By Kathy Gannon
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Afghans go to the polls next weekend to choose a new president, and that in itself may one day be considered outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s greatest achievement.
There has been no shortage of criticism of Karzai in recent years. His mercurial behavior and inability or unwillingness to tackle corruption in his government have been well documented.
But in a nation hardened by decades of war, the fact that he is stepping down as president in the first democratic transfer of power ever is no small matter. It is made possible by a constitution that Karzai helped draft and that prohibits him from serving a third five-year term.
The April 5 election “is a historical marker that will in many ways determine I think not only how he’s seen in history if he achieves that but will also be a very important indicator about the future of this country,” U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said last week.
Cunningham said the differences between Karzai and his former American backers will most likely be relegated to a mere historical footnote. Karzai has refused to sign a security pact with the U.S. that would allow thousands of foreign forces to remain here after the end of 2014. Despite overwhelming public support for the deal, he left the decision to his successor. Many believe Karzai simply did not want to be remembered as the president who permitted foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan.
Karzai inherited a broken country when the Americans and their allies chose him more than 12 years ago as a leader they hoped could cross ethnic lines, embrace former enemies and bring Afghans together. As he prepares to leave office, Afghanistan has made great strides yet remains hobbled by a resilient Taliban insurgency and fears of a return to civil war.