By Ali Reza Sarwar
Former President Hamid Karzai is not happy with the way Ashraf Ghani, his successor, is leading Afghanistan. Despite a promise to hold back from open criticism that can challenge the unity government, Karzai has recently increased both visibility and sharp opposition to the bulk of Ghani’s policy innovations, sparking debate about Karzai’s political ambitions and what convinced him bypass the intimate mentorship relations he developed with Ghani since 2001.
By now, it is self-explanatory that Karzai holds a greater approval rate and political acceptance than Ghani. If a transparent election is held for the two men anytime now, Karzai will be the absolute winner not because he was more effective but because Ghani or his unity government proves to be less effective in tackling Afghanistan’s immediate challenges, ranging from security now to a complete failure of economic machine to produce and create jobs. Nonetheless, those are not the sources of tension as Karzai himself could not deliver on any of them. The reason, therefore, should be investigated in the two men’s conflicting and mutually exclusive political agenda of being a nationalist Afghan and a traditionalist Pashtun leader simultaneously - a fundamentally irreconcilable yet tempting ambition that ruined the political fortune of leaders before them and accounts for Afghanistan’s political crises. Karzai and Ghani share much in common, including a staunch belief in maintaining Afghanistan’s traditional politics of Pashtun supremacy, but the two seem different in its pursuit, which worries Karzai.
When Karzai came to power in 2001, the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, was on the verge of obliterating strategic loss. The Taliban government, comprised of Pashtuns, was ousted from power by the US-led coalition. The main Pashtun leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most serious contender for the post-Taliban power-sharing arrangement, made the suicidal mistake of joining the anti-US camp. At the regional level, Pashtun’s main backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were forced to withdraw their support and join the war on terrorism. The precarious political status of Pashtuns manifested in the transitional administration, born after the Bonn agreement in which all senior cabinet positions, including ministries of foreign affairs, interior and defense, were controlled by Northern Alliance - a group comprised of three non-Pashtun ethnics, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbeks that assisted the U.S-led coalition against the Taliban.
Having actively participated in Afghan politics since 1980, and his father as a politician and deputy speaker in parliament back in 1960, Karzai knew that the time was not right for Pashtun and any mistake on his part could further isolate them at home and abroad. He pursued a strategically calculated policy that not only branded him as undisputable leader until 2014, but also turned the clock to Pashtun’s favor. Karzai was flexible, compromising, and extremely attentive to intricacy of ethnic politics. He dislodged the main power-brokers from their traditional strongholds to keep them in check. For instance, he appointed Ismail Khan, the powerful Tajik governor of western Afghanistan, as Minister of Energy and Water. Ismail Khan had zero education and background in energy and water management, but was a potent force to challenge Karzai’s authority in Herat. To rule Herat, he needed to relocate Khan to Kabul, which he did, not only to him, but any political rival. Moreover, Karzai masterfully sabotaged the formation of any viable political alliance among non-Pashtun groups. At one point prior to election in 2009, these fragmented groups established the National Front of Afghanistan, the most inclusive non-Pashtun coalition that could have fundamentally transformed the political landscape had it survived. But, Karzai’s shrewd strategy of appeasement and deal making worked and he was able to convince the than his first vice president, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, to pull out of coalition and join him as running mate in 2009. The coalition collapsed and Karzai won the election amid fraud allegations. By the time Karzai left office in 2014, he had achieved most of his goals of returning Pashtun dominance to Afghan politics. Unlike 2001 when he was powerlessly leading a government controlled by the Northern Alliance, he handed over an administration with Pashtuns leading all key sectors, including foreign policy, finance, defense and intelligence and his northern alliance opponents demoralized and divided.
Ghani seems to be ruining this legacy and that upsets Karzai. He broke Karzai’s tradition of “facial diplomacy” from the very first days by picking up all his right-hand men from Pashtun elites who supported him in the election. Although he never delegated real authority, Karzai tolerated a Tajik national security adviser, a Hazara executive assistant and an Uzbek military aide in his office to boost and diversify his political capital. Ghani, on the other hand, continues to exclude the ethnic rivals and monopolize power in his office, which is now so visible and perilous. Even his first-vice president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose coalition with Ghani should be the weirdest and yet the strongest testimony to the notion that” there is not permanent friend or foe in politics, but permanent interests” as Ghani once called him “known killer”, is said to have cried for being “ ignored” in the government.
Where Afghanistan is heading?
There is nothing encouraging about Afghanistan at the moment. The Taliban, joined by the ISIS now, are everywhere. Only 30 miles away from Kabul, they can slaughter and desecrate Afghan soldiers with the government hapless to return their cry for assistance. Even if the government does not fall to the Taliban, it would definitely fall to the frustrated army of unemployed Afghans. On the top of everything, Ghani’s popularity is dramatically evaporating, which is serious. In a random selection of 375 comments under the President’s Facebook page, 90% of users disapproved him with dense language and accusations. It is critical not only to President Ghani, but for Afghans and countries that put their soldiers and money on the ground that he remains popular with higher approval rate. His electoral legitimacy is already missing because of the election scandal last year and he cannot afford losing public support. President Ghani’s conflicting ambitions of being a traditional Pashtun chief, a nationalist Afghan leader and a technocrat to the world may not mesh and that jeopardizes Karzai’s hard-earned gain of returning Pashtun’s dominance to Afghan politics. Karzai does not have any problem with what Ghani is doing, but does have concerns the way he is doing it, as it can ignite tensions and unite the non-Pashtun fronts. Recently, Ghani’s vice-president and Uzbek leader, General Dostum, made a coalition with his sworn-enemy, Atta Mohammad Nor, the powerful Tajik governor of Balk, as the two men worry about their futures. The coalition is concerning to Karzai and he is not happy with Ghani.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and a Fulbright Scholar at Texas A&M University, Bush School of Government and Public Service where he completes a graduate degree in Intelligence and National Security. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the organizations’ position.