KABUL — Two days before his presidential tenure ended last September, Hamid Karzai delivered farewell remarks to a group of foreign diplomats. With his trademark flair, he began by thanking them for helping Afghanistan, and by the end he was reciting lines from a Robert Frost poem.
In between, he declared that he would remain in the “service” of his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as well as Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s partner in the coalition government, according to an official transcript. The country’s first peaceful transfer of power, Karzai continued, would be his “legacy.”
“Definitely, as a citizen of this country, I will be fully in support of the new arrangement, the new president and the chief executive, and will do all I can but very quietly,” he told the gathering.
Ten months later, Karzai is anything but supportive or quiet. He has emerged as one of Ghani’s and Abdullah’s most vocal critics, engaging formidably in the political, diplomatic and tribal realms. That has triggered tensions at the highest levels of power — and fueled concerns that Karzai is seeking to destabilize the fragile U.S.-backed government, or at least seize political advantage, as it struggles with insecurity, infighting and a flailing economy.
“He clearly sees a role for himself, and it’s not just as an elder statesman. He sees a role as a player,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he interacts with Karzai and his associates. “The more the vacuum continues, the greater the opportunities will be for him to play that role.”
Karzai declined requests for interviews. His allies say he is not seeking to undermine Ghani or Abdullah nor return to power but is only exercising his rights as an Afghan. “He has not formed a shadow government nor does he have the intention to do so,” said Karim Khoram, who served as Karzai’s chief of staff. “He’s not even keen to form an opposition party to the government.”
Karzai’s resurgence is the latest sign of the ongoing tussle for Afghanistan’s future, between its old guard, steeped in a centuries-old system of patronage, and a new generation of technocrats seeking to modernize the country’s institutions and codes.
Karzai headed the country for nearly 13 years, first as an interim leader after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, and later as the elected president for almost a decade. As Ghani and Abdullah fought over election results last year, Karzai’s final term stretched on months longer than scheduled — an extension some observers said suited a president viewed as uneager to relinquish power.
“But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep,” Karzai said that September day, quoting Frost.
Since Ghani’s inauguration, Karzai has been not only consolidating his support base, but also actively working to expand it, Western diplomats and analysts say. On any given day, powerful tribal elders, former ministers and governors, members of parliament, provincial officials and his clansmen line up at his stately residence to seek his advice and help.
They include many who have not received government jobs or who otherwise feel alienated by Ghani, who opted not to appoint Karzai’s former ministers to his cabinet. Karzai is also reaching out to influential former mujahideen commanders who fought the Soviets and the Taliban, especially those who feel sidelined by the government. At diplomatic parties, it’s not uncommon to hear high-level former Karzai officials predicting the collapse of the government and yearning for an interim administration led by Karzai.
Karzai’s critics contend that he wants to maintain power to protect his family and loyalists from possible corruption charges. Some describe him as angry that Ghani and Abdullah do not solicit his advice. Others say he wants to protect his legacy by ensuring that the current government struggles.
Khoram rejected all of the assertions as baseless.
Karzai continues to meet regularly with foreign ambassadors and diplomats. He has visited Russia, China and India to meet officials and discuss affairs concerning Afghanistan. He’s often accompanied by former officials, including his former national security adviser and foreign minister.
In Moscow last month, Karzai was afforded many of the same courtesies as a sitting head of state, and he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Taliban and the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Neither Ghani nor Abdullah have made an official state visit to Moscow since taking office.
Afghan government officials say they are not concerned about Karzai’s foreign overtures. They dismiss his Russia visit as an attempt by Putin to snipe at the United States, which Karzai has been hostile toward. But the officials are concerned about what they described as Karzai’s interference in government appointments and policies. Karzai still has followers in parliament — whom critics say he influenced to derail some of Ghani’s cabinet nominations — as well as in the conservative religious establishment and provincial posts.
“He’s been doing a lot of things secretly, behind the curtains,” said a top Abdullah aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the government’s uneasiness with Karzai. “There are people who are loyal to him, and it will take time to wash them all away from the government positions.”
Khoram denied the allegations. Publicly, though, there’s no dispute that Karzai is targeting the government. Karzai and his deputies have vocally attacked Ghani’s policies, such as the signing of a bilateral security agreement with Washington.
“He second-guesses our foreign policy. He second-guesses the path towards peace. He second-guesses the economic developments underway,” said Mohammad Daud Sultanzoy, a presidential candidate in 2014.
In May, Karzai demanded the cancellation of an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s spy agencies, declaring it against the country’s national interest. A key aide, Aimal Faizi, described it as “sleeping with the enemy” in an opinion piece published on the Al Jazeera network’s Web site. Last month, Karzai condemned a U.S. drone strike that allegedly killed civilians, while Ghani has refrained from commenting on such attacks.
“Karzai is an intelligent politician,” said Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst in Kabul. “He knows that anti-American and anti-
Pakistani stances have buyers in Afghanistan.”
Add to this the political inertia and collective frustrations over a lack of jobs and rising prices, and Karzai’s popularity has soared on the street. He exudes more charisma than Ghani, a former World Bank official known for his brusque style. In interviews, some Afghans expressed hope he would run again for the presidency, even though Karzai held office for two terms, the constitutional limit.
“My business was much better under Karzai,” said Mustafa Haidari, in his early 20s, who sells clothes from a roadside stall. “Since Abdullah and Ghani have gotten power, they are busy with their internal disputes.”
“One hundred percent Karzai was better than this national unity government,” said Abdul Qader, a tribal elder from Samangan province. “A temporary government should be formed under Karzai, and everyone will support him.”
Supporters of Ghani and Abdullah acknowledge Karzai’s growing popular clout. But they also complain that they inherited corrupt and poorly managed government institutions, in a country where most international troops have left and foreign aid is shrinking.
“In Karzai’s time, they had jobs, they had more troops in the villages, but now it’s changing,” said the Abdullah aide. “That’s what makes people believe Karzai.”
The government, too, is responsible for Karzai’s rising stature, Western diplomats say. Tied up with infighting, it has been unable to deliver any substantial reforms. It has also driven away influential job-seekers linked to Karzai.
“Quite a large number were able managers. Very few were ideologically or tribally tied to Karzai,” said the Western diplomat. “It is regrettable how many powerful personalities they have just pushed away from the government. . . . It would be strange if Karzai doesn’t take advantage of that.”
Abdullah and Ghani are fighting back. At a gathering of mujahideen leaders in the spring, Abdullah publicly asked Karzai to stop engaging in Afghan politics. Last week, Abdullah blamed Karzai’s government for the country’s economic woes.
In public, Ghani, who served as finance minister under Karzai, has been deeply respectful of Karzai. Those close to him say he now considers that a mistake. Tensions between the two have grown since Karzai blasted the spy agencies pact with Pakistan, to the point that they are not talking, according to Western diplomats and Ghani aides. In recent days, both camps have attempted to smooth out the differences.
Ghani “finally has come to understand that by giving him respect as an ex-president, Mr. Karzai took that as a sign that he was able instruct the president in the current policies of the government,” said Hashmat Ghani, the president’s younger brother.
Local news media reported that Ghani last month told civil society leaders in Kandahar, Karzai’s tribal stronghold, that there would be “no parallel governments,” a veiled reference to Karzai’s influence. Still, Ghani in recent weeks has tried to appease influential people he has alienated. He has offered positions to the sons of former mujahideen commanders as well as to some Karzai loyalists.
One former official, at a recent diplomatic party, said he had received an offer.
“I’m going to discuss this with Karzai,” he said with a smile.
Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Michael Birnbaum in Moscow contributed to this report.