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Remembering Karzai

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai poses for photographs as he visits the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses during his trip in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, September 26, 2013
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai poses for photographs as he visits the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses during his trip in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, September 26, 2013

Afghanistan has only known one leader since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 -- Hamid Karzai.

Following two turbulent, controversy-filled terms in office, Karzai is poised to be the first to leave the Afghan presidency in a peaceful transfer of power, which is expected on September 29.

RFE/RL asked four prominent Afghans from different walks of life to give their personal opinions on the legacy Karzai leaves behind.

Amrullah Saleh, Karzai's Former Intelligence Chief

Amrullah Saleh served as head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's spy agency, from 2004 to 2010, when he resigned after falling out with the president. Saleh went on to found the pro-democracy and anti-Taliban movements Basij-e-Milli (National Mobilization) and Green Trend. Saleh is considered a prominent opposition leader and one of Karzai's most vocal critics.

From Hero To Partisan

"Karzai will be remembered in three phases. From 2001-04, Karzai was seen as a hero. From 2004-09, Karzai was seen as a shrewd politician scheming to consolidate his own power. This is when he started to play divide and rule. He played one person against the other and one ethnic group against the other. He created a central space for himself by using state resources, his legitimacy, and the international backing of his government.

"At the end of his presidency, Karzai was reduced to a factional leader within Afghanistan who -- instead of working toward a dignified transfer of power -- at the end of his presidency decided to concentrate on narrow ethnic interests. Unfortunately, he leaves behind a dirty election process which will bring to power a president without any legitimacy."

Dancing On The Heads Of Snakes

"He will get credit for being a tolerant politician, understanding the complexities of his country, understanding the importance of consensus-building, and understanding the dynamics of different ethnic groups and constituencies. He was also successful in outmaneuvering people. His job, of course, was not easy. It was like dancing on the heads of snakes.

"His biggest failure was his inability to lay strong foundations for state institutions. This is evident in the mess that is the Independent Election Commission. So, in the end, there's mixed feelings for Karzai."

Surrounded By Yes Men

"I've learned a lot from Karzai. I have respected him and still do respect him as a person. I was very devoted to the cause of state-building in Afghanistan. But this was an illusion. I thought I would be judged by my work in building up national institutions. But, unfortunately, I realized there were other criteria involved.

"For the last five years, the president has been hand-picking people who flatter him and consider him to be a larger-than-life figure. Karzai has suppressed the voice of discontent and criticism within his own administration. He has surrounded himself with a large number of operators who lack a political base and who do not stick to one vision."

Future Uncertain

"With the election being fraudulent and flawed and shaped by actors more loyal to kinship, ethnicity, and narrow interests, rather than to the health of the country, we are in a very uncertain period of our history. But I have faith in the wisdom of the Afghan masses who will keep the country united. However, at the highest levels of government, we are very fragmented now."

Nader Naderi, Human Rights Activist

Nader Naderi is the head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), an independent election watchdog. He shot to prominence as an activist for speaking out on election fraud and crimes committed by the country's powerful former warlords. He was a former commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, whose members are appointed by the president but which acts independently. He championed a hugely controversial, albeit unpublished, report that exhaustively details the atrocities committed by the country's former strongmen over the last three decades of war and conflict.

Founding Father

"If Afghanistan succeeds through this peaceful transition of power and if he hands over power and allows the constitution to prevail, this will be remembered forever as the most noble, valuable, and successful act of his time [in office]. He will then be recognized as one of the founding fathers of this very young and fragile democracy. He will be celebrated. If he fails, then this will be remembered as his biggest failure and he will be remembered negatively."

Tolerant To A Fault

"Karzai's legacy will be mixed. His greatest legacy will be issues related to the freedom of expression and media freedom, his level of tolerance as a politician, and his ability to bring people of different backgrounds under one tent and to accommodate them. On the other hand, he will also be remembered for further empowering and creating a bigger space for some of the actors of the past and giving more leverage to those who were part of the civil war and who have questionable pasts.

"He also had a higher tolerance for those who were involved in corruption and criminal activities and also for those who have shown a higher degree of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Basically, by having a higher tolerance for these kinds of people, he helped some of these individuals to grow in wealth and in power and become an impediment to the establishment of good governance and the rule of law."

Nonthreatening Rule

"Under Karzai's government, something that I will remain grateful for is [despite] whatever I did through the years, some things critical and difficult, I was never actually faced with direct physical consequences from the president himself. Of course, people around him, very senior government officials around him, were a matter of concern. They were threatening [me]. But overall, the environment that was created, it was facilitating individuals to take on the state. There were, of course, challenges. My personal experience was mixed."

Democratic Path

"The political uncertainty surrounding the presidential election's outcome has created a picture where some people are of the view that the future looks dark and bleak. But, as someone who has witnessed all these years of transition, I see this time of uncertainty and confusion as a natural part of this process of democratic transition that we are making. It was to be expected.

"If anybody predicted or assumed that this transition was going to be very smooth, I think they may have had less understanding of both the context of what was happening and also they may have not learnt lessons from other transitions in [other] developing countries. The end result will be a peaceful transition. I think, [despite] some challenges, Afghanistan will walk slowly but gradually in making sure that the constitutional order is preserved."

Roya Mahboob, Tech Entrepreneur

Roya Mahboob is one of a handful of female CEOs in Afghanistan. The 26-year-old is the founder and chief executive officer of Afghan Citadel Services, an IT consulting firm she founded in the western city of Herat in 2010. Her 25 employees, most of them women, provide computer, Internet, and software assistance to schools, hospitals, and businesses around the country. In 2013, she was listed among "Time" magazine's 100 most influential people.

Unfinished Business

"President Karzai will be remembered in a positive way. He is what I think [of as] the father of democracy. He is the first leader to give power to his successor. [But] he also could have done better. Afghanistan was at the center of attention for so many countries for these 12 years. But, unfortunately, we couldn't take this opportunity.

"We shouldn't ignore the positives but it could have been much better. It could have been five times better. If he had a better plan and if there was a better team, we could have had a different Afghanistan today."

Uniting Voice

"He decreased ethnic tensions between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, and he made them all into one group under one nation. He also brought [a level of] democracy and free speech never [seen] before in Afghanistan. He also did many good things on education, health, and media freedoms.

"But he also had some weaknesses -- insecurity and corruption. The security situation has really gotten worse in recent years and most of the people who invested in Afghanistan have left the country. He didn't have a good plan for the economy and to increase job opportunities. Millions of dollars were spent in Afghanistan but there isn't strong infrastructure."

Opportunity Giver

"My life totally changed. I could go to university. I could find different jobs. I was able to be the IT coordinator at the Ministry of Higher Education. I had the chance to go to different countries like Germany and the Netherlands through the government. And I started my own businesses.

"There were so many opportunities available for us. Twelve years ago, we didn't have any girls and women going to school and university. But now we have more than 30 percent of girls and women going to school and university and they have a better education. We have so many women in parliament compared with our neighboring countries. But I think there are so many challenges ahead for women, especially violence against women."

Bright Future

"I think Afghanistan is moving toward a bright future. We are hopeful that our next president will be a strong leader and will bring together all ethnicities, will implement better economic plans, and bring peace to the country."

Infographic -- How Afghans' Lives Have Changed Since 2001

How Afgans' Lives Have Changed Since 2001
How Afgans' Lives Have Changed Since 2001

Agha Lalai Dastagiri, Kandahar Provincial Council Member

Agha Lalai Dastagiri has led the Kandahar provincial council since 2011. He succeeded Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's powerful brother who was assassinated earlier that year. Dastagiri, who has no political affiliations, was also a member of a special investigating team that looked into the killing of 16 villagers by a U.S. sergeant in Kandahar's Panjwai district in 2012.


"[He will be remembered for] his efforts in building national unity in Afghanistan. He talked with different factions and took control of Kandahar 13 years ago. If it wasn't for his work, there would still be a lot of fighting and displacement around Afghanistan. He worked with other ethnic groups and factions to build national unity. He was capable of bringing peace. Although there were foreign forces in Afghanistan...he brought about [internal] peace and unity that they couldn't."

Unfulfilled Expectations

"His main successes were bringing peace, security, and national unity. He could attract the attention and the support of the international community. The world started to invest in Afghanistan and they gave money to help us. Karzai formed a united government and built a national security force. He improved education, health care, and infrastructure and services that changed people's lives.

"My biggest criticism is something I also mentioned in his achievements. He forgot us Pashtuns and this region and his attention was toward strangers [other parts of Afghanistan]. He took for granted that his own people [Pashtuns] were with him. But he lost all of us. He didn't fulfill what people in Kandahar expected of him."

Great Provider

"We got prosperity and freedom. I was living in Afghanistan during the Taliban and before during the Mujahedin period. We fought the Soviet Union and the leftist government under [former Afghan President Mohammad] Najibullah. During the Taliban period, they never disrespected us or targeted our honor. But we didn't have freedom of speech or freedom of action. People didn't have the right to be free. The Taliban's foundation was built upon force and power. There was no possibility of jobs and there was no economy. There were no basic services, especially in Kandahar. Under Karzai, we had an elected government, freedom, and the chance to prosper."

Dependent State

"[Afghanistan's future] depends on the international community. If the international community fulfills its promises and stands with us then we will come out of our difficulties. We will be heading toward a bright future. But if the international community doesn't and abandons us again, we will be on the path toward the insecurity and destruction we witnessed in the past."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.