Amid the dust and traffic of today’s Kabul, three things remain almost as they were a decade or so ago. In winter, and when the wind clears, the smog that is a side-effect of years of economic boom, the blue sky above the snowcapped peaks that ring the city is as impressive as ever. Then there is the Arg, the sprawling palace at the city’s center and the apparently calm eye of a turbulent storm of a country. The complex is home to the third element that has remained constant since the end of the Taliban’s grim regime in 2001: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, now in his 13th year of power.
However, Karzai, 56, will soon be gone. He is constitutionally barred from contesting next weekend’s elections and soon this theatrical, mercurial, complex man will have to find a new occupation. Many, particularly in Washington, will be relieved.
Once, the prospect of Karzai losing power would have provoked a different reaction. Back in the chaotic days of late 2001, as the Taliban regime crumbled under the US assault launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Karzai was seen as the man of the hour.
He was the head of a major tribe, of Pashtun ethnicity like the apparently defeated Taliban and about 40 percent of his compatriots, except moderate, educated and pro-Western.
Officials in Washington, Kabul and London enthused about their new-found Afghan hero. Few are as gushing now.
If, as three western ambassadors to Afghanistan told me during their respective terms in the Afghan capital, the relationship between US policymakers and Karzai was “like a marriage, with its ups and downs” this union has ended in definitive, and acrimonious, divorce.
Part of Karzai’s early appeal derived from the extraordinary way he came to power. Born in 1957 in the southeastern province of Kandahar, educated in Kabul and in India, he was one of eight children of the chief of the 500,000-strong Popalzai, one of the most powerful tribes.
When Moscow sent troops to bolster a faltering hardline Marxist regime in Kabul, Karzai fled.
In 1992 he was with the first group of Mujahideen leaders to enter a liberated Kabul and then watched the West ignore his country as it descended into anarchy and civil war. When the Taliban emerged in his native Kandahar, Karzai, like many Afghans, saw them as capable of bringing peace, or at least calm.
He soon changed his mind and began lobbying for Western aid for an effort to overthrow the hardline movement. This was a futile exercise until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when everything changed.
Just under two months after the attack, Karzai, armed with little more than a satellite phone, some CIA contact numbers and the hoped-for loyalty of his tribe, drove into Afghanistan.
Foolhardy perhaps, but undeniably brave.
By December 2001, the Taliban had been displaced, if not defeated, and the old mujahidin leaders were dead or discredited.
Karzai was the right man in the right place. After consultations with representatives of key communities, he was installed, with some quiet celebration in Washington, as the leader of Afghanistan.
There followed something of a honeymoon, for Afghanistan and for the newly joined couple of Karzai and the US.
Draped in a distinctive Afghan chapan coat over well-cut suits and a Karakul hat, Karzai was feted around the world.