Afghanistan's outgoing President Hamid Karzai is expected to leave behind a mixed legacy following 13 tumultuous years in power that saw his country reemerge from the ashes of foreign occupations and civil wars.
Karzai’s aids, as well as academics and historians, praise him as a skilled statesman who reunited a fragmented country and led it towards progress, democracy, and the rule of law.
But critics accuse him of failing to eradicate widespread corruption, rein in powerful warlords, and create competent government institutions to deliver security and public services to Afghans.
Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a Western-educated academic and Karzai’s national security advisor, believes the Afghan leader assumed power at a critical moment in the country's history and succeeded in creating an all-inclusive government wherein all ethnic groups had a fair share.
"President Karzai undertook the fate of a country that lacked any governmental institutions, and where the nation was divided along multiple lines," he said.
Spanta, who also served as Karzai's foreign minister, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that Karzai was instrumental in creating cohesive security and civilian institutions after decades of chaos that had turned Afghanistan into a pariah state.
Karzai, 56, knew that chaos intimately. The son of a prominent Pashtun tribal chief and lawmaker from the southern province of Kandahar, Karzai joined the Pakistan-based anti-Soviet mujahedin resistance in the 1980s. A polyglot educated in India, Karzai was known to journalists as one of the main spokesmen for the Afghan guerilla factions.
He briefly worked as a deputy foreign minister following the fall of the Afghan socialist government in 1992, but later fled Afghanistan at the height of the fratricidal mujahedin civil war that killed more than 60,000 civilians in the capital, Kabul, alone.
Like many Afghan tribal leaders, Karzai initially saw the Taliban as a stabilizing force after their emergence in Kandahar in the mid-1990s. But he became one of their leading Pashtun opponents after they allegedly assassinated his father in 1999.
For many Afghans, Karzai’s leadership heralded the beginning of a new era when he was chosen to lead an interim government after the demise of the Taliban regime in December 2001.
In 2002, Karzai was chosen to serve a two-year term as the interim president, and in 2004 he became the first elected Afghan president after winning the landmark election. He was reelected again in 2009.
The outgoing U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, hailed Karzai’s efforts during his recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I think he made a major contribution in putting Afghanistan on a path toward constitutionalism and democracy," he said. "I think he has done a remarkably good job in bringing together various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups and overcoming those kinds of obstacles."
Afghanistan witnessed remarkable progress under Karzai. Nearly eight million students, a third of them girls, now go to school, and the country enjoys a vibrant media environment with more than 50 private television channels. Civil society, too, prospered as the country attracted massive international aid.
His relationship with international allies has not been all smooth sailing. Karzai enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Bush administration until 2008. But his ties with the Obama administration proved a political roller-coaster.
In 2009, Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi called Karzai an "unworthy partner" who did not deserve a big boost either in U.S. troops or in civilian aid. Since then many Western officials have criticized Karzai for his inability or unwillingness to tackle massive corruption within his administration.
In return, Karzai has publicly blamed the U.S.-led NATO forces for their inability to establish security across Afghanistan and accused them of promoting corruption through their massive contracts and patronage networks.
Idress Rahmani, a U.S.-based Afghan political analyst, argues that Karzai failed to meet the modern standards of governance and political leadership.
"He was not an up-to-date political leader for the country. He was surely an 18th century politician and a 19th century governor."
Rahmani believes that Karzai’s lack of trust in his own cabinet led him to instead form a private network of allies to execute his will.
Waliullah Rahmani a Kabul-based security analyst told Radio Free Afghanistan that President Karzai was not honest in his policies to strengthen a new generation of leaders for Afghanistan.
"In his first years in power, he worked with the international community to curb and weaken warlords," he said. "But in the later years Karzai aligned himself with some of the same figures to confront the international community's influence in Afghanistan."
Historian William Dalrymple, however, concludes that Karzai is an Afghan national hero who has done well considering what he was faced with.
"If Afghanistan goes on to be a bumpy democracy in the regional manner and avoids a civil war, but continues to be democratic, continues to have a market economy [and] avoids falling wholesale to the Taliban, I think he will be well-remembered as a historic figure," he said.