KABUL — Hamid Karzai's days as president of Afghanistan appear to be numbered. But his behavior would indicate that somebody forgot to tell the man himself.
Despite mounting opposition to his leadership — from the new Barack Obama administration, no less — Karzai is behaving like a politician still in contention for reelection to his long-suffering country's highest office.
An election looms in August, called this week by the Independent Election Commission after months of wrangling.
Karzai, widely perceived to have failed his country during seven years in office, is almost certain to be rejected by his countrymen at the ballot box. And he faces intense competition from an all-star list of candidates — all of them members of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, all foreign-educated, and most with an American passport, a privilege they will have to forfeit if they are to run.
Even the man who hand-picked Karzai to lead Afghanistan, former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, is rumored to be considering a run against him.
Meanwhile, Karzai finds himself at the center of what is fast shaping up to be a constitutional crisis.
His term officially expires May 22, and the law states that elections should be held 30 to 60 days before the end of the president’s tenure. Given the difficulties of voter registration, elections cannot take place before Aug. 20. But the parliament, which stands in bitter opposition to Karzai, has threatened to withhold recognition of his administration once his mandate is up.
Karzai could solve the whole problem by stepping down, but given his bellicose posturing of late, this seems unlikely.
No one is quite sure how the government will function on May 23, but the battle promises to be epic.
According to a former associate, Karzai was at one point prepared to go, understanding that his country needed a change.
“Karzai agreed happily (to stand down), but then people started threatening him and warning him, and he also started threatening and warning,” said Sardar Roshan, a former ambassador to Pakistan who also served as Karzai’s campaign manager in 2004.
Indeed, leaks from the presidential palace indicate that Joe Biden, while he was the vice president-elect, may have proposed to Karzai at their meeting in January that the Afghan president step down. Karzai reportedly stormed out of the session.
The only legal remedy for the impasse would be a Grand Assembly, or Loya Jirga. But this path, too, is closed, since Afghanistan still lacks district councils, a necessary component of the Jirga.
So once again Afghanistan is on the brink of chaos, with its chief executive leading the charge.
“There are numerous reasons" why Karzai should not run, Roshan said, citing the general lack of support for the government among the population as a whole, as well as questions about Karzai’s personal credibility.
“There are rumors, right or wrong, that Karzai is spending money, appointing his own men in the provinces, who will be working for him during the elections,” Roshan said. “This would cast serious doubt on the possibility of transparency.”
“There is a sort of calm right now,” Roshan said. “People think change is coming. If that hope is not realized, then we should not be surprised if there is a reaction. It will be impossible to walk around in the city of Kabul, let alone in the countryside.”
What is not at issue is that the 2009 poll promises to be much more contentious than the first post-Taliban poll, in which Karzai — who was at the time the interim president — was the clear favorite.
But Karzai's abandonment by most of his former supporters, combined with the steadily deteriorating security situation in the country and the promise of a significant increase in U.S. troops, will doubtless make for a volatile campaign season.
The field of candidates is expected to be diverse, with no primary process to weed out the spoilers. Any Afghan over 40 years of age who can collect 10,000 signatures is welcome to enter the race. The ballot could contain a dozen or more names, making it unlikely that any one candidate will receive more than 50 percent of the vote. A second round is a virtual certainty.
The frontrunners are emerging, and despite the anger engendered by U.S. military operations in the country, many Afghans still see U.S. backing as a positive sign, bringing with it financial and political clout.
“The candidates are operating on the old model,” Roshan said. “They think that someone will be sat on an American chariot and brought into Kabul. But there are many candidates, and people think ‘No, the United States cannot have approved five candidates. They cannot all be the best choice.’ ”
Some Afghans are skeptical that the elections will be anything more than symbolic.
“All (the successful candidate) needs is one vote — America’s,” said Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a journalist based in Mazar-e-Sharif and a longtime observer of Afghan politics.
How "America" will vote is not yet clear, although all signs seem to be pointing to Ali Ahmad Jalali. The former interior minister is popular among all ages and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and is the potential candidate most often mentioned as a likely winner. With more than 20 years in Washington working for the Voice of America, Jalali has had ample time to make contacts among the power elite. After leaving his ministerial post in Kabul, he took up a position at the U.S. National Defense University.
“He is the State Department’s choice,” said Hafizullah Gardesh, a journalist and analyst in Kabul.
In fact, during the week of Obama's inauguration, Jalali, along with three other Afghan dignitaries, themselves seen as contenders for the president's post — Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister, Gul Agha Sherzai, Karzai’s foreign minister from 2001 to 2006, and Abdullah Abdullah, the governor of Nangahar — were in Washington, prompting speculation that they were considering a collective ticket, or "Dream Team", with roles already apportioned.
The State Department is staying mum, but one European diplomat, speaking privately, gave tacit confirmation to this hypothesis. When pressed for his predictions, he smiled and said, “ I think Jalali will win it.”
Roshan points to other strong contenders: The former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, will almost certainly run, and, if he does not take the top spot, will be in line for the vice presidency or a major ministry.
Considered a Washington insider, he is reportedly close to Richard Holbrooke, recently appointed as Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ashraf Ghani might have been a runaway favorite, except for the stomach cancer that kept him out of the spotlight for several years.
With security in the country at an all-time low, some observers are questioning the possibility of holding elections at all. The Taliban control large swathes of the country and have warned people against participating in the elections.
“According to our calculations, 22 (out of 34) provinces are affected,” Roshan said. “In these places not even 10 percent of the people will dare to vote.”
For Afghanistan, it promises to be a long, hot summer.
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