After Karzai

Afghanistan’s outgoing president helped heal a shattered country. He also winked at corruption and ruled like a tribal chief. His successor will inherit a nation that’s in better shape than you might think—and a government with little power to keep it that way.

In the shadow of the Kandahar City mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the warrior-king who founded the modern state of Afghanistan, sits a small shrine, the blue plaster of its dome peeling off. “Here rests the martyred champion Azimullah,” reads the headstone inside the shrine, black calligraphy on white marble whose once-brilliant color is fading to gray.

An 18-year-old shopkeeper with dark almond eyes, Azimullah Khaksar gave his life on September 5, 2002, so that Hamid Karzai, the recently appointed interim leader of Afghanistan, could live. He wrestled a gunman who had opened fire on Karzai as the president waved through a car window at a crowd outside the governor’s compound in Kandahar. In the free-for-all shooting that followed, as Karzai’s motorcade made a clumsy effort to flee, Azimullah caught bullets in his chin, stomach, and legs. Which of the bullets came from the assassin and which from Karzai’s bodyguards, no one knows.

The arrival of Hamid Karzai, on the heels of the U.S. invasion in 2001, promised Afghans a break from the recent bloody past. Karzai’s lack of involvement in the long, brutal civil war that followed the Soviet retreat in 1989 raised the possibility of a unified country after a decade of battling fiefs. His international backing promised reconnection to the world after years of isolation. While not all Afghans welcomed Karzai—several circles within the Northern Alliance, for instance, wanted power for themselves—many ordinary people looked upon him with hope.

I remember hearing Karzai’s name on the radio for the first time, when I was a teenager in Kabul, as fires caused by American bombs burned throughout the city. The name had a ring to it, a lightness that itself seemed to promise new possibilities. For more than a decade, we had been ruled by men whose names and titles were a mouthful; the last was the one-eyed self-proclaimed “Leader of the Faithful, Emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahed.” He had been more myth than man—most Afghans did not hear his voice or see his image until after he was toppled. The simplicity of Hamid Karzai’s name, without a credential affixed to it, seemed to suggest humility and an unpretentious nature.

The name struck a chord with Azimullah, too, and sparked his curiosity. “Karzai,” Azimullah had said at home on many occasions in the days after he first heard it. “I wonder what he is like.” As Karzai and the forces around him pressed closer to Kandahar City, Azimullah found a photo of him at the buzzing Charso bazaar. He brought the photo home and showed it to his family. “This, they say, is Karzai,” he explained, pointing at the bald, mustachioed man in a suit.

Charismatic and youthful, Karzai in 2002 was a man with “an enormous talent,” as Amrullah Saleh, his former intelligence chief, recently put it to me, who “showed no celebration, jubilation, or a sense of triumph” as he took power; he was a man who “moved with the mood of the country” and spoke to the people’s exhaustion and deprivation and exclusion—and to the country’s ability to heal.

I remember hearing Karzai’s name for the first time, when I was a teenager in Kabul, as fires caused by American bombs burned throughout the city.

Some 12 years later, as Karzai prepares to leave office, the flush of hope that greeted him has been replaced by more-complex sentiments. Americans officials, who adored him at the beginning of the war, have come to see him as a manic-depressive: erratic and mercurial. To Afghans, he leaves a series of contradictions. Under Karzai, Afghanistan got a new constitution, but not the will from its leadership to adhere to it; a national security force, 380,000 strong, but without adequate equipment or a clear definition of the enemy it fights. Genuine progress—the return of more than 5 million refugees, the enrollment of more than 8 million children in school, an estimated 20-year rise in life expectancy, and possibly as much as a 40 percent drop in the infant-mortality rate—has often been overshadowed by rampant corruption and failures of governance. In recent years, Afghanistan has vied with Somalia and North Korea for standing as the most corrupt country in the world.

This spring, I met Azimullah’s elder brother, Haji Hekmatullah, at his bakery in a Shia neighborhood of Kandahar City. A half-melted can of cooking oil hung over a small fire in the back of the shop, the walls of which had been darkened by smoke. At the front, Hekmatullah, distracted by his young son’s demand for ice cream, poured me a cup of green tea. Just weeks earlier, Karzai had visited Kandahar again. In contrast to his 2002 visit, when the president walked freely around the bazaars, this time most shops had been closed as a security precaution.

I asked Hekmatullah whether his brother’s sacrifice had been worth it.

“Sometimes, when I think about it—we have everything: a decent house, some land, and two shops. All I want is my brother back,” he said. Hekmatullah had gotten engaged six days before the killing; Azimullah had died in the new coffee-colored clothes he’d had made for the engagement party. “Other times, when I look at my daughter, who is going to fourth grade now, I think that might not have been possible if Azimullah had lived. There could have been more chaos, more bloodshed.”

Whether chaos and bloodshed have merely been deferred by the abundance of Western troops and drones and money; whether anything like a sustainable democracy, capable of standing on its own, has taken hold during Karzai’s time in office—these are open questions. On one level, it is amazing that Hamid Karzai has even survived his presidency. Given the immense challenges of governing Afghanistan, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect much more than that. And yet, as he leaves office, it is important to appreciate what, beyond survival, has motivated Karzai—and what has constrained him. Only through such an appreciation can one glimpse the legacy he is likely to leave behind.

Karzai is highly social, and his approach to governance has been inclusive. At his palace, he regularly mixes with both Western-trained ministers and tribal elders, former Communists and former Taliban.

On Fridays, Karzai’s palace hosts a congregational prayer followed by a banquet-style lunch for an exclusive group of about 100 tribal elders, clerics, former members of the Taliban, and cabinet ministers (many of them returnees from the West who, by reputation, do not care much about religion). On these occasions, the highly social president is in his element—mixing politics and prayer and small talk, and telling stories that make the otherwise incoherent mix of people laugh in unison, over lamb, rice, and vegetables.

I attended one such gathering with Karzai in April. As the president made his way to lunch after the prayer, walking quickly, the crowd of men around him struggled to keep up. Karzai noticed the Kabul police chief and the deputy minister of the interior, and stopped for a moment.

“Oh, commanders! Oh, commanders!” the president called out. “The house of Mawlawi Qalamuddin was robbed last night, and you still don’t know about it.” The intonation was teasing, but the subtext clear: Karzai seldom misses a chance to let other officials know that he has many informal sources of information, that he is as knowledgeable as they are about matters large and small, that he is in no way reliant on them. The comment also underlined Karzai’s genuine commitment to an inclusive approach to governance, with equal protection for all: Qalamuddin is a former Taliban minister of the notorious Vice and Virtue Police. He, too, was on his way to the luncheon, where he and the police chief exchanged phone numbers.

Before the gathering, I had sat down with Karzai in his office to talk about his leadership and legacy. The president was wearing a long gray tunic beneath a loose navy sport jacket. His signature fur cap was folded on his desk, amid framed pictures of his three young children. Among the many books on the shelf behind him was a four-volume set of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, translated into Pashto. I had been warned by a longtime former aide that the president, 56 years old and remarkably fit (he spends 45 minutes on an elliptical trainer three times a week), hasn’t come to terms with the fact that his time in office is ending. Yet Karzai has also confided to people close to him that he believes America would do anything to get rid of him—even kill him—if he tried to extend his stay in the presidential palace.

The Karzai I met was, for the most part, relaxed, reflective, and confident of a smooth transfer of power, the first democratic transition in Afghan history. But the hour-long interview, as well as the four additional hours I spent with the president over two days, was punctuated by bursts of heartfelt anger at American officials for what he described as their betrayal.

Sometimes Karzai went on emotional tangents that seemed to confirm the widely held perception that he sees an American hand in everything that has gone wrong during his 12 and a half years in power—a deeply conspiratorial way of thinking that has seemed to grip him especially tightly since his 2009 reelection campaign, when the U.S. mission in Afghanistan (led by the late Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time) tried to oust him. Western media attention has recently focused on Karzai’s refusals to sign a new agreement with the United States that would enable a continued U.S. military presence beyond this year. In fact, this refusal is mostly theatrics. The next president will have plenty of time to sign that pact; Karzai, meanwhile, can leave office brandishing evidence that he was not a foreign stooge. Even so, there is no doubt that Karzai, a master tactician, has long since come to see the Americans as rivals rather than supporters.

Western officials “wanted me weak,” Karzai told me. They “wanted an isolated president, a president they could use.”

“My purposes were different from those of the Americans,” Karzai told me in his immaculate English. The president said he sees the counterinsurgency effort championed by the West as fundamentally misguided: the roots of the insurgency lay in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The war, he said, was centered in the wrong place. He noted that Western support of him, from the start, was hedged and incomplete. The West “wanted me weak, and in conflict with the rest of the leadership of this country,” he told me. Western leaders “wanted an isolated president, a president they could use.”

Mostly, Karzai seemed satisfied with how far he had carried his fragile, cracked vase—an image he has often invoked to describe the country he inherited after 30 years of war and isolation. “I had a vision for a democratic Afghanistan, for human rights, and for the freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” Karzai told me. “Those were visions, and the last elections a few days ago proved that was achievable and we achieved it.”

More than 6 million Afghans (about half of those eligible) voted on April 5 to choose a successor to Karzai, in the first round of an election that many of the president’s critics had warned would not happen. Karzai, they argued, would change the constitution and extend his rule. When the election seemed to be proceeding according to schedule, they then warned that Karzai would engineer the vote to elect a puppet president of his choosing. But that scenario didn’t materialize either. The elections were held, and Karzai’s reported favorite, Zalmai Rassoul, a 71-year-old former cabinet minister, came in a distant third. (A runoff between the top two candidates was scheduled for mid-June.)

“I had a vision for this country of unity—that we have achieved,” the president said as he leaned back in his chair. “Afghans of all colors, all political thinking, of all parts of this country feel absolutely free.”

Making generous allowances for political overstatement, Karzai’s list of his accomplishments is at least notionally accurate: rights and freedoms have expanded widely during his tenure, especially in urban areas, which are growing rapidly. Yet in many ways, the vase that is Afghanistan remains just as fragile as the day Karzai picked it up. The lunch I attended with him calls to mind the best and worst aspects of his presidency: his ability to bring together diverse constituencies, his preference for the informal and general disregard for the chain of command, and above all his personalization of politics—which, paradoxically, has both enabled parts of Karzai’s agenda and imperiled much of what Karzai says he holds dear.

Karzai is convinced that the U.S. government would do anything—even kill him— to stop him from extending his rule.

Before he became president, Karzai, a polished former diplomat turned guerrilla leader, was largely an unknown figure. The scion of a prominent Pashtun family in Kandahar, he had served briefly as the deputy minister of foreign affairs after anti-Soviet forces took over the government in 1992. He made his name among Washington elites through years of anti-Taliban lobbying at Western embassies in Pakistan, after the group allegedly assassinated his father in 1999. In December 2001, when major Afghan leaders gathered in Bonn, Germany, to determine who would lead the country’s interim government, Karzai was not the first choice. Abdul Sattar Sirat, a former justice minister and the favorite of the exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was turned down by the representatives of the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban force that had served as the United States’ partner on the ground. Sirat, a member of the Uzbek ethnic minority, would have been a divisive figure for both the Pashtuns and the Tajiks, who together make up the majority of the country’s population. Late in the night, the old king was woken up and asked to persuade Sirat to withdraw.

“Who is the alternative?” the king asked.

“Hamid Karzai,” he was told.

“Who is that?” the king responded in a half-asleep daze.

The reasons behind Karzai’s ultimate selection were straightforward: he was a Pashtun from the south, the traditional homeland of Afghan leaders; he had the support of the West; and he was on the ground already. He had snuck from Pakistan into Afghanistan just south of Kandahar City as U.S. B-52 bomber jets pounded Taliban targets and Northern Alliance forces advanced toward Kabul. When he received the call that he had been chosen to lead Afghanistan, he was reportedly covered in blood and shrapnel, having miraculously survived a 2,000-pound bomb the U.S. had dropped by mistake, killing three of its own Special Forces troops and at least 23 of Karzai’s men.

That gory moment aside, Karzai, in his white tennis shoes, bore little resemblance to the strongmen leading Afghanistan’s guerrilla forces. (After members of the U.S. Special Forces were dispatched to help Karzai in the south, one team member asked another, who’d already met him, “Is he a badass?” The reply: “Well … not exactly.”) Karzai carries himself with the air of an intellectual, especially when he speaks in English, and he is empathetic by nature. His way of thinking about politics grew from his observations of his father, the head of a Pashtun clan and a member of parliament in the 1960s under Zahir Shah, and from his formal study of political science, history, and Western philosophy at Simla University, in India, where he obtained his undergraduate and master’s degrees. In a 1988 essay analyzing Zahir Shah’s relatively peaceful reign, Karzai described how the king had managed to earn the “absolute support, confidence, and trust” of the tribes deemed crucial to the stability of his government. Afghanistan, even after its consolidation as a state in the 18th century, has often seemed like a confederation of hundreds of tribes and subtribes, all with a sensitive relationship to the central government. He noted, quite correctly, that statesmen who lost touch with the tribes, preferring to govern through institutional intermediaries, did not tend to last very long in power.

The president took to mourning dead Taliban just as intensely as he mourned the army’s fallen.

When Karzai finally arrived in Kabul, in December 2001, he was installed at the helm of a government bankrolled by foreign money and staffed by officials he had not chosen. Under the Bonn agreement, brokered by the West, many key roles had gone to warlords in return for their cooperation with the United States. Karzai “never overcame the legacy of Bonn, where everyone else at his cabinet given to him had the same legitimacy as him,” says a longtime aide. “So he never really embraced the government as his, always mistrusted it.” Seventeen of the 30 cabinet members were Northern Alliance commanders, and those commanders also got a share of power at the local level, installing men who had served under them. Over one meal at his palace, Karzai asked General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command at the time, why America was supporting certain warlords who were causing his government trouble. “They are one of us, just like you are one of us,” Abizaid responded, in an attempt, he later said, to encourage political accommodation. Afghan forces allied with the American counterinsurgency mission are designated “green” by the U.S. military. “We are not going to be green on green,” Abizaid said.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Karzai, presented with this state of affairs, quickly began trying to establish his own power network, going around and beneath appointed officials—particularly through outreach to tribal, clan, and village elders. Yet it can be difficult to appreciate just how much of Karzai’s attention, throughout his presidency, was devoted to this effort, or how much he ignored the formal government apparatus set up around him once his own, informal network was in place.

Throughout his presidency, the doors of Karzai’s palace would open, daily, to flocks of supposed tribal leaders, some with official local or regional positions, some without. Karzai would consult with them for hours, collecting information, dispensing favors and cash from slush funds, attempting to convince them that the Afghan government—or, more precisely, Karzai himself—was a good and trustworthy long-term partner. Many of these meetings were hard to sit through, Saleh, the former intelligence chief, told me: the room stank of sweat and bodies unwashed for weeks. “Every man in power wants to be nicely cologned,” Saleh said. “We should admire [Karzai] for sharing his palace.”

Tactically, Karzai’s approach was brilliant. It allowed him to steadily consolidate power and destabilize potential rivals. Many of those rivals were warlords, and the diminishment of their authority must be counted as a triumph of Karzai’s early years. And yet this strategy was also directly at odds with the establishment of a modern, democratic government, rooted in stable institutions rather than personality. Its flaws grew ever more pronounced as Karzai’s tenure stretched on.

Karzai is not fully ready to leave the presidential palace, according to one aide.

“I raised the government flag in seven districts” previously held by the Taliban, the former governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, told me recently at his home in west Kabul. “And not once did the president call me to say ‘Well done,’ or to instruct me as to what to do next.” Out of office for more than a year now, Mangal still brims with disappointment at how Karzai treated him, and how the president approached regional security and development.

In Afghanistan’s highly centralized system, governors are directly appointed by the president and essentially serve as his representatives to the 34 provinces. Mangal served as the governor of three different provinces over nine years. But Karzai was suspicious of his governors, particularly those with Western support. The president’s whole approach to governance, Mangal told me, involved the balancing of the powers beneath him and the pursuit of shortsighted alliances, all with the goal of ensuring that no single official grew too strong. “The more our success increased, the more he suspected us. The more we extended the government’s reach, clearing new districts and raising the government flag, the more he got jealous.” Karzai’s “psychology is such—he operates more like a malik [a tribal chief] than a president,” Mangal told me.

On one occasion, Mangal went to Karzai and asked him to refrain from supporting a former police chief who still controlled parts of a ragtag force accused of aiding drug traffickers and abusing civilians. Several men loyal to the chief had recently surrendered their posts during Taliban offensives. Mangal saw an opportunity, once the posts were retaken, to break the chief’s old network and instead “bring professional police to show people that we are honest about good governance.”

Yet Karzai, Mangal says, gave more weight to the short-term benefits of keeping the former police chief on the government’s side. “If he is such an important person,” Mangal recalls the president telling him, “why don’t you side with him?”

Karzai’s task in Helmand was complicated by the fact that British troops had, by most accounts, made a mess of the situation there. Five of Helmand’s 13 districts were under Taliban control in 2008. Musa Qala, a district of about 50,000 residents, had slipped back into insurgent hands in 2006, and become a hub for the production of suicide bombers. So Karzai was forced to experiment. One effort involved funding an uprising by Mullah Salaam Alizai, a burly former Taliban commander in the region, and then appointing him as the district governor.

“The idea was good, but the character was dubious,” Saleh, Karzai’s former intelligence chief, told me. “Mullah Salaam wanted to be his own authority—the little autonomous king of Musa Qala … but financed by the government.”

Salaam told me that, as district governor, he often called Karzai directly by satellite phone, bypassing Mangal. After dozens of his bodyguards were drugged and killed by a turncoat, Salaam got the president to assign him more than 100 soldiers as guards, even though the law does not allow local officials to have such militias outside the normal police structure. On at least two occasions when Salaam came to Kabul, the president called a cabinet meeting for him, where the district governor made demands and launched into diatribes, calling the cabinet ministers foreign stooges to their faces. Karzai “had the whole cabinet report to a district governor,” a minister present during one of the meetings said. With a triumphant smile, Salaam said he called one minister a gaw-mesh, an ox.

Amid the rival interests at play, it was often unclear who was really in charge in Helmand. The president did not trust Mangal, thinking of him as a British lackey. In addition to empowering Salaam and other players beneath Mangal, Karzai made a point of keeping in close contact with Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, a previous governor of Helmand. The British had pressured Karzai to remove Akhundzada in 2005 because of his frequent violence against rivals and his alleged involvement in the drug trade. The president, however, found Akhundzada useful: his tribe was the largest in Helmand. Whenever Karzai traveled to Helmand, he would fly Akhundzada with him and sit next to him in meetings with tribes. In one speech in the provincial capital, Karzai mentioned Akhundzada more than 25 times in front of Mangal, who got little recognition. In the eyes of the locals, it was Akhundzada—still called “the esteemed Mr. Governor” by many—who was the real power.

Lorenzo Tugnoli

Karzai is unapologetic about his reliance on informal networks and ad hoc governance. He relied “the very least” on his own government institutions, he told me. “The fact on the ground was that the Afghan government was weak, that it had no capacity, that it had no means of movement, that it could not provide the president of the country with the information that related to the facts on the ground,” he said. “One of my greatest victories, if you can call it that, was my contact with the people.”

Yet many of those people were unreliable, and had hidden agendas. Years of warfare had created a new class of local leaders who had not necessarily gone through traditional rites of passage, and did not have the legitimacy associated with tribal chiefs; they had guns and drugs. Some of Karzai’s advisers believe that many villagers would have supported a more formal system of institutional government, if only Karzai had developed it. Instead, the president relied on this new class. Among the “elders” who would line up at his office were many violent opportunists, different from the warlords only in the smaller reach of their influence. Karzai gave them access to resources, and standing that will last long after he is gone.

Perhaps most significant, the unfiltered access Karzai granted to local, informal leaders exposed the president to Taliban sympathizers who played upon his distaste for violence and in many cases misled him. A governor of a restive eastern province once told me that 80 percent or more of the elders from his province who were complaining to the president about military actions were Taliban sympathizers. Karzai never consulted the governor about any of the elders’ identities or motives. The president created “a dangerous parallel system” with enormous sway, he said. And this network persuaded Karzai, at various points, to cut back the night raids by American Special Forces, which were considered a major blow to insurgents; to release prisoners; even to replace local security commanders.

Karzai acknowledged to me that he never really became a commander in chief. By the time the Afghan army grew into a relatively professional fighting force, he no longer believed in the war it had been trained to fight. One reason, perhaps, is dispositional: Karzai described himself to me as a pacifist “in my heart, in my core,” and while his support of several violent regional leaders complicates this claim, most people I talked with who know Karzai well said he makes it in earnest. But another reason surely has to do with the distorted nature of the information Karzai was receiving each day, and with his paranoia regarding the foreign forces in his country.

“The Taliban left without a fight” at first, the president told me. “But then the Americans—I was without access to the country in the initial days, and without the tools of governance, which are still very weak—they went around with thugs from our own country” and, with their violence, “forced the Taliban back into taking guns. And Pakistan was willing, and ready to use the opportunity.” He stressed, throughout our conversation, his differences with the American leadership in the country. “I didn’t see a war in Afghanistan we should have fought.”

As Afghan soldiers were dying at a rate of 10 a day in recent years, the president took to mourning dead Taliban just as intensely as he mourned the army’s fallen. One morning in February of this year, the bodies of 21 army soldiers, killed in the eastern province of Kunar, were brought to the military hospital in Kabul. Karzai used the incident as a pretext to cancel a trip abroad, but instead of attending the funerals, he remained in his palace, busily politicking. When I told him the public thought he was a leader who did not stand up for his soldiers, the president became defensive.

“But I do. I have done it very often. That’s Western propaganda,” he said, thumping his desk. “They are the sons of this soil, they are giving their life. But that life is gone in a war that’s not ours.”

On the same day he said those words, Karzai ordered the questioning of three of his brightest special-forces officers on vague charges of, among other things, spying for Western countries—an odd charge, considering they are equipped and advised by NATO. The special forces, some 14,000 strong, are crucial to repelling Taliban attacks. They also played a central role in securing the first round of the presidential election. I had met one of the detained officers last year, at a social gathering. Well built, knowledgeable, and courteous, he was the kind of soldier-thinker one would believe to be essential to the largely illiterate force.

In the final years of his presidency, Karzai, who had once been called the “mayor of Kabul” because of his limited reach, focused almost entirely on the plight of the rural areas that continue to bear the brunt of the war. He bent over backwards to try to appease the Taliban and condemned the missteps of foreign soldiers. He engaged in many talks that he hoped might lead to peace, none of them bearing much fruit. And he made many efforts to co-opt or isolate individual Taliban leaders, although he repeatedly declared that he would not compromise constitutional freedoms to win them over. His approach has, unquestionably, caused some degree of confusion and fragmentation in the Taliban ranks. And yet, it has also confused his own forces—restraining them against a brutal enemy—and brought the president harsh criticism from civil groups.

“Look at his cabinet, his government, and elsewhere—from Taliban, to Communists, to mujahideen, to those who returned from the West. They are all there. This was the art of Hamid Karzai,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the president’s national-security adviser, when I asked him whether Karzai was a visionary leader. “But this is not enough for a statesman trying to rebuild a post-conflict nation, helping it transition towards democracy.” Spanta and several other people who have worked closely with Karzai told me he never articulated a clear model of government to strive toward, or a vision of what Afghanistan should become.

The Afghanistan that Karzai leaves behind is certainly a more inclusive and cohesive country than the fractured mess he inherited. Among my own peers—educated young urbanites, connected to the world and provided with free space for expression—there is a growing sense of nostalgia for him; he is largely seen as a man of great personal dignity who, despite his shortcomings, tried to minimize the bloodshed that my generation was born into. Our Afghanistan is shaped by the principles Karzai saw as essential and nonnegotiable. But because of the president’s leadership style, these gains appear tenuous. Under Karzai, a relatively free press has blossomed, but every time threats against it have emerged, they have been blunted not by the institutions or laws Karzai put in place, but by the president’s personal intervention. The same can be said for women’s participation in society, which has grown tremendously, but with few institutional safeguards.

Even the future role of the country’s warlords is uncertain. Karzai has kept most of these men off balance and relatively weak during his tenure, and deserves credit for doing so. Yet these men are not gone from public life. They have continued to profit from contracts and investments largely tied to the presence of foreign militaries: vested economic interest is a major factor that keeps them loyal to the democratic system. Indeed, in the 12 and a half years of Karzai’s rule, many have sanitized their images—shorter beards, fancier suits, more politically correct language. For better or worse, their sons and daughters, who seem more attuned to democratic practices, are now beginning to step into their fathers’ shoes.

Spanta says he doubts anyone could have fared better than Karzai in such a fragmented society. And yet the next president of Afghanistan will inherit a broken chain of command, weak institutions, and a variety of local powers that may prove difficult to bring to heel—all the more so because he will lack the personal connections that Karzai worked so hard to cultivate. “The question of whether the forces from the past will succeed again” or whether modernizing forces will take the country forward—“this has not been finalized.” Almost none of the achievements made under Karzai appear irreversible, Spanta lamented. Instead, Afghanistan remains a place stuck between modernity and its own splintered history. Which way it will move next is anyone’s guess.