Kabul: Eight years after he took power, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai will have to work hard to restore shattered Western faith in his leadership when he is sworn in for another five-year mandate on Thursday.
His reversal of fortunes was as rapid as his rise to international acclaim when US-led troops invaded Afghanistan in 2000—the last year has seen him adrift in the tempest of increasing violence and weathering a change in the US administration.
“I don’t know anyone who is more admired and respected in the international community than President Karzai for his strength, for his wisdom and for his courage,” Condoleezza Rice said in June 2006 then US secretary of state.
Last month, a pallid Karzai flanked by US Senator John Kerry and UN envoy Kai Eide grudgingly bowed to diplomatic pressure and agreed to stand in a run-off after massive fraud ruined a second presidential election in August.
The years since Karzai was lauded by the international community have seen security drastically deteriorate, the Taliban insurgency gain momentum to inflict record Western casualties and endemic corruption proliferate from the top down.
“Karzai is corrupt, OK,” French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted as telling The New York Times with astonishing frankness.
But at home the shifting perceptions of the Afghan leader have come as less of a surprise.
“Karzai hasn’t changed. He’s the same old Karzai. The difference is the West knows him better. Now things have got serious, the West has realised he’s not that good,” said political analyst Waheed Mujda.
“Karzai is very good at making deals with maliks (tribal leaders) and warlords. The Americans had no knowledge about him so they believed he was something he was not,” he said.
The international community propelled Karzai to power in late 2001 and he went on to win the country’s first direct presidential election in 2004.
“Karzai entered the arena as a popular face: people were tired of past leaders who were involved in wars and conflicts, his father was a well known and respected person,” said political science lecturer Nasrullah Stanikzai.
“But later the West, the United States, made huge mistakes in Afghanistan and to justify their mistakes they started to blame Karzai, who stood against some of their orders and instructions,” he said.
Yet there have always been two sides to Karzai.
His Western flair made him a favourite in Washington and London, where he received an honorary knighthood in 2003. But in Afghanistan, he consorted with warlords and suspected drug traffickers, including his brother.
The international community eagerly awaits Karzai’s inauguration address on Thursday, hoping to hear a detailed programme of government followed by radical changes in his cabinet, to be announced in the coming weeks.
Opponents ridicule Karzai as the “mayor of Kabul” whose remit stops at the gates to the capital, and who is overpowered by feudal strongmen in the provinces.
“The international community has been quite vocal in recent weeks about its expectations. And the first signals were very disappointing, like his first public appearance with Khalili and Fahim,” said one Western official.
These former warlords are his picks for the vice president positions—Karim Khalili from the Hazara community and Tajik marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, suspected of war crimes, drugs trafficking and corruption.