Updated: Nov. 17, 2011
Hamid Karzai is the president of Afghanistan. He has led his country since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime. A charming, urbane tribal leader who favors flowing capes, he was a White House favorite during most of the Bush administration, but more recently has not been so favored, either by Washington or his fellow Afghans.
People close to the president say he has largely lost confidence in the ability of coalition forces to defeat the insurgency and is seeking his own course. Mr. Karzai long called for talks with the Taliban, and gradually won the support of the United States and NATO for his plan. But the idea of negotiations was thrown into disarray in September 2011 when a suicide bomber killed the leader of the Peace Council Mr. Karzai had set up to pursue them.
Awash in American and NATO money, Mr. Karzai’s government is widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in the world. The Times has reported on the extensive web of Karzai family members leveraging the president’s position to put them at the center of a new oligarchy of powerful Afghan families.
Western critics have accused Mr. Karzai of weak leadership, cutting deals with warlords, tolerating drug smugglers and ignoring rampant corruption that has fed the insurgency. The relationship between Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration, which has made fighting the endemic corruption in the Afghan government a major policy goal, has been contentious.
American officials acknowledge there are no obvious alternatives to his leadership; the relationship with Mr. Karzai is crucial because Mr. Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan is contingent on the administration’s ability to get the Afghans to take the lead so the United States can eventually withdraw.
In July 2011, the death of President Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council and the most powerful figure in southern Afghanistan, shook up much of Afghanistan and was a severe blow to the president, who relied on him as a critical source of political and financial power for the past 10 years.
In October 2011, Afghan security officials announced that they had foiled a plot to assassinate Mr. Karzai and had arrested six suspects, including a security guard at the gates of the presidential palace.
In November 2011, despite criticism from neighboring countries, threats from the Taliban and calls for a boycott from some political opponents, Mr. Karzai called a loya jirga, the traditional grand council of Afghan elders and leaders, in an attempt to gain popular support for a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Mr. Karzai assured the elders that he would demand an end to unpopular night raids in which troops swoop down from helicopters and search Afghan homes. He said U.S. troops should be allowed to stay past 2014, but that the Afghan government, not Americans, should be put in charge of detainees.
So far, Mr. Karzai’s terms have been unacceptable to American officials. The U.S.-led coalition has given no indication that it is willing to stop the raids, and says the night operations, which are conducted with Afghan security forces, are an effective way to keep pressure on militants.
Insurgents fired two rockets toward the site where the loya jirga was held. Both rockets missed their target, but one man was injured. No one claimed responsibility for firing the rockets, but the Taliban had threatened to disrupt the gathering.
From Exile to the Presidency
Born in December 1957, Mr. Karzai is from the southern city of Kandahar. He is a supporter and relative of the exiled former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. He was deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1994.
He was forced into exile when the Taliban came to power in the mid-1990s. A Pashtun- the ethnic group from which the Taliban also come- he was selected in late 2001 to lead the interim government by the former king’s delegation and by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during talks in Bonn.
He had initially supported the Taliban, believing they could restore order, but he broke with it after he became concerned that the movement was falling under the influence of foreign Islamic extremists. He moved to Pakistan in 1995. He blames the Taliban for assassinating his father in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1999.
After the 2001 invasion, Mr. Karzai was one of the few Pashtun exiles to organize resistance to the Taliban from inside Afghanistan.
In December 2001, Mr. Karzai was named chairman of an interim government that replaced the defeated Taliban, making him leader of Afghanistan. He took office as interim president in June 2002, saying he hoped to secure peace for Afghanistan and win the country much-needed international aid. He was elected to a five-year term as president in 2004.
Corruption, Elections, Foreign Policy
Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.
In the hundreds of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and released in December 2010, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier. The widespread corruption is made possible in part by a largely unregulated banking infrastructure and the ancient hawala money transfer network that is the method of choice for politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers to move cash around the Muslim world.
Mr. Karzai won re-election in 2009, but in a manner that weakened his standing and his government. The vote was held in August, and Mr. Karzai quickly declared that he had exceeded the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff. But it quickly became obvious that a large number of ballots were fraudulent. The tampering was almost entirely in favor of Mr. Karzai. After heavy pressure from American officials, Mr. Karzai agreed to a runoff, but his most serious challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the race, scrapping the plan.
Parliamentary elections in 2010 were also flawed. At stake was the makeup of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan Parliament and the only body with the power to question the policies of President Karzai. More than 20 percent of the ballots were thrown out for fraud. The voting itself was so tainted — by ballot-box stuffing and armed intimidation of voters, among other tactics — that many candidates appealed the vote totals to a second electoral body, the Independent Election Commission, which finalized the results of the election in November 2010.
President Karzai attempted to change the makeup of the new parliament by undermining the I.E.C. by creating a special court, which he later dissolved under international pressure.
Mr. Karzai’s relations with the leaders of Pakistan, always contentious, went steadily downhill in 2011, as militants believed linked to Pakistan’s intelligence service carried out a series of spectacular attacks in Afghan cities.
In October, Mr. Karzai signed a signed a wide-ranging strategic partnership with India, which Pakistan regards as its principal adversary.