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Historian Calls Karzai Presidency A 'Golden Age'

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple

In his bestselling book, "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan," Scottish historian William Dalrymple compares outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the 19th century Afghan King Shah Shuja, whose return with the help of the British military ultimately proved disastrous.

But in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Mustafa Sarwar, Dalrymple predicted that Karzai's 13 years in power would be remembered as a "golden age" in Afghan history.

RFE/RL: What sort of a leader has President Karzai been in the political history of Afghanistan?

William Dalrymple: Personally, I think that Karzai has been a lot cleverer and a much finer ruler than most people [think]. I know I am a bit of a minority on this. But I think he has played his cards very cleverly. He genuinely believes that if Britain and America really wanted to secure Afghanistan, they would actually go to Waziristan and chase the Taliban based there.

From a British and American perspective, that’s obviously impossible geopolitically -- to provoke a war with Pakistan or topple Pakistan. It could create havoc. But that is genuinely his belief. He believes that there is a double game being played.

RFE/RL: Karzai says that nothing [disastrous] will happen in Afghanistan [after he leaves] and that he will stay in the country after retiring and will live in Kabul. The question now is can he survive without foreign, especially U.S., support?

Dalrymple: Yes, I think he can. He's an extremely popular person, particularly in Kabul and in the cities. I am always surprised when I go to Kabul and see how well people speak of him universally. There may be grudges against his brothers, and stories about corruption that people associated with him. I may be wrong, but my impression is that he is regarded very well, particularly in the cities and particularly by the young.

RFE/RL: President Karzai did not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., and in recent interviews he again said that the war on terror was not fought properly. Why do you think Karzai is doing all this - is he trying to say that he is not a foreign puppet?

Dalrymple: I think it's a mixture of that and genuine conviction. He thinks that the Americans have not played the game straight, and he thinks that they could have done much more.

RFE/RL: What has been Karzai’s most prominent achievement in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001?

Dalrymple: I think he banded the country together. He is a national figure. And people speak warmly about him from Kandahar [in the south], to Mazar [in the north], to [the western city of] Herat. Potentially, the country could have divided in two. There is widespread Afghan nationhood and nationalism now.

RFE/RL: But many in Afghanistan and abroad criticize him for his mercurial behavior, and believe that he was not able, or not willing to tackle widespread corruption in his government and so on. Has he been a weak leader in this sense?

Dalrymple: I think he could have been stronger in tackling corruption around him personally, and I think that's the majority opinion in Afghanistan. But it's not as if Afghanistan is the only country in the region with a bad reputation for corruption. It’s rife in Pakistan; it's rife in Central Asia. I was very impressed by how, last summer, it was widely expected that he would either appoint one of his brothers to succeed him or that he would not hold elections at all. But neither of them happened. He actually went [out of] his way to distance himself from his brothers.

RFE/RL: Which one of the two leading presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, did he support?

Dalrymple: I don’t think he likes any one of them, to be honest. Abdullah Abdullah-- they are not friends. I talked to Abdullah and he called Karzai 'the best actor the country has ever produced.' Ashraf Ghani famously described [Karzai’s relatives in 2009] as a family of drug peddlers. They've had an extremely bumpy relationship. I think the reality is that there is going to be not much difference, as far as Karzai is concerned, who of the two succeeds.

RFE/RL: Has Karzai created a political mess after the elections?

Dalrymple: No, I don't think it's a political mess. I think it’s gone better than many feared. I think he has genuinely done his best to hold fair elections.

RFE/RL: How will President Karzai be remembered in Afghanistan’s history?

Dalrymple: I think a lot depends on what happens next. 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.

I think his age will be remembered as a golden age. If everything descends into a civil war again, his period will be remembered as a period when women went to school, and when it was safe to walk around most of the cities, when people were not firing rockets and shells at each other.

Considering the regional politics and the rivalry with Pakistan, I don’t think Karzai has done a bad job at all. He is regarded as a mercurial figure. Some characters in the [U.S.] State Department or in the CIA have talked about him being bipolar, or schizophrenic, or a drug addict, I don’t think that any of that is true. But I recognize that I am a minority voice.