KABUL — He has long been dismissed by critics as a cranky, embittered has-been, given to provocative rants against the American government whose might and money sustained his government for years — and whose relationship with him eventually soured into a recrimination-filled frost.
But former Afghan president Hamid Karzai is not finished yet. The cagey politician and onetime Western protege, 60, maintains a wide circle of contacts from his artfully appointed, steel-walled compound in the Afghan capital. And as the current government struggles to cope with relentless violence by the Taliban and Islamic State amid a tangle of domestic political battles, Karzai’s criticisms are beginning to gain an audience in Afghanistan.
His theories often sound conspiratorial and his proposals self-serving. It is not always easy to tell whether he believes his more far-fetched assertions, such as that the United States is secretly supporting the Islamic State offshoot in Afghanistan to justify establishing a large permanent military presence, dominate the country and control the volatile surrounding region.
American and Afghan special operations forces have been fighting together against Islamic State militants since 2014, and the U.S. and NATO continue to train and equip Afghan security forces. U.S. military officials say their long-term intentions are to establish a bulwark here against Islamist extremism and foreign aggression in a strategic neighborhood that includes Russia, Iran and China.
“The United States is not here to go to a party,” Karzai said in a recent interview with The Washington Post, sipping espresso in his book-lined study. “There is no need for them to build so many bases just to defeat a few Taliban. They are here because all the great American rivals are in the neighborhood, and we happen to be here, too. They are welcome to stay but not to deceive us.”
As the insurgent conflict drags into its 17th year and the once-diminished U.S. military role expands under the Trump administration, Karzai has repeatedly expressed strong opposition and fears of further escalation. “Too many Afghans are dying for an uncertain future,” he said. “We are too small and poor to ask the U.S. to stop, but we are a country, and our interests must be respected.”
Such comments can seem like a throwback to Karzai’s final years in power, when he took to angrily denouncing U.S. and NATO troops as foreign occupiers who bombed villages and raided homes with no regard for civilian life. As he left office in 2014, Karzai refused to sign an agreement allowing U.S. bases to remain in the country, although his successor Ashraf Ghani signed it as soon as he assumed the presidency.
These days, the former president is also voicing fears and suspicions that are shared by frustrated, confused and war-weary Afghans. Like him, many remain ambivalent about the American presence, deeply suspicious about next-door Pakistan’s role in abetting insurgents— a charge Pakistan has repeatedly denied — and fearful that an expanded U.S. military role may sink any prospects of peace. The Taliban has said repeatedly that it will not negotiate as long as foreign troops remain.
“Karzai is not alone in his paranoia,” said Davood Moradian, executive director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.
“People all over the region think Daesh is an American import,” Moradian said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He said there was “historic precedent” for such suspicions, noting that the U.S. supported Islamist militias here during the Cold War and then abandoned the country. “Now Islamic extremism is out of control.”
Some former associates wince at Karzai’s unrelenting attacks on his onetime U.S. benefactors and thinly veiled suggestions that Afghans should be courting powerful neighbors like Moscow instead. They argue that despite rough patches, Washington remains a far more trustworthy ally and that its support is crucial to the country’s survival. Ghani has developed a close relationship with U.S. military officials here, and American aid pays the lion’s share of government salaries.
“I differ with Mr. Karzai on this. We cannot afford to lose American support,” Mohammad Umer Daudzai, a former official in Karzai’s cabinet, said politely.
“There is no one else who can step in and replace them. The last time they left, it was a disaster,” he said, referring to the U.S. withdrawal after the Soviet conflict that was followed by a civil war. “This time, they need to stay another 10 or 20 years.”
On the other hand, there is wide agreement here, and a growing consensus in Washington, that Karzai has been right on one major issue — the need to put more pressure on Pakistan to stop sheltering Taliban militants. Although the Obama and George W. Bush administrations treated Pakistan as a recalcitrant but vital anti-terror ally, President Trump has taken a much harder line and recently suspended security aid.
One high-profile endorsement has come from Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Kabul in the early 2000s, who visited here recently and met with a variety of people, reportedly exploring a political or diplomatic role. In an interview this week with Voice of America, Khalilzad described Karzai as “a national leader” and said they were “on the same page” about Pakistan. He echoed Karzai’s call for additional sanctions on Pakistani military officials.
Other analysts said that the deepening problems of the Ghani government, which include numerous delays and difficulties in scheduling national elections, are lending more credence to Karzai’s criticism of the U.S.-brokered deal between Ghani and his top rival, Abdullah Abdullah, after fraud-plagued elections in 2014. That agreement created the badly divided National Unity Government.
Karzai has called for an alternative political path forward, repeatedly proposing a loya jirga, or traditional gathering for debate and decision. Afghan and foreign critics see this as a ploy for him to manipulate the meeting and make a political comeback, but Karzai strongly rejects that charge.
“I know the Americans are worried that a jirga will ask them to leave and ask me to return, but I have no desire to return,” Karzai said in the interview. “Today, things are going so badly that we need to go back to the people. The United States has no need to fear us, but America’s behavior is damaging us, and our belief in the democratic values of the West is being shattered. Why do they want to see us weak and unstable?”
Yet for all his dark accusations, Karzai, who speaks cultured and flawless English, can be diplomatic and charmingly self-aware. He veers unexpectedly from dignified umbrage to chortling glee. In the interview, he acknowledged with a laugh that he had been “brutally frank” with U.S. officials during his presidency but suggested that it was his patriotic duty at the time.
“I am not anti-American,” Karzai said. “I oppose a lot of U.S. policies, but I remain an ally. If the Americans act honorably, they will find us very accommodating.”