KABUL -- After nearly 13 years at the helm, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is finally stepping down. But his influence is unlikely to end when he relinquishes the formal reins of power.
That's because all three presidential front-runners in the race to succeed him -- former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and two former foreign ministers, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasul -- say they plan to offer Karzai an advisory role in their administrations after he steps down.
Karzai, constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term, has made no secret of the fact that he plans to play a central role in the country's affairs after his successor is determined. And analysts say Karzai has been working behind the scenes to ensure he retains a degree of influence even after he relinquishes power.
Ghani has said he will offer the longtime leader a significant advisory role if he wins the election. A first round of voting was held on April 5; a second round, if needed, will be held in late May.
"If I'm that successor, I'll be honoring that president by seeking his advice and by creating a special office as the first elected president of the country, where he would have a role and a voice in national affairs, regional affairs, and international affairs," Ghani said during an interview with the Associated Press news agency on the eve of the election.
Rasul concurs. "He will play a role. He's a young man who has played a key role in Afghan history and he still has a lot of support," Rasul told Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper earlier this month. "It depends on him. When I talk to him about it, he says he wants some rest."
Even Karzai's old adversary, Abdullah, who lost the disputed 2009 election to Karzai and who has been the president's main opposition, praised the outgoing leader for stepping down and paving the way for what will be the country's first democratic transfer of power. He also told the BBC's Pashto-language service on April 8 that he has a "good role" in mind for Karzai if he is elected. He did not elaborate.
No Lame Duck
Zubair Shafiqi, a Kabul-based political commentator, says that, although the front-runners may feel threatened by the idea of Karzai staying on, the former president could also be useful to a new leader as a master of alliances and in navigating the country's volatile regional and tribal politics.
"Karzai is someone who has a lot of influence among his ethnic group [Pashtuns] and his own region [the country's south]," Shafiqi says. "Besides his powerbase, he also has strong ties with the country's ethnic Tajik and Hazara communities. He still wields considerable power throughout the whole country."
Shafiqi adds that Karzai's skill set, honed over the last 12 years, will be particularly needed by the new president through what is expected to be a bumpy transition period. Most foreign combat troops will pull out by the end of the year, leaving Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban alone.
Kate Clark, a senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, says the three front-runners do not want to alienate Karzai.
"Hamid Karzai is by no means a lame-duck president, even now," she says. "So, regardless of whether the contenders would actually like him playing a role in the next presidency should they win, they cannot risk being seen sidelining him."
Prime Minister Karzai?
Many observers say that Karzai has been working behind the scenes to forge a significant role for himself after the election. While he never publicly backed any of the eight candidates vying to replace him, there were indications that he favored Rasul, a former adviser. For example, there were reports that the president persuaded his brother Qayum, who was running as a candidate, to stand down in favor of Rasul. Qayum Karzai eventually did withdraw.
That move sparked rumors that Karzai would create the position of prime minister for himself under a weak president and then return to full power -- much like what happened with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Russia. When Putin was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term as president in 2008, he became prime minister and eased Medvedev into the presidency. Four years later, the two swapped roles.
Karzai is not constitutionally barred from running for president in the next election in 2019.
Any continuing role for Karzai in Afghan affairs would appear to deal a blow to the United States. Ties between Karzai and the Washington have deteriorated rapidly in recent months, and there is believed to be considerable bad blood between the two sides. That has been fueled by Karzai's stubborn refusal to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement, which would authorize a residual U.S. force to remain in the country to train Afghan security forces after 2014. Karzai has left the inking of the deal to his successor.
But Nasrullah Stanikzai, a political-science lecturer at Kabul University, says Washington could likely welcome the continuity Karzai would bring as an adviser to the next government.
"I don't think the issues between President Karzai and the United States are strategic," he says. "I think Washington would actually be happy that Karzai would work alongside a new president. The new leader will be able to use Karzai's vast experience [of working with Washington and NATO]."
For his part, the 56-year-old Karzai, relatively young for a former leader, has been publicly modest about his intentions. He has admitted he would like a political role to "serve the country," if his successor allows it.
Whether or not the three front-runners keep their word and offer him such a role, Karzai's proximity to power will nevertheless be literal. Once he leaves office, Karzai will be moving into a purpose-built mansion just a few hundred meters from the presidential palace.