Many names will be considered for the title ‘Person of the Decade’; politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, sports figures, bankers, terrorist (I use the singular because Osama bin Laden is really the only one worth considering). While influence will likely be the deciding factor for most publications, I’m going to break from the pack and list survival as my primary criteria (this blog is after all about security in hostile environments). And by that yardstick, there’s one name in my opinion which stands head and shoulders above the crowd: President Hamid Karzai.
When you consider the minefields – figurative and literal– the Afghan President has negotiated since 2001, the fact that he’s alive and still in power is nothing short of miraculous. The odds were certainly stacked against him when he was named caretaker President following the fall of the Taliban. Surrounded by warring tribes and a cabinet filled with Northern Alliance commanders who’d rather see him eliminated, Karzai’s job was arguably the most dangerous on earth. From the beginning, The Taliban, al-Qaeda and members of his own government derided him as an ‘American puppet’. The world’s press, noting Karzai’s lack of influence outside the Afghan capital, called him ‘The Mayor of Kabul. By 2006, many questioned whether he would see out his first official term as President. Yet somehow Karzai managed to survive multiple assassination attempts, benign neglect by his western backers (in 2003 Donald Rumsfeld infamously declared Afghanistan ‘mostly secure’) and a Taliban resurgence. Not only did he complete his first term in office; in the true fashion of an aspiring dictator, he stole a second and made a mockery of the democratic values his once ardent western supporters believed he would perpetuate.
In the first half of the decade, few would have believed that Karzai would end up playing by the rules of his neighbourhood. Eloquent, educated and stylish in his trademark striped silk coat and astrakhan hat, the West was so completely enamoured of him even fashion designers lauded Karzai as ‘the chicest man on the planet’. Beneath the charming, studied exterior though lurked a shrewd politician. Karzai knows that survival in Afghanistan means courting those who hold real power. When the West held the upper hand, he was a champion of women’s rights. When domestic conservative elements regained ground, Karzai played to them (this year, he reportedly signed a law legalizing rape within marriage – a ploy many believe was intended to win support from conservative Muslims ahead of the election).
Since 2004, in my capacity as a security advisor to the media, I’ve been present at five one-on-one interviews with Karzai. Over the years, I’ve watched him grow more confident and outspoken toward western strategies in his country which he believes are counterproductive and western demands which he views as unrealistic. Make no mistake; Karzai is no one’s puppet. He is a deft, cunning and clever warrior in a nation where men have defined themselves through conflict for three decades. He has witnessed more brutality and bloodshed than all the heads of western states put together.
Some will no doubt argue that Karzai is still controlled by the West; that he is being kept in power to service the grand vision of a pipeline that will run through Afghanistan, thus ensuring western energy security. I don’t think so. But if you’re not convinced that Karzai is indeed his own man, consider this; as the decade draws to a close, a Republican is no longer in the White House and it looks like Labour is on its way out in Britain, yet President Hamid Karzai is still going strong.