Hamid Karzai

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See also: President of Afghanistan
See also: Taliban and the present Afghan government

Hamid Karzai (1957-) is the President of Afghanistan. He was reelected in the disputed 2009 Afghanistan presidential election. A member of the Popalzai tribe of Durrani Pashtun born in Kandahar, he is related to the last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. His post-secondary studies were in India.

Karzai, since he assumed the interim presidency in 2001, has had to carry out a continuing balancing act. The Northern Alliance forces that overthrew the Taliban were primarily non-Pashtun, with some of the top leaders being Tajiks. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are by no means between two stable countries, but with constantly shifting factions. While the U.S. and other Western powers had much to do with his gaining power and continuing both security and economic assistance, he cannot be seen as too Westernized by his own constituencies; indeed, being criticized by the West may even help him at times.

The 2001 Bonn Peace Conference named him interim president, taking office in June 2001, and he was elected to a five-year term in 2004. In December 2001 Mr. Karzai was named chairman of an interim government that replaced the defeated Taliban, making him the leader of Afghanistan. The Taliban attempted to assassinate him in April 2008.

The West, indeed, criticizes. While he took office during the George W. Bush Administration, Barack Obama, during the campaign, called him ineffective. Relations are a key issue with the Obama Administration. He had been invited to a summit in Washington, but the invitation was cancelled when Karzai reduced the power of an independent panel that had found election fraud. Karzai responded by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, who gave an anti-American speech in the Afghan presidential palace. [1]

Obama then paid a visit to Karzai in Kabul, inviting him to come to the U.S. in May. During the visit, of which the Afghans were told three days before, "Progress will continue to be made … but we also want to continue to make progress on the civilian front," Obama said, referring to anti-corruption efforts, good governance and adherence to the rule of law. "All of these things end up resulting in an Afghanistan that is more prosperous and more secure."[2]

No solution to Afghanistan is possible without a solution to issues in Pakistan. Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari held a three-way summit with Obama in May 2009. [3]

Current situation

Karzai has been known more for his alliance-building skills than for governance. There have been initiatives, probably Western-initiated, to give him a "Chief Executive Officer", who would have at least some aspects of head of government. U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalizad, born in Afghanistan, was first mentioned for this role. It has been offered to Ashraf Ghani, former Finance Minister, who declined it, but did not rule out accepting if Karzai wins. As of March 2010, however, he had not been offered a place in the government.

He was reelected in the disputed 2009 Afghanistan presidential election, running with Mohammed Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili as vice-presidential candidates. The New York Times said a private poll, in May 2009, suggested 85 percent of the electorate plan to vote for someone else. The Times observed, however, that he remained the strongest politician in the country.[4] He failed to win a majority, but second-polling candidate Abdullah Abdullah refused to participate in the runoff, claiming fraud.

Corruption is a major and continuing issue.

Government reform

See also: Peter Galbraith

In March 2010, President Karzai increased the power of the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, including the authority to refer cases to court and act as prosecutor. Nevertheless, the non-governmental organization Transparency International last year ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 180 countries in its annual poll that assesses the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. The only countries ranked lower were Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia.[2] NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said “The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it’s too little good governance. Afghans need a government that deserves their loyalty and trust; when they have it, the oxygen will be sucked away from the insurgency. Crucially, Afghan officials must make the difficult choices necessary to create an efficient and corruption-free government in which its people can believe.” Karzai had said to Parliament, "We admit that there is corruption in our administration. But there is even more corruption regarding international aid. If we can stop this kind of corruption, God willing, our administration will soon become free from corruption."[5]

Karzai accused international media and the United Nations, and, in particular, accused Peter Galbraith of orchestrating fraud and attempting to bribe election officials. Galbraith responded to the Washington Post, that when he first heard that Karzai was accusing him of organizing voter fraud, he thought it "must be an April Fools' joke. Karzai is unhinged if he expects anyone to believe such a bizarre accusation," Galbraith wrote in an e-mail. "It underscores why he is not likely to reform and therefore cannot be a credible partner." [6]

"Foreigners will make excuses, they do not want us to have a parliamentary election," Karzai said. "They want parliament to be weakened and battered and for me to be an ineffective president, and for parliament to be ineffective." Reuters reported that Abdullah called Karzai's "populist, anti-foreigner" remarks as directed to domestic audiences, but questioned Karzai's "well-being" and the president was losing his grip, even telling reporters he feared for Karzai's "well being." "Look at the very, very small window of opportunity which is left -- which is the presence of the international community and they still have the commitment to help Afghanistan. And then you have a leader talking in that sense?"[7]

Obama Administration press secretary Robert Gibbs responded saying the remarks were "genuinely troubling". During Obama's visit, according to sources of the Washington Post, said Karzai's speech was "not necessarily what we expected" just days after Obama's visit. Obama had made five requests:

  1. Reduce corruption
  2. Give provincial and local governments more power
  3. Clarify his plan for reintegrating Taliban fighters into Afghan society
  4. Ensure that two international observers maintain seats on Afghanistan's two main elections oversight commissions.
  5. begin adopting a "merit-based" appointment system to fill jobs in his government and at the provincial and local levels. "Karzai has filled 14 of 25 cabinet posts, and Obama would like the remaining 11 to be filled based on merit -- that is, outside family or tribal ties."

Concern was expressed about appointments and to "more clearly define his Taliban reintegration plans to ensure that there are 'no surprises' to U.S. officials regarding the past actions and affiliations of those being demobilized." [6]

Electoral oversight

See also: 2009 Afghanistan presidential election

Karzai's proposal to change the election commission was rejected, on 31 March 2010, by the lower house of the Afghan parliament. He had tried to change the law by presidential decree during a recess; the parliament has increasingly resisted him. When he signed the decree creating the Electoral Complaints Commission in February, it gave him the authority to appoint all five members, but, after international pressure, he agreed to let the United Nations name two commissioners. Deputy Speaker Mirwais Yasini said "We had a very bad experience in the presidential election, it cannot be considered legal. The credibility of the current president is under question. Looking ahead we have to have good transparency. We had to reject this law." "This is a very important day for Afghanistan's democratic institutions," said Peter D. Lepsch, a senior legal adviser for Democracy International in Kabul. "The legislative branch has used its constitutional authority to stem presidential power. That's a big deal." [8]

Ahmed Wali Karzai

Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid Karzai's brother, is considered the most powerful leader in Southern Afghanistan, based in Kandahar, and there have been accusations against both Karzais. The New York Times reported

Senior American officials spent months weighing the allegations against Ahmed Wali Karzai: that he pays off Taliban insurgents, that he launders money, that he seizes land, that he reaps enormous profits by facilitating the shipment of opium through the area. And the officials concluded that the evidence, some compelling, some circumstantial, was not clear enough to persuade the president to move his brother out of town, two NATO officials said.

'My recommendation was, remove him,' a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. 'But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.' [9]

Complicating the issue, however, are reports that the Central Intelligence Agency is also using Ahmed Wali Karzai as an ally in counterterrorism. Counterterrorism often has conflicting goals with counterinsurgency, the latter often called "winning the hearts and minds." Andrew Exum said it is not unprecedented that "NATO/ISAF [is] carrying out one campaign in Afghanistan while the CIA carries out another -- with both campaigns operating at cross purposes to one another...But you can be darn sure that if we think that AWK [Ahmed Wali Karzai] is the CIA's guy, the Afghans most certainly believe that to be the case.[10] The use of questionable allies that can pinpoint the location of terrorist targets also can lead to a perception that those allies are exploiting the people.[11]

Peace negotiations

Former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has his own fighting faction now working with the Taliban, has had representatives meeting with the government since 2008, beginning in Dubai and now with President Karzai in Kabul. Like Taliban leaders, there is a bounty on Hekmatyar, whose representatives met, in Dubai, with the government. Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin has been meeting with the government, in Kabul, in 2010. They presented a 15-point plan that includes the beginning of Western troop withdrawal in July 2010 with complete withdrawal in six months, although there is flexibility, according to a delegation member, Qaribur Rahman Saeed. "The draft plan may will be reformed. We are flexible. We want this process to continue and saw that feeling on the part of the government too. We are sure that there is sincerity on both sides,"[12]

Work in office

After George W. Bush's January 29, 2002, State of the Union Address, in which the Axis of Evil was announced, he visited Iran, met Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and announced, "Our presence here is like going to your brother's house, because Iran is our brother country. Iran is not only a neighbor, but also a friend." In August 2002, Khatami visited Karzai in Kabul. [13]

He has had three-way summit security talks with Pakistan and the US. [3]

Initial Presidency

On assuming the interim presidency, he needed to establish a balance among the various ethnic groups. The immediate problem was seen as an overrepresentation of Tajiks, who held ministries including defense, foreign affairs, and the interior.

In the first attempt to find balance, he kept the defense minister, Mohammed Qasim Fahim and also naming him one of three vice presidents, but appointed a Pashtun, Taj Muhammed Wardak, as interior minister. Defending the retention of Fahim, "He's the minister of defense... He has people that he has, the coalition is working with him and we have an antiterrorism campaign to complete. We cannot just turn things upside down and bring changes overnight."

Also named as vice presidents were the Hazara leader, Karim Khalili, and Abdul Qadir, the Pashtun governor of Nangarhar Province. Two of the most powerful regional warlords, the Uzbek general from the north, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Ismail Khan, from Herat in the west, declined to be take vice presidential posts unless they could maintain their regional interests. Dostum appears to have left Afghanistan.

Wardak, according to Karzai, "...is a man who has experience of provincial matters, who has governed before. Let's give him a chance...We have to have technical people in the interior ministry, to take away the political character of this ministry, and we need a technical and professional minister."

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, another of the influential Tajiks, stayed as foreign minister. Yunus Qanooni, who resigned as interior minister, but stayed in the Cabinet as minister of education. Abdullah is challenging Karzai in the 2009 Afghanistan presidential election. Abdul Qadir, the elder brother of Abdul Haq, was also named minister of public works, and was assassinated in 2002. [14]

Another warlord, Padsha Khan Zadran, who defied Karzai and attacked his own town with rockets to try to seize power, was effectively sidelined by the loya jirga, or grand council of 1,600 delegates. Karzai said of him, "The loya jirga voted overwhelmingly for me...And he was there. And he campaigned." Karzai also removed Zadran's brother, Amanullah, from the cabinet, complaining that he had attended only two cabinet meetings.[15]

Actions after 9-11 attack

He entered Afghanistan from Pakistan, with 4 men, on October 8-9, and, over the next 20 days, met with local groups, and assembled a force of perhaps 50 men. He had been told "You must come with strength. Go to the United States, come back with the resources and money and weapons, and all that, and begin from a point with strength and then we'll do that. But if you just take the population and march it on the cities, they will take the cities, but then they would also get killed. Why should the civilians suffer?" [16] Karzai used his satellite telephone to call the U.S. consulate and ask for support. Within a day or two, he designated his position, and large amounts of weapons and supplies were parachuted to him, greatly increasing his status. Soon afterwards, he asked for advisers, and United States Army Special Forces Operational Detachment A 574 flew to him on November 14. [17]

He took a major role in the capture of Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold. This was crucial to his status in the warrior-oriented culture.

Relations with the Taliban prior to 2001

Hamid Karzai told Ahmed Rashid that, at first, he believed in the Taliban as a force that would bring order and end warlordism, and then call a loya jirga. He initially gave them money, and met Mullah Omar, who offered to make him their envoy to the UN. "They were good people initially, but the tragedy was that very soon after they were taken over by the ISI and became a proxy...I realized what was happening when I was called into the Pakistan Foreign Office to discuss the modalities for my becoming the Taliban envoy at the UN."[18]

Selected to succeed his father as Khan of the half-million Popalzai. He defied both the Pakistan and Taliban governments by leading a convoy of tribal mourners to carry his father's body home for burial in Kandahar, a stronghold of the Taliban. The This act of defiance made Hamid Karzai the most visible leader of resistance to the Taliban among the Pashtun people. [19]

Soviet invasion

He was a student outside Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion. After receiving his master's degree in international relations in 1983, he went to Peshawar, Pakistan, and joined the Political Office of the National Liberation Front led by Professor Sebghatullah Mujadidi. After the formation of the transitional government of the mujahideen in 1989, he was appointed Director of the Foreign Relations Unit in the Office of the President of the Interim Government.[20]

He became Deputy Foreign Minister in the post-Soviet government, but resigned as the Taliban took control.


  1. Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler (29 March 2010), "Afghan Leader Is Seen to Flout Influence of U.S.", New York Times
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Obama tells Afghanistan: Get house in order", Associated Press, 28 March 2010
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Obama urges Afghanistan and Pakistan leaders to get tougher on the Taliban", Guardian (U.K.), 6 May 2009
  4. "Times Topics: Hamid Karzai", New York Times, May 5, 2009
  5. Michael Sidwell (January 2009), Corruption undermines Afghanistan’s future, Transparency International
  6. 6.0 6.1 Joshua Partlow and Scott Wilson (2 April 2010), "Karzai rails against foreign presence, accuses West of engineering voter fraud", Washington Post Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "WaPo2010-04-02" defined multiple times with different content
  7. Peter Graff (2 April 2010), "Karzai outburst exposes Kabul's rift with West", Reuters
  8. Joshua Partlow (31 March 2010), "Afghan parliament's lower house rejects Karzai election proposals", Washington Post
  9. Dexter Filkins (March 30, 2010), "Despite Doubt, Karzai Brother Retains Power", New York Times
  10. Abu Muqawama (Andrew Exum) (29 October 2009), The Most Important Article on Afghanistan You'll Read This Week, Center for a New American Security
  11. "Ahmed Wali Karzai and the CIA: America's conundrum in Afghanistan", Christian Science Monitor, 29 October 2009
  12. Sayed Salahuddin (31 March 2010), "Afghan peace talks end with no headway, more expected", Reuters
  13. Warren Mass (14 August 2009), "Upcoming Afghan Presidential Election", New American
  14. Jason Burke (7 July 2002), "Minister's killing rocks Afghanistan", Guardian (UK)
  15. Carlotta Gall, James Dao (June 20, 2002), "A Buoyant Karzai Is Sworn In as Afghanistan's Leader", New York Times
  16. "Interview: President Hamid Karzai", PBS Frontline, May 7, 2002
  17. History 1987-2007, United States Special Operations Command, p. 94
  18. Ahmed Rashid (2006), Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Viking, ISBN 9780670019700, p. 13
  19. "Hamid Karzai: A profile", CBC News Online, September 21, 2006
  20. President Hamid Karzai, Embassy of Afghanistan