When Afghan President Hamid Karzai swept to power in the wake of the Taliban’s fall, he represented Afghanistan’s greatest hopes. As his 13-year reign as the country’s president draws to a close, he leaves a legacy defined by failure.
Mr. Karzai’s term technically expires on Thursday, although he will continue to serve until a new president assumes office. That person – to be decided by a June 12 run-off ballot between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – will inherit a laundry list of disaster: massive corruption, a primitive economy, a resurgent Taliban and a fraught relationship with Western powers.
These failures were partly a function of Mr. Karzai’s circumstances. He presided over a country torn apart by a generation of war. Regional powers, notably Pakistan, undermined efforts to achieve stability. Western support for the mission in Afghanistan suffered scope creep, and flagged as the years wore on.
But Mr. Karzai also bears much of the blame. Ego often clouded his judgment. A case in point was his failure to sign a security pact that would have kept several thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Mr. Karzai still seems to believe he was not only the best person to rule Afghanistan, but the only person. He failed to nurture the next generation of leaders, viewing virtually any potential successor as a U.S.-backed enemy. Over the past year, his paranoia seemingly knew no bounds. Audaciously, he blamed coalition airstrikes for causing most civilian casualties when the primary culprit was, and remains, the Taliban.
And yet for all of his faults, Mr. Karzai will be missed. Not by the United States, or its Western allies, but by many Afghans. His popularity remained rock-solid over the course of his presidency. Most Afghans believed Mr. Karzai, despite his flaws, held their best interests at heart – even when he did not. His ability to bridge ethnic divisions and foster consensus among regional power brokers will be difficult to replicate.
But now it’s time for Afghanistan to move on. Both of Mr. Karzai’s potential successors have promised a more functional relationship with the U.S. and the West, which is hopeful. For Afghanistan to achieve a brighter future, it first needs to move beyond Mr. Karzai’s long shadow.