September 2016 interview with German Phoenix TV, he further clarified: “It must be clearly shown again that the responsibility for governing rests with the President.”
Karzai’s comments on the term of the NUG and, implicitly, on Abdullah’s position as chief executive, hit a nerve. The Abdullah camp still considers Karzai an accomplice in what it sees as the pro-Ghani electoral fraud in the 2014 elections. (4) On 18 October 2016, Mandegar Daily, which supports Abdullah, wrote that in 2004 and 2009 Karzai “derailed the elections from the path of integrity and transparency.” It further said that he “turned the elections into an insulting drama of democracy and a demonstration of ethnic inclinations” and that President Ghani and former president Karzai collaborated to “bring a big scandal to the 2014 presidential elections.”
While Karzai has maintained connections with different political, quasi-opposition groups, most of them have not adopted his position regarding the NUG, nor have they rallied behind his call for a halt to air strikes by US forces. Karzai particularly tried to influence Sayyaf’s Council for Protection and Stability of Afghanistan, but it did not embrace his agenda. The incident in the Loya Jirga tent led to a further souring of relations between Karzai and Sayyaf, with Karzai accusing Sayyaf of creating bad press against him. (This occurs after a decade-long close political alliance, as a result of which Sayyaf became the key player in Karzai’s informal jihadi leaders’ council. This council was regularly convened in the presidential palace during crucial debates, the aim of which was for religious leaders to be seen to be bolstering the president’s standing.)
Karzai’s former chief advisor and foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who accompanied him on his September 2016 trip to Germany, criticised Karzai’s Taleban statements during an intervention at an international conference in Herat. In an interview with an Austrian magazine in September this year, Spanta also admitted that “Karzai’s tolerance vis-à-vis corruption was really very big,” although he maintained that Karzai had not been “the centre of all corruption” in Afghanistan.
Instead of rallying around Karzai, most political ‘opposition’ groups appear to have accepted the current status quo. Some are even taking a mediating role in the continuing rift between the president and the chief executive’s camps, as well as with First Vice-President Dostum, who has been showing growing public discontent with the president. On 31 September 2016, Sayyaf’s CPSA formed a committee led by its member and former Karzai intimus, Muhammad Omar Daudzai, that aimed to persuade government leaders to put aside their differences “for the good of the country.” In one of his latest interviews on 19 November 2016, Daudzai even alluded to possible participation in the NUG, saying, “The government has opened the consultation door since four months ago. It consults [with CPSA], on different levels, on big national issues. If consultation ultimately culminates in participation, there is not any fear [of that]. It is our own country. It is our own government.” Similarly, on 1 October 2016, Sebghatullah Mojaddedi’s High Council of Jihadi and National Parties (Shora-ye A’ali Ahzab Jihadi wa melli) held a press conference in which Mojaddedi and Karzai’s former vice president, Muhammad Karim Khalili, sought to downplay the rift within the NUG. (For more details on the various political ‘opposition’ groups, see AAN’s previous reporting here).
A narrowing appeal
Prior to the NUG’s second anniversary on 29 September 2016, Karzai’s challenges loomed large on the political horizon. He relentlessly pushed for a traditional Loya Jirga, which he hoped to use to his advantage, perhaps in order to stage a comeback as some sort of ‘father of the nation’ figure, should the NUG fail to resolve its internal deadlock or, indeed, collapse. His latest remarks – the ones that were interpreted as pro-Taleban, and those that directly called into question the position of chief executive – prompted a strong backlash, particularly in the circles around the chief executive himself. The clamour that followed the shouts of “Death to Karzai,” seems to have further dented his reputation as a national leader and to have cost him more allies.
Afghanistan’s semi-opposition groups, more often than not, are conglomerates of disaffected politicians hoping to secure government positions, rather than being clear-cut groups with a political programme of their own. As a result, they tend to avoid burning all bridges with the government. In the end, Karzai was not able to exploit the two-year anniversary of the NUG to his own advantage and his rallying cry for the moment looks to be less appealing for the other political groups. However, Hamid Karzai should not be written off too soon. His nationalist, anti-US statements do resonate with sections of the population and elites and, most importantly, political allegiances can change rapidly in Afghanistan. A much-speculated possible adoption of some of Karzai’s allies into the cabinet, on the heels of the recent parliamentary interpellation of ministers, indicates that he might be recasting his outright confrontation to carve out influence within the government. And rather than challenging the whole NUG, he may now be slowly throwing his weight behind one of the two camps.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Thomas Ruttig
(1) General Razeq’s remarks were largely in response to the speeches at the ceremony, especially by Sayyaf who stressed the differences between the mujahedin and “the Taleban and other terrorists.” Regarding the anti-Karzai slogans, Razeq said:
It was a very bad incident. We no longer allow such things. We will follow up and ask why it happened. First he [Karzai] himself made a mistake to raise these incompetent people and bring them up to this stage. … We know all these mujahedin. They nod their heads and thump on the desks claiming to be mujahed. They are neither mujahed, nor they should nod their head to claim to be mujahed. Mullah Omar was the best mujahed who overthrew the five governments they had established; one had tied a scarf around his head in the western part and controlled five provinces, the second was in the Mazar region, who had worn tie and established a government for himself. Jalalabad was a separate government. One government was in Chahar Asyab and Maidanshahr. Karta-ye Naw, Wazir Akbar Khan Hill and Paghman and “Company” were other separate governments. To see all these [shows] Mullah Omar had a very good government and provided best services to country.
For more details, see also here.
(2) The Jamiat statement, which was posted on Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani’s Facebook page among other places, stated that:
After Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan, recently expressed his position about the Taleban in an interview, a wave of objections and concerns about this position developed in society and was widely reflected in the media and social networks. That is why Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan, realising the sensitivities created among the people, did not invite the former president to the fifth anniversary of the martyrdom of the leader of jihad and resistance, which was attended by more than five thousand people. His name was not included in the agenda prepared by the commission for holding the anniversary, chaired by Vice-President Sarwar Danesh; but Hamid Karzai himself was kind and came in, requesting [that he be given a chance] to deliver a speech, which unfortunately led a number of the participants in the ceremony to chant slogans against him.
Yusuf Saha, Karzai press secretary told AAN that Karzai had received an invitation, but he had not been sure whether the commission organising the anniversary, which was chaired by Vice-President Danesh, or by Jamiat, had sent it. Copies of the invitation have since then been published on social media, see for instance here.
(3) Joshua Partlow, A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster, Knopf: New York 2016. Karzai quote from a review in The Economist.
(4) In an address to his supporters immediately following the elections on 8 July 2014, Abdullah said:
During the last days, as we fully believed and believe in the clean votes of the people of Afghanistan, we made our last efforts to separate the fraudulent votes from the clean ones; but the triangle of the Palace [Karzai], the election commission and one election campaign team [Ghani] decided to announce the results. I assure the conscious, right-centric and brave people of Afghanistan that we will never accept the result of this fraud, not for one day, not for one month and not for two months.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020