Afghan President Karzai's Fall From Grace

When President Hamid Karzai started leading Afghanistan in 2001, he was celebrated in the West. But since then, his star has fallen. Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, talks with Renee Montagne about how corruption and questionable alliances have muddied Karzai's administration and legacy.

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When the U.S. military and its Afghan allies drove the Taliban out of Kabul in 2001, and helped to install Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan, he was widely celebrated in the West. He had charisma, he spoke English beautifully, he dressed in the elegant robes of the region.

Karzai was also a tribal leader among the dominant Pashtuns, who have ruled Afghanistan for centuries.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

But after eight years with Karzai in power, Afghanistan is still plagued by many problems, and Hamid Karzai's star has fallen at home and the West. We've asked Alexander Thier to explain what happened. He's director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. ALEXANDER THIER (Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. Institute of Peace): It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks.

MONTAGNE: Take us back for a moment to when the world came to know Hamid Karzai, and that was, of course, right after the coalition drove out the Taliban in 2001 and he became president.

Mr. THIER: Well, you had this very dramatic moment when the different Afghan factions who were behind the ouster of the Taliban were gathered together for a few intense days outside of Bonn, Germany, to come up with an interim government that would rule for the next six months.

You had this figure, Hamid Karzai, whose father had been a tribal and political leader. And Hamid Karzai had been a fairly mid-level figure in some of the mujahedeen organizations. But in the late �90s his father was assassinated by the Taliban, and he became one of the few outspoken Pashtun leaders who were really organizing against the Taliban.

And during the time of his Bonn agreement he wasn't there, but he was brought in by phone to address the group as a resistance leader who had outside credibility. Not just as a faction leader, but as somebody who was more national sort of figure.

MONTAGNE: He became, at least in the West, something of a media darling.

Mr. THIER: Well, I think that Hamid Karzai's gift is that he is a good communicator. He made people from the international community - ambassadors, presidents, world leaders, everybody who he met with in that flurry of a few months after becoming president - he made them feel welcome and he made them feel as though he was a man that they could understand.

And for many of the faction leaders as well, he was seen as somewhat of a more neutral figure. He hadn't been a major player in the resistance against the Soviets. And so he was a conciliator. He was seen as somebody who could bring everybody under the tent.

But also by doing so, he lacked his own base of authority among the different factions. And that turned out to be very detrimental for his government.

MONTAGNE: Right. In other words, wanting to please everyone in some sense meant that he wasn't a strong leader.

Mr. THIER: Well, it meant that when, I believe, some difficult decisions needed to be made about getting out some bad actors who were associated with his government, often those difficult decisions were not taken.

MONTAGNE: Although, he would say incorrectly that these former warlords were thrust upon him by the West, and the reason for that was these have been, many of them, Northern Alliance, and had become allies of the West before 2001.

Mr. THIER: It's true. In fact, many of these groups were the same groups that we funded to fight against the Soviets. And so we had long-term relationships with them and they did have their own independent power bases. I definitely think that the international community needs to shoulder some of the blame of having supported these people for too long.

But at the same time, Hamid Karzai was in a position of unique potential leadership. And ultimately in those critical times of state-building and nation-building, you need someone who is willing to be forceful and to take actions that may be unpopular in order to build a stronger base of support, not only within the government institutions, but also within society.

MONTAGNE: You know, I think to many on the outside people would be scratching their heads because it seems like Hamid Karzai has taken a sudden and precipitous plunge. And people might be saying, wait, I thought he was the good guy. From Afghanistan, would it look more like a long, slow slide?

Mr. THIER: It certainly does. This has been a gradual process. I think it's important for everybody to remember that Hamid Karzai has been president of Afghanistan for almost eight years now. Afghanistan has been on a downward slide, really, for the last four years. And Hamid Karzai is certainly not responsible for all of that.

But the thing that he, I think, does bear most responsibility for is that his government has become increasingly seen as corrupt by the Afghan population and indeed by the international community. And even if Hamid Karzai himself is not personally corrupt, to have led a government that is seen as corrupt at the ministerial level, at the governor level, and even at the local level - the local police - that has really undermined the support overall for his government and has created space for the insurgents to come in and say your government is not providing you with security, it's not providing you with justice, it's not providing you with reconstruction.

And that's been a very successful line of propaganda for the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: So, there is a good chance, an excellent chance, that Hamid Karzai will end up becoming, again, the president of Afghanistan under some circumstance or other. Is it possible for him to get back what you might call that early luster, or is it basically too late for him to deliver?

Mr. THIER: I believe that it is still possible. Because I think what Afghans are looking for is not the outcome of the election, they are looking for a demonstration that government can be effective. And so, President Karzai needs to come out, and he needs to say that he has heard the voices of the people and that his mission for the next five years is going to be improve governance, address impunity and get rid of the problem of corruption in his government.

One of my real hopes is that, even if President Karzai does remain as "president," quote-unquote, that there will be real very senior-level fresh blood brought in that will take away some of the attention from Karzai and actually allow some of this reform to happen. �Cause if they don't do that, I think it's going to be really difficult.

MONTAGNE: Alexander Thier is director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thanks very much.

Mr. THIER: Sure. My pleasure, Renee.

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