Sandy Gall: What does future hold for Afghanistan after Karzai?

MUCH of the talk in Kabul these days is about the end of the Hamid Karzai era and the question of who will succeed him after the presidential election next April.

David Cameron is greeted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul

By then the 55-year-old Pashtun tribal leader will have completed two terms, the maximum under the Afghan constitution. Still spry although greyer, Karzai is said to have already decided on the man he would like to be his successor – Zalmai Rassoul, a low-key monarchist who ran King Zaher Shah’s office in Rome at the time of 9/11 and until recently was Foreign Minister.

Given the impressive ability of Karzai’s electoral machine to rig the vote in 2004 and 2009, Rassoul would seem to have a head start although there are plenty of Afghans who are tired of the Karzai regime and would like to see a change.

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The bigger question, however, will be what happens at the end of this year when the remainder of the American, British and other Nato forces have finally departed. In an interview he gave to the BBC in Kabul recently, President Karzai said, not for the first time, that the Nato intervention had been a failure.

Britain, he reminded his listeners, despite the loss of 444 soldiers [now 445] in the 12-year mission, mainly in Helmand, had still failed to bring stability. But if failure there has been, a lot of the blame must attach to Karzai himself, whose administration and family have become bywords for incompetence and corruption.

A friend told me in Kabul the other day that one of Karzai’s brothers, who has a reputation for having made several fortunes during his brother’s tenure of office, complained to him recently about the amount of money another brother was making, despite having nearly a billion dollars in the bank.

Conspicuous consumption bred by corruption confronts today’s visitor to Kabul at almost every turn – huge pretentious houses built in what might be called millionaire kitsch baroque and the signature 4x4s, often brand new and packed with bodyguards which choke the streets of central Kabul.

The constant traffic jams – exploited by children swinging pots of foul-smelling smoke supposed to ward off evil spirits – are so bad it often takes an hour and more to keep an appointment in another part of the city.

Security is a major concern for anyone of importance in Kabul today and VIP houses are protected by barriers and chicanes and guarded round the clock by armed men in pill boxes. But despite its pervasiveness, it does not stop the death rate rising.

At a private party in an upmarket Kabul suburb, with newly-planted flowerbeds and a lawn as smooth and green as you’d see at Chelsea, I asked a former Minister of the Interior how things were. “Much worse than before the last election in 2009,” he said. “Everything’s up. Taliban attacks, suicide bombings, IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices, military shorthand for roadside bombs], assassinations, kidnappings, and both military and civilian casualties...” In 2009 most military casualties were mainly American or British but now they are Afghan Army or police, and double what Nato casualties were.

The number of ruthless Mafia-style killings was brought home to me by the recent death of an old friend. Noor Akbari, a talented agriculturist trained in Britain, was killed apparently by the Taliban a month or so ago for the twin “crimes” of working for the government and of being a Panjsheri.

A member of a well-known family from the same village as the late guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11, Noor had a famous brother, Yunus, a nuclear physicist, who was murdered by the pro-Soviet Communists after the 1978 coup.

I first met Noor in London when he was seeking Foreign Office help to trace his brother whom he believed to be still alive. He worked for the UN in Afghanistan for many years and latterly was engaged on a Ministry of Agriculture project in Logar, a province known for its penetration by the Taliban. Travelling in convoy from Logar to Kabul, he and a party of other agriculturists were stopped by gunmen. Noor and another Panjsheri were ordered out of their cars and summarily shot by the roadside.

Stories like Noor’s naturally make Afghans apprehensive. Many fear that the Taliban are just biding their time. There is a macabre joke which has the Taliban saying: “You Westerners have the watches, but we have the time.” Meaning they can wait out the departure of the Americans and the rest of Nato, and then make their move. Will the new Afghan army be able to stop them, especially if Pakistan and its military intelligence agency, the ISI, continues to back them?

Much depends on the Bilateral Security Agreement [BSA] between the United States and Afghanistan, which after much prevarication looks as if it will be signed soon. The BSA would allow the Americans to leave behind about 10,000 troops, mainly for training purposes, but with a Special Forces element in case of trouble. One sticking point has been the immunity of American troops from being tried in Afghan courts. Unless President Karzai agrees to that, the Americans will refuse to sign and threaten to pull everybody out, leaving the Afghans very much on their own.

That would please Mullah Omar, the one-eyed fanatical Taliban leader who has been living under Pakistan’s protection ever since he was driven out of power in late 2001. He said recently the BSA would be unacceptable to the Afghan people – meaning to the Taliban.

But the withdrawal of American support would alarm many people, not just Afghans. One American friend recently complained of how USAID had ditched her request for a grant to support an important academic project she runs. A meeting she had arranged with a senior American official was cancelled at short notice and then she received an email from him saying he had been posted to Turkey.

There are, however, some encouraging signs. The villagers of Panjwai, a district of Kandahar, who rebelled against Taliban intimidation earlier this year are still succeeding in keeping them at bay. The combination of a dynamic new police chief and a courageous village headman, who had fought in the mujahideen against the Russians and refused to hand two of his sons over to the Taliban because he suspected they would kill them, forced the Taliban to back down. But Panjwai is still, unfortunately, an exception.

• Sandy Gall is the former News At Ten presenter, award-winning foreign correspondent and the inspiration behind Sandy Gall’s Afghanistan Appeal (SGAA) which has trained Afghan professionals to provide artificial limbs and other mobility aids for more than 25,000 people with disabilities. Further details can be found at