When national unity is at stake, Afghans can be a forgiving bunch. Having criticized and regretted ex-President Hamid Karzai and his inner circle for the last thirteen years, many citizens had misty eyes as he formally left the domestic political scene.
Karzai — whose rule was famous for sky high corruption and political intrigue — stepped down as head of the Afghan government September 29 and handed his mandate over to President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, marking the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. President Ghani was sworn in as the new president of Afghanistan with his rival Abdullah Abdullah ascending to the newly created role of Chief Executive.
While the beginning of a new presidency after a bitter electoral contest between Ghani and Abdullah is a moment of extreme relief for society at large, feelings about Karzai's departure from the presidential palace were inevitably mixed. As Helena Malikyar, an Afghan historian noted, it was a “bitter-sweet day for most Afghans.”
Undoubtedly, Hamid Karzai will be missed by many. He was crafty and charismatic, blunt in his approach towards his western allies, and strangely suited to the art of governing a country in chaos.
Despite his mistakes, he will be remembered and respected. Hashmat Ghani, President Ghani's brother, tweeted:
We criticized Mr. Karzai and fought with him every step of the way over national issues but now as a friend he will have nothing but respect
— Hashmat Ghani (@GhaniHashmat) September 29, 2014
In a TOLO News op-ed piece “Karzai's Imperfect Legacy”, journalist Mariam Awizha Hotaki wrote:
With all our faults, we are a democracy in the making. And we have to give president Karzai credit for that.
Janan Mosazai, the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, quoted Afghanistan's new leader Ashraf Ghani:
President #AshrafGhani: Today we've institutionalized the Constitution & peaceful transfer of power, for which credit goes to Pres #Karzai.
— Janan Mosazai (@JananMosazai) September 29, 2014
Ramin Anwari highlighted the fact that the former president will be missed for his good and bad sides.
Big round of applauds in the hall, as #Karzai enters the inauguration ceremony. He'll be remembered for so many good and bad. #Afghanistan
— Ramin Anwari (@raminanwari) September 29, 2014
Samira Hamidi's tweet contained a similar message:
Historic moment:President #Karzai goodbye event with #gov employees-Despite all my criticism on him I will miss him! pic.twitter.com/wBURZM6Z3U
— Samira Hamidi (@HuriaSamira) September 23, 2014
Typically, Karzai managed to make Ghani's big moment all about him. Arif Ammar observed that people were more interested in Karzai leaving the Arg (palace and house of government) than Ghani entering it.
Eyes are more stared on leaving of Prez. #Karzai from Arg rather than entering the new president-elect!
— Arif Ammar (@Arif123ammar) September 27, 2014
For all his flaws, Karzai's skill as a political operator was never in doubt:
Honestly, I'm gonna be missing Karzai. He was helluva politician. A real one. (I do remember his mistakes too. Don't remind me please).
— Mustafa Kazemi (@combatjourno) September 29, 2014
But Karzai's greatest gift to the Afghan people is his departure. Some believe that without him Afghanistan might never have seen a peaceful transition of power:
Long live the outgoing president Hamid Karzai for making this historic transfer of power possible. #Afghanistan #AfghanElections
— Spogmay Waziri Kakar (@Spogmayy) September 29, 2014
Sentiment was everywhere as Ghani took office:
Never felt emotional during #AfghanElections until I saw Karzai forcing Ghani into his office chair. Never felt more proud either.
— Hameed Shuja (@hameedshuja) September 29, 2014
While Karzai's policies were the target of criticism both at home and abroad, his supporters such as Masood Shneezai believe that his thirteen years in charge have cemented his place in Afghan history forever.
People talk about President #Karzai‘s legacy these days. Let me tell you he doesn't have a legacy – he has legacies, he is a legend. #AFG
— Masood Shneezai (@MrWardak) September 28, 2014
Manoochehr Tahirian, referring to a book written by Bette Dam called A Man and a Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power could not hide his sadness:
it's time to say good by for #A_Man_and_a_Motorcycle. but it's really depressing :( #president #Karzai @AFG
— Manoochehr tahirian (@mtahirian) September 23, 2014
Yet as Karzai departs the Arg, he has left Ghani and his unformed government many challenges to resolve: a stunted economy, poor security, an irascible Taliban and the unsigned Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, to name a few.
In his first address to the nation, Ghani asked the Afghan people to hold him accountable when he makes mistakes. He also emphasized:
politics will no longer be an instrument of instability, but of improvement.
That might be difficult for many Afghans to believe at the moment, but after months of tension following a disputed vote, democracy seems to be back on the agenda in the country. As for Karzai, few expect him to quietly and happily fade into history.
After all, a true Afghan politician never really retires.