Former Afghan Leaders Powerless Inside, Outside Their Homeland

Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Hamid Karzai have remained in Kabul, Afghanistan, since the Taliban seized power.
Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Hamid Karzai have remained in Kabul, Afghanistan, since the Taliban seized power.

President Ashraf Ghani, accompanied by his wife and closest aides, sought asylum in the United Arab Emirates, while the rest of his Cabinet, including his two vice presidents, scattered to different parts of the world.

In a video statement three days later, Ghani said his departure might have been the only way to escape the fate of his predecessor, former President Mohammad Najibullah, who was tortured and killed by the Taliban in 1996.

“If I had stayed, the president of Afghanistan would have been executed in front of the eyes of Afghans once again,” Ghani said.

What the Taliban would have done to Ghani is open to speculation, but Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, told VOA that the group had no intention of harming anyone, including Ghani.

That is not entirely true. The United Nations reported Tuesday that since seizing power, the Taliban have killed, tortured, jailed and mistreated hundreds of former Afghan military personnel — a charge the Taliban deny.

But some former leaders did choose to stay in Afghanistan and have been able to remain politically active, if only in a restrained way, thanks to a surprising amnesty announced by the Taliban for its former enemies.

Hamid Karzai, the nation’s first democratically elected president who signed the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2012, declared his commitment to the country in a video posted on Facebook within days of the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

“To the esteemed residents of Kabul, I say that my family, my daughters and I are here with you,” Karzai said in the Dari language as his three small daughters huddled with him.

Similarly, Abdullah Abdullah, a former chief executive and foreign minister of Afghanistan, chose to remain in Kabul despite his history of opposition to the Taliban.

“I personally had a conversation with former President Karzai 10 days prior to the collapse of the government and asked him specifically what his plans were if some morning he woke up to the scenario of Kabul overrun by the Taliban,” Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan minister, told VOA.

“He responded that he’d thought about it, realized the possibilities of very high risks to him and his family, particularly in the initial moments of the overrun, but under no circumstances would either he or his family leave Kabul.”

‘No influence or freedom’

Inside Afghanistan, former leaders like Karzai and Abdullah appear active, meeting with locals, diplomats and aid workers. On their verified social media accounts, they issue carefully crafted statements calling on de facto authorities to reopen secondary schools for girls and allow women to work, while avoiding direct criticism of the Taliban’s globally condemned misogynistic policies.

What has become evident in the two years since the fall of Kabul, however, is that regardless of whether they chose to flee or remain, none of the former leaders has had any significant influence over Taliban policies.

“Those who stayed in Afghanistan under the Taliban have no influence or freedom to stand against the Taliban,” Sediq Seddiqi, a former spokesperson to Ghani, told VOA.

Outside of Afghanistan, Ghani and other former Afghan officials are more critical of the Taliban on social media platforms.

“If the Afghan politicians in exile can bring about an enduring political settlement and work together for a better Afghanistan, it is justified,” Seddiqi said.

It remains uncertain what kind of a political settlement the exiled Afghan leaders could reach with the Taliban, particularly now that they have little, if any, leverage.

“History will judge harshly of those who left,” Nader Nadery, a former Afghan official and a member of the former government’s negotiating team with the Taliban, told VOA.

Now a research fellow at the Wilson Center in the United States, Nadery said many Afghans appreciate Karzai, Abdullah and those former leaders who have remained in Afghanistan.

“When the time is hard, leaders stay with their people,” he said.

Exodus of skilled Afghans hurts country

Concerned that the Taliban would target Afghans who worked for the U.S. and the Afghan governments, the United States airlifted more than 120,000 individuals from Kabul in August 2021. Among them were Afghan lawmakers, ministers, journalists and human rights activists.

Over the past two years, the United States, Canada and some European countries have continued evacuating tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans.

Prevalent poverty and Taliban repressions have also forced many Afghans to migrate to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The exodus of mostly educated and skilled Afghans continues to hurt Afghanistan, Zakhilwal said.

“Afghanistan would have been better off if not only the political leaders but also the tens of thousands of other [mostly educated] Afghans who were evacuated by the West had remained in Afghanistan,” the former official said.

For others, however, life under the Taliban is unbearable.

“Afghanistan now has become the most oppressive country for women,” Pashtana Dorani, an Afghan women’s rights activist, wrote last week on X, formerly known as Twitter.

As the Taliban consolidate their grip on power, rejecting domestic and international calls to respect women’s rights and forming an inclusive government, former leaders — inside the country and in exile — appear to have little sway on how the Taliban govern Afghanistan.

Last week, the Taliban’s Justice Ministry announced that political parties were outlawed, effectively forcing their opponents to either leave the country or submit to non-democratic rule.

Former Afghan Leaders Powerless Inside, Outside Their Homeland