Some 12 years ago, Hamid Karzai was seen as a bearer of hope for Afghanistan. But the politician is now seen as an erratic president who alienated his allies. He is leaving office, however, with a set of achievements.
When the Taliban rule of Afghanistan came to an end in 2001, Hamid Karzai stood as a symbol of hope. The scion of a prominent Pashtun family was appointed president of the transitional government in December 2001. He was one of the few influential Afghans who did not have blood on his hands and had good relations with the United States.
Expectations were high. But twelve years on, Karzai's era is marked by disillusionment both inside and outside of the conflict-ridden country. Little progress has been made in crucial areas such as fighting corruption and improving relations with neighboring Pakistan.
Karzai, the tactician
However, Adrienne Woltersdorf, head of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung's Kabul office, believes Karzai deserves some credit. "He has managed to keep his position as Afghanistan's president which is probably one of the toughest political jobs on the planet, for more than ten years."
According to the analyst, this achievement shouldn't be underestimated, especially in a country notorious for intrigues. Karzai is a great tactician, she said, who was able to balance out contrasting power interests. For instance, when the governor of Herat Province, Ismail Khan, began to act independently of Kabul, Karzai decided to appoint him cabinet minister.
It was only by counterbalancing the different political interests that development aid was able to take effect. Never before have more girls attended school than in the past ten years. Several universities have been founded or reconstructed and the country's media landscape now features an array of TV and radio stations, making it one of the liveliest in the region.
A tarnished image
However, the initial positive image of the outgoing president has been tarnished. He has lost favor not only with Afghans, who saw him as a puppet of the West, but also with the United States. While he won his first election in 2004 by an overwhelming majority, his re-election in 2009 was massively rigged. By this time, not only had the US begun to lose confidence in him, but the security situation in Afghanistan had also deteriorated due to attacks by a resurgent insurgency.
As part of the gradual handover of security responsibility to Afghans, Karzai was idiosyncratic and unpredictable. He put his personal interests at the forefront and isolated himself with this course of action. Particularly his attitude towards the Taliban was disliked by the Afghan people - Karzai has repeatedly called the radical Islamic fighters his brothers and initiated peace talks with them, although without success.
But Winfried Nachtwei, a former member of the German Green Party and an expert on peace and security policy, says Karzai is not only responsible for this development. "Most of the blame is shifted on the Afghan side, especially on the president. However, it is often forgotten and repressed that this president was in many ways left in the lurch by the West during his first years in power," said Nachtwei.
Karzai had to push NATO for a long time to have foreign troops deployed to areas far away from Kabul. When the military alliance finally decided to move south in 2006, "it was already too late," as the Taliban had regained strength, Nachtwei explained. Political analysts are puzzled about the president's motives to refuse to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US. Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the president knew very well "how to secretly take revenge."
Criticism and praise
Despite this, many Afghans give him credit for the gains the country made during the early years of his government. "It is fair to say that there have been some achievements under Karzai," says Kabul resident Mohammad Asefi, adding that these gains include the freedom of the press and improved women's rights.
But Asefi is also disappointed. "The second time I did not vote for him. Karzai has not kept his promises." He says he is frustrated over the fact that there are still warlords in the government who claim to represent the interests of the people.
Waheeda Shujayee, a sales assistant in a garment store in Kabul, says Afghans were happy to have a new, moderate president after the fall of the Taliban. "But then, the security situation and the economy deteriorated and many Afghans began to flee the fighting."
A unifying figure?
Many Afghans and the international community expect real progress under a new president who is expected to take over the reins from Karzai following the April 5 elections. The three top candidates have pledged to sign the BSA, but also to continue peace talks with the Taliban. It remains to be seen how they will cope with this balancing act.
According to Samar, Karzai was always good at mediating and bringing different parties together. "His biggest success was to keep the country together."