Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai may have retired, but he definitely hasn’t left the building. The Afghan monarch, who served as president for two terms after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, handed over the reigns to the war-torn country to his democratically-elected, albeit disputed, successors in 2014.
A new president (and chief executive), however, in no uncertain terms meant that Karzai had given up all control. On the contrary, much like during his presidency, Karzai has been keeping a close eye on the extremely sensitive and dynamic political landscape of Afghanistan.
Relations are important to Karzai and building them with those who disagree with him, is even more important. This was evident in an hour-long session the former president held last Sunday with political activists, a common sight at his office situated close to Afghanistan’s presidential palace, an establishment he once controlled and continues to exert considerable influence over.
The gathered youth activists, community leaders and journalists quickly got on their feet as the former president walked briskly into the room. He greeted every single person present there, including a six-month old baby, with a handshake and a traditional Afghan greeting, in the national languages and some universal baby talk.
As the zaffran chai (saffron tea) was served, Karzai made small talk with some of the participants seated close to him. He acknowledged the foreigners in the room, addressing each nationality individually for their contribution to Afghanistan. “You are our hum sayah (neighbours),” he said to me, an Indian, with the kind of respect that is often resonated around the country.
He commenced his ‘darbar‘ (royal court), as someone observed, and asked participants on how he can help them. One could argue that participation in the meeting was granted only to those who are least likely to contradict with Karzai – his followers, if one may. But as the questions and concerns began to pour in, it seemed less likely that there would be much agreement in the hour to follow.
Although not outright dissenters, a number of participants raised objections to Karzai’s recent statement where he referred to the Taliban as brothers. “When Taliban take a province we have no right to push them back. They’re Afghans, we’re Afghans,” he had said in an interview with the BBC, earning the ire of many Afghans who feel strongly against the insurgent group, which continues to carry deadly attacks across the country.
“The Taliban have killed your father, brother and cousins,” said one of upset participants with due respect. “How can you call them brothers?” she asked.
A few within the crowd defended Karzai, arguing with those who raised the question. “A lot of us don’t count them [the Taliban] as killers,” said one of the Afghan journalist present at the gathering. “They are victims of policies of this government and issues within the nation’s leadership,” he further justified. “The Daesh [another term for ISIS] are much worse,” he added.
Karzai listened patiently to each one, jotting down names and comments on his notepad. He only spoke after everyone had spoken. “I will never say anything bad about any Afghan,” he said. “I don’t want Afghans to be fighting each other,” he added, illustrating with the example of a photo he saw on Facebook of the graves of two brothers, one who died serving the Afghan army, while the other died as a Taliban fighter.
“Some day we will sit across from them and make a peace deal just like we did with Hizb-e-Islami,” he prophesied, referring to the recent peace deal with former warlord Gulbudding Hekmatyar and his group who had been at war with the government. “Then I will be right for having called the Taliban our brothers.”
“They have indeed killed my family members, but in the long-term I do want to sit down with them, make peace and end the bloodshed,” he explained.
“But for how long can we tolerate the Taliban?” asked Haroon Azim, another participant. “Until we are alive, we should not lose hope,” Karzai replied, almost like poetry.
He went on to compare himself to Gandhi, urging for a peaceful, nonviolent resolution to the increasing conflict. “Gandhi was a Hindu but was killed by Hindu extremist for trying to unite Indians of religion,” he said, “We should be patient with the extremist in Afghanistan and not answer violence with violence so that one day we can all sit together for the sake of peace,” he appealed.
Interestingly, while Karzai refrained from arguing with anyone, he engaged with young men and women who disagreed with his stance encouraging them to debate, and allowing them to vent to him. “Taliban are killing Afghans everywhere, in the north or south or east of the country. They come from Pakistan where they are trained. You can’t call them Afghans,” argued a young Afghan woman, much to the displeasure of some ardent Karzai supporters in the room. “You’re too young to understand these things,” one of them said to her.
Karzai, however, acknowledged the young woman’s anger with a polite response. “It’s true that many Taliban leaders are in Pakistan, but not all of Taliban are working for Pakistan. Many of them are Afghans,” he insisted, adding that if there are foreign influences in the conflict in Afghanistan, Afghans must unite as one.
“I had the opportunity to stay in the US during the Taliban regime,” Karzai narrated. “It’s a beautiful country and I love how people can simply drive around in their cars with their coffee cups. I love driving and coffee,” he added with genuine amusement. “But then I thought, I want to do this in Afghanistan; have the kind of security and quality of life for us Afghans to drive around having coffee,” he added.
His coffee and car analogues were clearly directed towards his younger audience, who incidentally make up nearly 63% of the population of Afghanistan, and are among those fleeing the increasing conflict in the country, in large numbers.
A quick glance through his social media accounts reveal that he has been conducting regular meetings with community leaders, national and international stakeholders. According to some estimates, he has been meeting close to 400 people every month, creating a significant impression of a man who has, yet, much to do. In fact, if anything, his many darbar meetings and a welcoming media presence are the signs of a man on a campaign.
Azim was among those not entirely convinced. “Karzai is a smart man, but I still don’t like his stance on Taliban, and am not comfortable with him calling them brothers,” he explained later.
However, Azim acknowledges that despite this, were Karzai to come back to the political front line, a large group of people would be there to welcome him. “Karzai has always been an influential figure in Afghan politics. Politician regularly meet him, and he engages with a lot of people too,” he explained. “If Karzai were to reenter the mainstream politics or stand for elections, he might even win,” Azim added.
Indeed, even with a reputation of a president who tolerated much corruption, Karzai continues to hold considerable power over his compatriots, among them several young men and women who reminisce of the “days of Karzai” in Afghanistan. “Karzai knows Afghanistan, it’s culture and people like no one else,” explained Idrees Stanikzai, political activist who works closely with Karzai’s office. “And that’s why he is not just a respected politician but is also known as a king maker,” he added.
Stanikzai is among those who call themselves the ‘Karzai generation,’ a generation that grew up and was empowered during Karzai’s regime after the fall of Taliban. He is disappointed with the current National Unity Government, a coalition made after disputed and longstanding elections, with the help of the US. “Every wants want a change now,” he asserted. “And Karzai is that change, because we may not have any other options for the moment.”
While not everyone left the room converted, Karzai had earned a modicum of respect from his dissenters, a voice of support he might require if he choose to reenter active politics in Afghanistan in the future.
Ruchi Kumar is a Kabul-based journalist.