Karzai has retreated from many ideological and political positions in the face of recalcitrant events and shifting context. The most irreconcilable are his opinions about the Taliban as well as his views on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan

Over the past few weeks, editorial space in leading newspapers has been dominated by opinions about the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, ranging from an almost Freudian scrutiny of his decision-making to a lazy stereotyping of his behaviour. This deluge of commentary stems from Mr. Karzai’s recent decisions to postpone the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States government and to release 65 prisoners from Bagram.

But, how well does existing commentary help us understand Mr. Karzai? Three problems seem immediately apparent: the portrayal of his actions in a manner that seems to betray the absence of any analytical inquiry; an overwhelming focus on his agency at the exclusion of structure, or vice versa, and an oversimplification of his interests as single, dominant or static.

Media portrayal

Recently, columnist Maureen Dowd bemoaned “ … our runaway fruitcake puppet Hamid Karzai fiddling while the Taliban burns, vowing to run America out just as they did the Russians and waging vicious attacks on women.” Early media depiction of Mr. Karzai, in 2002-2003, bears little resemblance to the figure we read about today, once described as “Afghanistan’s caped hero” by columnist Nicholas Kristof, to an “elegant and eloquent” figure and a “brave, even heroic” man who was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, in The Wall Street Journal.

By 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama came to office, the long honeymoon with Mr. Karzai’s regime was over. Numerous op-eds were severely critical of the leader — “unsteady Mr. Karzai,” and “afflicted with grave paranoia” (WSJ), a “wily survivor in a snakepit of feuding warlords, drug lords, and Taliban” (The Guardian), a “loose cannon,” and “untrustworthy,” (The New York Times), and “inconstant as a zephyr” (The Washington Post) . Ms Dowd even called him “colicky,” comparing him to a fickle mistress, in contrast to a 2003 Washington Post article, a piece reflective of the sentiments in 2003, where Mary McGrory stated, “Even with skeptical and sympathetic senators inviting him to speak candidly about his problems, beginning with nation-building funds far short of ‘a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan,’ he does not wince or cry aloud.”

The good intentioned, but inefficacious ruler had been replaced by a perceivably corrupt, nepotistic, hashish-smoking leader at the helm of a disintegrating “corrupt narco-thug government.” What explains this shifting western narrative? Did Mr. Karzai change for the worse, or are the labels on his personality and decision-making misplaced?

The complexity of the evolving political context in Afghanistan and Mr. Karzai’s response to it elude easy categorisation. Adjectives that portray him may provide convenient labels, but they remain purely descriptive, focussing on the “what” instead of the “why.” Unless linked to the analytical inquiry of the situation, descriptive categories stunt the development of arguments. Media portrayal has thus produced a series of snapshots of the President, transforming him from a dapper statesman to an inept leader to a corrupt nepotistic ruler to the “crazy Karzai.” They have also focussed primarily on his behaviour at a given situation without much regard for the context.

Afghanistan’s transformation

In the last 12 years, Afghanistan has transformed itself socially, economically and politically. It is only fitting to acknowledge that its broad structural changes have been accompanied by an evolution of strategic choices among the country’s political elite; they have responded to the changing context just as they have played their part in shaping that context. Mr. Karzai is an embodiment of this continuous adaptation and response to the volatile context around him. This seemingly mutual constitution of interests, restraints, relationships and agency is often not given its due in existing Karzai commentary.

Mr. Karzai has retreated from many ideological and political positions in the face of recalcitrant events and shifting context, the most irreconcilable being his opinions about the Taliban as well as his views on the role of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. For instance in 2000, he testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan and helped gather support for an anti-Taliban movement. In 2002, as the chairman of the transitional government in Afghanistan, he epitomised a leader who publicly embraced democratic pluralism in Afghan politics, welcomed international engagement and courageously drew a distinction between the Taliban and the rest of Afghan society. As the insurgency gained momentum by 2004, he grew frustrated with the West’s passive heeding of his demands for more troops. Consequently, the consistency with which he publicly criticised the Taliban lost its steam. The May 2006 riots in Kabul exacerbated his fears of being reduced to irrelevance by western interests on one hand and the brutal volatility of the Afghan politics on the other. His lashing out against the West and Pakistan increased as he questioned his affiliations and their interests. The election in 2009 and the unsparing western criticism of the electoral fraud sealed his perception that the conflict had three sides, not two; he was confronting the Americans just as he was being confronted by the Taliban. The resignation of Amrullah Saleh and Hanif Atmar in 2010, the establishment of the High Peace Council later that year, and the spate of political assassinations in 2011 would further distance him from the West. His responses have thus been punctuated with the evolving political context around him, depending on the exigencies of the present and the nature of his interests.

Most accounts about Mr. Karzai either resign themselves to convenient stereotyping or frame his behaviour as driven by a single dominant motive. Legacy, a fear of conspiracy, and insecurity are some of the explanations behind his recent behaviour — and there is merit. Mr. Karzai indeed is mistrustful of the U.S. He also seeks to alleviate his insecurity and indeed aspires to leave a legacy behind. But, what many of these arguments conveniently ignore is that his behaviour is far from irrational, his outbreaks of impulse are safely conventional and that he has a multiple hierarchy of interests and identities whose salience varies with context.

Afghanistan’s modern history is punctuated by war, ethnic factionalism and, ultimately, by the state’s deformation. State building in Afghanistan has been punctuated by personality politics over national interest, the distribution of patronage over governance by institutions; fleeting alliances among competing and reconciling factions; copious amounts of unaccounted aid and an abundance of opium revenue. The patrimonial nature of social interactions has became the societal norm that governs Afghan society. In this climate, Mr. Karzai the political leader needs to constantly affirm his reputation and ability to reward loyal supporters, because deal-making rather than legislative and executive action informs political decisions.

Karzai’s agency

At the heart of the government of any political system lie certain mechanisms of decision-making and in communicating the same to the public. Government agencies in most countries, at the very least, provide relevant inputs that aid and enable the political leadership in formulating and framing policies. In the western context, one could refer to strategic documents published by the government and the policy papers produced by influential think tanks to understand the direction of specific priorities and the evolving narrative on major issues. Many countries, those in South Asia included, rely on careerist bureaucracies to inform, if not influence, policy-making. In the case of Kabul, beyond providing critical administrative support, the role of the government and the bureaucracy in framing policies remains perceivably muted in the public sphere. Decision-making on crucial policy priorities seems to reside primarily with the President and his close advisers. This overly-centralised, policy-making structure entails communicating key decisions through speech-making from the President before his voting audiences and international media. Any inquiry into Afghanistan’s policy-making processes therefore takes one to interpreting the President’s speeches and comments, and confers disproportionate emphasis on Mr. Karzai’s personal agency.

To be fair, this approach has its appeal; individuals and ideas matter in politics. In the Afghan political system, his agency does carry disproportionate weight than anyone else’s. As the man at the centre of most decision-making, Mr. Karzai’s intentions and motivations bear heavily on the policy-making process. If he has been “erratic,” “unreliable” and “unpredictable,” one could hope that the next elected political leader in Afghanistan would be better, may listen more, and may even sign the BSA. Is the problem solved? Not quite. To look at his agency without recognising its relationship with the context is to overinterpret Mr. Karzai and oversimplify any analysis of his decisions. A change in leadership, even leadership that has pledged to sign the BSA and “resolve to maintain the strategic western partnership” will not significantly change the limitations under which a new president has to negotiate the terms.

Mr. Karzai today is the dramatis personae of the theatre state called Afghanistan; a President who performs the social ritual of governing without governance and where decision-making functions were long ago forsaken for deal-making; the Afghanistan that President Karzai will bequeath to his successor is a country with a long tumultuous past, circumstances made dire by the U.S. government’s policy-making paralysis and apathy, and a country under the duress of insurgency and severe developmental gaps. More crucially, the many attempts to produce a strong Afghan state have failed in design before they failed in implementation. Leadership succession in Afghanistan will occur within these historical, political and institutional contexts, with severe constraints. The simultaneous discounting of Mr. Karzai and the analytical suggestions that a new “President” after the election would be a better actor to negotiate with, is simplistic.

(Suchitra Vijayan, a political analyst and writer, studies insurgency in Afghanistan at Yale. Prakhar Sharma is a research student in political science at the Maxwell School.)

More In: Lead | Opinion