The former Afghan president has cast himself as a unifier of the country, but his manoeuvring against his successor, Ashraf Ghani, suggests otherwise.
A stone’s throw from the presidential palace in Kabul, you can see the lines of dignitaries awaiting their appointments from early in the morning: tribal leaders and elders from across the country queue up to get inside, where the audience also counts foreign ambassadors and cabinet ministers.
It’s not, however, the current Afghan president they are queuing to see, but his predecessor at his nearby city centre residence.
Nine months after he relinquished power in Kabul, Hamid Karzai is a lingering, but formidable presence on the political scene, and his influence and interventions are increasingly seen as a threat to Afghanistan’s political stability.
The former president has curtailed the erratic behaviour that so irritated his international partners during his near-decade long rule, casting himself as a genial statesman and supposed unifier of the country.
The new president, Ashraf Ghani, has failed deliver on promises to jumpstart the economy, struggled to appoint officials to key security positions, and risked significant political capital by making overtures to Pakistan.
Given its history of harbouring insurgents, Ghani’s pivot to Pakistan is controversial, and Karzai’s response has been ambiguous. In an interview with the Guardian in March Karzai insisted he would keep quiet and advise Ghani behind the scenes. “I absolutely support this government,” he said.
Many, however, question how genuine this assertion is. A senior western diplomat told the Guardian that Karzai has been trying for months to undercut Ghani’s government, with the intention of bringing it down. Should this happen, an interim government would likely take over, and Karzai would step forward to fill the vacuum as the self-styled father of the nation, the diplomat said.
Aware of Karzai’s intentions, but keen to avoid an open clash he might not win, Ghani has in the past tolerated the former president’s manoeuvres to a certain extent. “In the political game, Karzai is leagues ahead of almost everyone else here. Frankly, he is leagues ahead of us too. It just took us a while to figure it out,” the same source said.
A presidential aide who regularly meets Karzai agreed. “Karzai knows everyone in this country. Ghani does not,” he said.
The former president denies he is building up opposition. “Meeting tribal leaders and elders from around the country is nothing new for Mr Karzai. This is how it used to be during the last 14 years,” said Aimal Faizi, a long-time aide.
“It is the Afghan political culture and also his personal style,” he said. “The strong bond between President Karzai and Afghan elders and leaders from all around the country can not be ignored by either side.”
Either way, Ghani now seems to have had enough. Last month on a trip to Kandahar, he struck back.
Kandahar is a Karzai stronghold and home to his half-brother Shah Wali Karzai, who heads the Popalzai tribe and wields considerable influence. The former president ruled largely through patronage, building personal relations with strongmen whose excesses and corruption he is accused of ignoring. They now stand in the way of Ghani’s pledge to centralise power and create more transparency.
“There are lots of warlords in Kandahar. They are like rats,” said Mohammad Yusuf, a member of the provincial council. “The Karzai government dug channels for the rats underground, brought them to government, made them officials, and today they have power.”
According to local media, Ghani told a group of civil society members: “From now on, there are no parallel governments in Kandahar.” The newly appointed governor, Humayun Azizi, was his official representative, he said.
When Ghani came to Kandahar, one of the strongest power brokers in the south, the police chief Lt Gen Abdul Raziq, made a point of leaving town.
“What did piss off the Ghani camp was that ahead of Ghani’s visit, people close to Karzai rang around to tribal leaders and said ‘don’t turn up’,” a western security official said. The president’s advisers supposedly convinced the elders to come after all, but the incident reinforced the impression that Ghani has very little wiggle room.
“You don’t want your former boss breathing down your neck,” the same source said.
The conflict between Ghani and Karzai came to a head with a memorandum of understanding signed in May between the Afghan and Pakistani spy agencies and confirmed by Pakistan’s army, to enhance intelligence cooperation. Many Afghans saw the deal as selling out to a sworn enemy.
The deal gave Karzai a platform to launch an attack on Ghani that chimed with public opinion. As a result, he has come to be seen by many as a protector of national sovereignty. To reinforce this image, he keeps up a busy travel schedule to countries uncomfortable with closer Afghan-Pakistani cooperation such as India, China and Russia.
Faizi, Karzai’s aide, said Afghans were right to protest against the memorandum, “which is against the national interests of their country. The protest is [not] against individuals but against inappropriate policies of the Afghan government.”
Karzai may partly be fighting for his legacy. In rooting out corruption, Ghani will inevitably target people who amassed astonishing fortunes on the former president’s watch.
Karzai allies have been sidelined, among them the former vice-president Yunus Qanuni and the intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil, who opposed the memorandum with Pakistan. That puts Karzai in an awkward position given his tacit support for Ghani during the elections.
“Karzai feels like Ghani wouldn’t have gotten the presidency without him,” said the western security official.
The infighting could have wider repercussions, said Haroon Mir, a political analyst, pointing out that Ghani needs wide political support to begin peace talks with the Taliban.
“It’s not good at this time to lose political support or create opportunities for political opposition to emerge,” Mir said.
If Ghani has tried to send a message to Karzai to back off, the former president is unlikely to comply. Aides and analysts agree that he is positioning himself as the only viable alternative to a government that so far has not delivered.
“Karzai knows a lot of games, and one of his games is the loya jirga,” Ghani’s aide said, referring to the assembly that can pave the way for, among other things, a change in the constitution. Afghan presidents can currently only serve two terms, which Karzai has already done, but if he rallies support for a loya jirga, he can mount a challenge on a whole different level.
Karzai “is the only known political leader of Afghanistan”, Mir said. “He has all the ingredients to be a national leader – many resources, political support, his own network of influential people. If there is a crisis, he will emerge as the only national leader.”