KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. officials have ignored him, and Afghanistan's presidential contenders have tried to persuade voters that they will be different from him. But those hoping to see President Hamid Karzai slip into a quiet retirement may be disappointed in months to come.
On Saturday, Afghans will vote in a presidential election that Mr. Karzai has shaped at every stage. He narrowed the candidate field, dissuading potential candidates from entering the race and forcing his brother Qayyum to leave it. He handpicked the officials who will preside over any election disputes.
Then he blessed two of the three leading contenders with tens of thousands of dollars from his office's slush funds, hedging his bets that at least one candidate open to his influence will make it to a runoff, said senior Afghan officials. It may be well into June before that second vote occurs, and Mr. Karzai will remain president in the meantime.
Few who know Mr. Karzai personally, including some critics, see a naked power grab in the president's maneuvering. They say Mr. Karzai is driven by a deep-seated belief that he is Afghanistan's indispensable man, uniquely suited to guide the nation through tumultuous years of transition ahead. That starts with the election, but Mr. Karzai's ultimate aim, the officials say, is to retain influence with the new Afghan administration.
On one hand, Mr. Karzai, 56, "wants to leave a legacy and be judged as a true statesman who transferred power peacefully for the first time in Afghanistan," said Daud Muradian, a former presidential foreign policy adviser who now teaches at the American University of Afghanistan. "At the same time, he is being pulled by his Machiavellian side, and he wants to remain relevant in Afghan politics and be the power behind the next president."
That may be bad news for Obama administration officials, who basically gave up on working with Mr. Karzai after he refused to sign a security deal to let U.S. troops stay past 2014. The leading candidates have all promised to sign the deal if elected. But until then, the U.S. relationship with Mr. Karzai is not over -- and he has shown little inclination to hide his disdain. Last month, he suddenly took a stance on the Russian annexation of Crimea directly contradicting the U.S. one: He openly praised the takeover in a fit of pique after seeing reports that the United States might give Pakistan some military equipment being shipped out of Afghanistan, senior Afghan officials said.
But as much as they would prefer to see his influence end, U.S. officials are still counting on him in one respect: Some hope that he can help mediate what is expected to be a messy aftermath of an election season in which candidates have already accused one another of planning to commit fraud and have pledged not to accept the results if they lose. In a televised speech Thursday night, Mr. Karzai urged Afghans to work together no matter what the result of the election is.
The president's advisers insist Mr. Karzai is abiding by that philosophy himself, and has let competing factions within his government support whomever they prefer. The new first vice president he just appointed, for example, supports the candidate whom Mr. Karzai's aides say he is most opposed to seeing elected: Abdullah Abdullah, his opponent in the 2009 vote. The aides and several other officials interviewed about Mr. Karzai spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president.
A wide array of Western officials concede that Mr. Karzai has let a real electoral race unfold once he helped set the field.
After Education Minister Farooq Wardak, an early favorite to become an eventual front-runner, hurt his leg during a trip to the provinces last spring, Mr. Karzai told him in front of the entire Cabinet, "That's what you get when you run too fast to be president," according to a senior Afghan official who heard the remark. Mr. Wardak chose to stay out of the race.
Even those who had Mr. Karzai's implicit blessing found they had to tread carefully. When Zalmai Rassoul, the foreign minister, began trying to sell himself to potential backers by distancing himself from Mr. Karzai, the president lured away some of his possible running mates.
But Mr. Karzai still has his eyes on the work ahead, Afghan officials said, and his ideal role would be to work with the next administration by doing what he does best: presiding over meetings with elders, villagers and power brokers of all stripes, helping keep the country together. He could also focus on trying to persuade the Taliban to talk peace.