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Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends an event to commemorate Afghanistan's 95th anniversary of independence in Kabul, Aug. 19, 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends an event to commemorate Afghanistan's 95th anniversary of independence in Kabul, Aug. 19, 2014.

Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited. In his farewell speech as president, he reminded his fellow citizens "when I first took charge of office, we did not have a flag or a currency. We were the target of foreign agendas. We were homeless in our own country."

Yet the legacy of Karzai's 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews.

Observers argue that while Afghanistan has seen remarkable achievements - with substantial improvements in infrastructure, education, health services, and media - so much more could have been accomplished.

In an interview with the Voice of America’s Afghan service shortly before stepping down, Karzai declined to talk in detail about what he could have done differently.

“I will not give you that answer now, because I am still the president of this country. And I need to be very cautious with my words and my feelings. But I would do something if I were to begin again and there will be massive change which I will talk about when I am no longer the president," Karzai told VOA’s Shaista Sadat Lameh at the presidential palace in Kabul.

He added that the most valuable lesson he learned during his presidency was that Afghans were very trusting people and that their trust has been often betrayed.

"Not a Modernist"

When the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, many Afghans foresaw a future full of hope. For a few years, there was relative peace. But in late 2004, a Taliban resurgence gained momentum and security began to deteriorate particularly in the south and east.

Analysts argue that the Taliban was able to regroup in part because of government incompetence in delivering on its promises to the Afghan people.

Pakistani journalist and The New York Times' best-selling author Ahmed Rashid is a long-time friend and observer of the former president.

“I think it’s a mixed bag of success and failures," Rashid said. "I think on foreign policy the fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked country, surrounded by neighbors who grossly interfered in the country’s progress, especially in the 1990s, Karzai has done a very good job of holding good relations with competitors like India, Pakistan and Iran, and also maintaining the relationship with the U.S. which was visibly opposed to any kind of links with Iran in particular.”

But he added, “I think his legacy is that he failed to build national institutions. He was a believer in traditional Afghan politics. He was not a modernist.”

Lost Opportunity

Professor Hasan Kakar, a California-based historian and former professor at Kabul University, agrees with Rashid’s assessment and adds that things went wrong from the very beginning of the Karzai administration.

“Even during the Bonn agreement [setting up the Afghan government], generally speaking, competent Afghans were sidelined and those who came to power lacked the potential of good governance," he said. "As a result, the doors for unprecedented corruption remained open throughout his reign as the leader of Afghanistan.”

Kakar added that because of corruption, the Afghan government failed to enforce its policies countrywide and collect revenues, which in part contributed to the current budget deficit.

He does give credit to positive changes that emerged in Afghanistan in the last 13 years, but adds that Afghanistan has lost an unprecedented opportunity.

“For the first time in Afghan history wealthy western nations were willing to invest in the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan," he said. "But unfortunately the opportunity was not availed the way it should have been, and I do not think Afghanistan will get a second chance of that level of western enthusiasm to build the war-torn country.”

Kakar said that most previous governments, starting with King Amanullah Khan in the early 20th century, sought to attract Western attention to modernize Afghanistan, and in 2001 the West itself came to Afghanistan's door.

Afghan Economy Struggles

Karzai leaves behind an economy largely dependent on foreign aid and foreign military expenditures. With NATO ending its military mission in Afghanistan at the end of this year, the Afghan economy will be affected as war-related expenses will decrease substantially.

Afghan officials already announced that the country’s treasury is running out of money to pay Afghan government officials.

Alhaj Mohammad Aqa, the director-general of Treasury in the Ministry of Finance said on Saturday that Afghanistan needs $116 million to pay the monthly salaries for October and that the Afghan government had asked the United States for about $500 million to cover its budget deficit until the end of this year.

Professor Wadir Safi, lecturer at Kabul University’s political science department, lays much of the blame on Karzai’s leadership.

“Karzai left behind a weak and fragile regime faced with severe brain drain as the educated youth became hopeless about the future of their country, and the uneducated youth are recruited by the enemies.”

But other analysts argue that the Afghan economy has partly suffered from the months-long electoral crisis which discouraged investments in the country’s fragile economy. While acknowledging the impact of the electoral crisis on the Afghan economy, Safi blames Karzai for interfering in the Afghan election process as well.

“Even in this election, he either was involved in the process or was seeking influence in the future government,” he said.

But Safi does acknowledge certain improvements in Afghanistan under Karzai’s leadership, including the ratification of the Afghan constitution, media freedom and the unprecedented peaceful transfer of power to another elected leader.

Security Deteriorates Across Afghanistan

Karzai, in his last speech to the nation, defended his rule and argued that it has constituted a great foundation for the future of Afghanistan.

“When I first took charge of office, we did not have a flag or a currency. We were the target of foreign agendas. We were homeless in our own country,” he said.

Karzai did admit that his persistent efforts to establish an enduring peace in Afghanistan have not yielded the intended results. But he expressed optimism that peace will inevitably come.

Professor Hasan Kakar argues that Afghanistan lacked the capacity to engage in peace talks with the Taliban.

“In every country and every government when you don’t have competent members who are committed to peace and prosperity of a state, it’s difficult to reach peace with a warring faction,” he said.

Kakar added that “Karzai’s government, for the most part, was influenced by those who fundamentally opposed the Taliban. Peace negotiations require neutral people, and if the peace council was in the hands of neutral people, chances were that the Taliban agreed to peace talks.”

Habib Qaderi, Karzai’s former minister of counter-narcotics and a close friend of the president, praises Karzai for the improvements in women's rights, girls’ education and development work in Afghanistan, but states that corruption was the root cause of why things went wrong during Karzai’s 13-year reign.

“Corruption has severe impacts in all areas of the government. The existence of corruption contributed to a lot of the short-comings and failures in Karzai’s government," he said. "Corruption caused problems in the security field and in the economy of the country. I hope that the new government pays serious attention to this problem.”

Qaderi added that “if corruption is dealt with in Afghanistan, Afghan people are hard-working people and I am certain that they will have a prosperous and bright future ahead of them.”

Foreign Policy and Relations with the West

Karzai has had warm relations with the West, which sponsored his government for 13 years. But toward the end of his rule, he and the West traveled a bumpy road.

“Unfortunately Karzai, even though he got off to a good start, the last few years has very much soured the U.S. opinion on President Karzai with his constant criticism of the U.S. and blaming the U.S. for the troubles in Afghanistan, and particularly his parting shot which was refusing to sign the bilateral security agreement,” said Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

However, analysts believe one factor that contributed to the coldness of relations between Karzai and the West toward the end was the collateral damage caused by NATO airstrikes. While Curtis agrees about the impact of mistakes made by NATO, she argues that the Taliban caused most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

“You know his reasoning for criticizing NATO mistakes of civilian casualties did not match the fact that the Taliban was causing the problems in his country. To try and blame the U.S. did not make any sense," she said.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, looks to the future when it comes to U.S.-Afghan relations and urges the new Afghan leadership to seize the momentum.

“U.S. relations with Karzai were faced with difficulties toward the last years of Karzai’s administration. And [Ashraf Ghani] Ahmadzai assumes the leadership of his country at a time when U.S.-Afghan relations are in difficult circumstances," he said. "I think there is a good opportunity to be availed to repair the U.S.-Afghan relations.”