WASHINGTON — Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has led his country for more than 12 years, will step down from office after this week's polls to select a new leader, in a vote seen by many as a testament to his enduring legacy.
Afghanistan's April 5 election will be a historic moment in the country's history. It will mark the first democratic transition of power since the fall of the Taliban.
"This will be the first time in history of Afghanistan that a president will be replaced democratically and through the will of the people, and he will be the one who will allow that to happen, and I think that's a great honor by itself," said Afghan presidential candidate Hedayat Arsala, who served as a senior minister under Karzai.
The election was made possible by a constitution that Karzai helped draft, and which prohibits him from running for a third five-year term.
"Hamid Karzai will leave behind a very positive legacy in the sense that he will be the father of a democratic, well, relatively democratic nation," said Graeme Smith, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "He will also be the first leader to hand over power to a successor in a peaceful way, and that will be the first peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan since 1901."
Over the years, Karzai has been criticized for his failure to fight corruption and stem the Taliban insurgency, but he also is seen as a leader who could bring unity to the country's many ethnic groups and factions.
"He has not put people in jail because they disagreed with him," said former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. "Freedom of expression has been respected."
"In my judgment, he inherited a very difficult situation," said Khalilzad, "and Afghanistan has come a long way during his period."
"But there have been weaknesses," he said. "Rule of law remains relatively weak, and security institutions are not as strong as they should be, although they have made enormous progress every day in the way they respond."
In parts of Afghanistan, schools are reopening, there have been more opportunities for women, and government institutions are strongly functioning. But in other areas, corruption remains rampant, and ineffective governance and widespread poverty foster support for the Taliban.
In his final year in office, Karzai has increasingly distanced himself from the U.S. administration that helped bring him to power, refusing to sign a bilateral service agreement he negotiated that would establish the remaining U.S. force after 2014.
Karzai has said he will leave the decision up to his successor.