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Journalist Reflects On Karzai's Legacy After Rare Access To Afghan Leader


In Afghanistan, the process of selecting a successor to President Hamid Karzai is now mired in a political crisis. After a successful election that ended with the two top vote getters competing in a runoff, the front runner emerged from that second election accusing his opponent's team and election officials all the way up to President Karzai with a massive conspiracy to steal votes. Now the process is deadlocked with no obvious solution in sight. And that gives Afghan journalist Mujib Mashal serious concerns about the future of his country.

MUJIB MASHAL: I think a lot of harm has been done to people's belief in the process in democracy and voting. In the first round of the vote, over 7 million people very jubilantly came out and voted. But the rhetoric around this runoff has been so divisive that the people are questioning whether their vote matters anymore.

MONTAGNE: Mashal recently had rare access to President Karzai for a profile in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. He writes about how Karzai's journey reveals much about how Afghanistan's current turmoil came about. Mujib Mashal joined us from the NPR bureau in Kabul. Take us back to 2002, just briefly, to describe for us what was the challenge that Karzai faced on day one?

MASHAL: It was being at the home of a government that he did not choose. The challenge for him was to try to rule a fragmented country after three decades of war with a government that he did not trust.

MONTAGNE: Well, he had every right not to trust this government. Some of the most powerful people in his cabinet - not chosen by him - were warlords.

MASHAL: Exactly, exactly. Most of them had controversial pasts of fighting during the bloody civil war. Most of them lacked legitimacy in terms of ushering this new beginning for Afghanistan. So what was interesting about Karzai was that he had to look at alternatives. His biggest mandate was to build institutions for Afghanistan. But he admitted to me that he relied the very least on his own government, instead he relied on an informal network of sources.

MONTAGNE: Now when you say an informal network of sources what he was looking to was, in some sense, a traditional way of governing, a little like - I think as you write - the king had governed in some sense. That is to say he reached out to what he saw as local leaders and also tribal leaders. That might have been a world for hundreds of years, but it wasn't exactly the world as it was in modern times.

MASHAL: Exactly. So when Karzai came in 2001, he tried to sort of revive these old tribal networks. The problem was that the tribal social fabric had been disrupted by 30 years of war. What he had was a new class of strongmen. It was local leaders who had guns, who had drugs money. So the analysis was an old analysis.

MONTAGNE: You give a couple of examples of how he went around institutions and put his faith in individuals and small groups. For instance, you write he ended up trusting Taliban sympathizers, trusting them for advice on what to do which started affecting how he viewed, say, the American presence.

MASHAL: Because Karzai relied on these informal sources, and he met hundreds of hundreds of tribal elders every day who came to him with grievances, Taliban used this as a nice tactic to try to get their agenda through these tribal elders. And a couple of points that they had in this agenda was to curtail nitrates. Nitrates were very effective in, you know, taking out Taliban leaders. And part of it was Taliban sympathizers going among delegation of tribal elders to Karzai and emotionally blackmailing him that these nitrates are causing a lot of civilian casualties, these Americans are just barging into our homes in the middle of the night. And it was a very effective tactic because Karzai, naturally, is a man who does not believe in war - in this war, particularly and he is a self-proclaimed pacifist.

MONTAGNE: Presumably, he thought he was speaking to people who were average villagers.

MASHAL: The problem was that he wasn't going through his own formal channels of vetting the others who were coming to see him.

MONTAGNE: In Karzai's defense, in some ways he never did what many other much more brutal leaders do. He never rounded up his enemies and imprison them. He didn't gun people down. You write that he's empathetic by nature. How would you size him up?

MASHAL: In the context of, say, three decades of leaders, we've had most of them who have come to power brutally through force. The day Karzai arrived at the presidential palace, he was not carrying a single bodyguard with him. And over 13 years, one thing Karzai has done was to minimize the bloodshed. He failed in a lot of other policies. You know, corruption under him grew massively. His governance has been questioned. But one thing that a lot of people give him praise for, give him credit for, is that he respected people's freedoms and rights. He tried to support those rights - particularly for the press, particularly for women's rights and women's participation in society. And he worked hardest - and sometimes he was criticized for it - to minimize bloodshed. Karzai will be remembered for that one fact.

MONTAGNE: Although it may turn out that much of what he's done - because so much of it revolves around him - much of what he's done is quite precarious, right?

MASHAL: He personalized politics so much. A lot of times, say, when the freedom of press was in endangered, he stepped in personally. But he didn't develop, sort of, laws that after Karzai has left, those laws will still protect freedoms.

MONTAGNE: When Karzai departs, what is he going to leave behind that will sustain the very things he cared about which is bringing peace to Afghanistan? He was quite a supporter of women's rights. But what is going to be left after him that will ensure that these goals and efforts will continue?

MASHAL: We are in a political deadlock right now in the runoff to find a successor to Karzai. And it's a messy, messy deadlock. And many blame it on Karzai for meddling too much, but also for not building neutral, impartial electoral institutions over the past 10 years. So even before we speak about after Karzai, right now there are large questions raised about his intentions of really transferring power the way it should have happened. My criticism is not that he didn't build institutions. The institutions were built in the space that was created over the past 10 years. Even if the president wasn't directing all of his efforts to buildings these institutions, the institutions were built through the international money, through other efforts. But the problem is that the institutions that Karzai leaves behind are fragile, and they could have been much stronger if the president had focused on the mandate that he had.

MONTAGNE: Mujib Mashal is a journalist. His piece in The Atlantic is called, "After Karzai." He joined us from our bureau in Kabul. Thank you very much for joining us.

MASHAL: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.