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Afghan President Karzai eyes active 'retirement'

09 June 2014, 15:46

Kabul - When outgoing Afghan leader Hamid Karzai moves out of the presidential palace post-elections to take up residence next door, he will be relinquishing power but not influence, as he seeks an active public role in his "retirement" years.

Karzai is due to step down in the coming weeks after Saturday's run-off election, paving the way for Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power.

The elections are meant to signal a fresh start for Afghanistan after the 13-year rule of Karzai dominated by the US-led military intervention that followed the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Karzai's relations with the US have collapsed, his government is accused of massive corruption, and the country is still beset by the Taliban insurgency as Nato troops pull out and aid money declines.

But any prediction that the new president can turn the page decisively looks misplaced.

"The truth is that President Karzai built up such a vast patronage network that he has to stay influential to keep his people happy," said Bette Dam, a Dutch author who interviewed Karzai extensively for her forthcoming book on the president.

"He is looking for ways to continue [wielding] influence, and help his network of people to hold power. Many governors and government officials are in contact with him about how to achieve this."

Karzai, then aged only 44, became a global star when he was selected to lead Afghanistan after the ousting of the repressive 1996-2001 Taliban regime.

Charismatic, fluent in English, and dressed in a colourful cape and lambskin hat, Karzai wowed world leaders and convinced the United States that he was the perfect partner to tackle Islamist militancy after the 9/11 attacks.

'Tribal leader'

But such sentiments evaporated as the insurgency raged on for a decade, casualties mounted, billions of aid dollars were spent to limited effect, and Karzai launched increasingly bitter criticism of the US intervention.

Now, after serving the maximum two terms, he seems ready to take on a role somewhere between chief powerbroker and father of the nation.

"The US and others always thought Karzai was 'one of us', and it is true that rather than a warlord, he is an English-speaking diplomat and a politician who can easily connect with the West," said Dam, an expert on the Pashtun tribal structures behind Karzai's influence.

"But the way I got to know Karzai, he is more like a tribal leader with a lot of power deals to keep well maintained. He understands Westerners, but I wonder whether the West understands him and his tribal politics."

Karzai largely kept his vow to stay out of the ongoing election - in public at least -- and it may be some time before his "retirement" plans become clear.

Much will depend on his successor - either former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, both of whom have worked under him but now have prickly relations with their former boss.

"We think he might want to be a 'emeritus professor' type of figure," one senior US military figure who declined to be named told AFP.

"We accept he is going to still be around, but we already moved on some time ago to looking at the new president.

"Frankly, it will be a relief he is no longer in the palace."

After a series of bitter verbal spats with Washington, Karzai refused to sign an agreed text allowing a small force of US soldiers to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 to help with military training and counter-terrorism.

'Happy citizen'

In his new house, just a few minutes' walk from the palace, Karzai will remain the most famous, best-connected man in Afghanistan - but his spokesperson said he would resist the temptation to meddle in the daily business of government.

"He will be the retired president, a citizen at the service of the people and at the service of the next president if he is asked," said Aimal Faizi.

Karzai has few hobbies outside reading history and taking an occasional jog, and his life has revolved around politics since he was a young man.

The lucrative international lecture circuit is one option, and he is thought likely to write a book on his extraordinary emergence as a national leader after riding a motorbike to Kabul from Pakistan soon after the Taliban fell.

In December, he told an audience in India that he is looking forward to being "a happy citizen with plenty of freedom to move around, and [to] regain my freedom of speech".



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