Six weeks before the Afghan election, at a meeting at the presidential palace, women's rights activist Sima Samar gently teased President Hamid Karzai about being a short-timer.
Karzai suddenly grew emotional, Samar recalled. "To be honest, my sister, I am really counting down the days," he told her. "I am too tired. Every day that passes, my shoulders get lighter."
If Karzai is relieved that his turbulent 13-year tenure is all but over, he isn't the only one. Constitutionally barred from seeking another term, the elegant man who once charmed the world and embodied the hope of his nation is leaving behind a government ravaged by corruption, an economy dependent on international donors, a badly frayed alliance with the United States and a population still vulnerable to a stubborn Taliban insurgency.
It is a measure of Karzai's lack of popularity that the only candidate to openly criticize him among the eight seeking his office, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, went on to win the first round on April 5. Yet in recent weeks, Karzai — who didn't publicly back any candidate in the initial polling — is said to have quietly met with both Abdullah and his likely opponent in a runoff vote, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, in a bid to ensure that he retains influence after his term ends.
Longtime observers say the moves are vintage Karzai: balancing opposing forces and rarely showing his cards. After he steps down, he is expected to move into an opulent official residence built just yards from the palace complex, keeping the 56-year-old close to the center of Afghan public life for many more years.
"For all the flaws, and there are many, he's a consummate politician," said Ronald E. Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul from 2005 to '07. "When was the last time you saw an American president this late into his final term who was not only not a lame duck, but was the central figure in the politics of the country?"
Karzai's term is due to end May 22, although he is likely to stay on until a new president takes office. Abdullah has pledged closer ties with the United States, and both he and Ghani have promised to do what Karzai has refused to do: sign a security pact that would keep several thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Even those who admire Karzai's political skills say he isolated himself on the issue of American forces, rejecting the advice of a loya jirga — a grand council of elders that he selected — in an effort to retain leverage over the United States until his final days in office. Some say he was seeking a measure of revenge against the Obama administration, which he accuses of trying to oust him in the last presidential election, in 2009.
"Maybe he was justified personally" in opposing the troop agreement, said Davood Moradian, the founding director of a Kabul-based think tank, the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. "But as a president he had to show leadership by containing his personal grievances against the United States from Afghan national interests. And he failed on that account."
Friends say Karzai believes that in a country of swirling ethnic, regional and personal rivalries, only he has Afghanistan's best interests at heart. As a result, he failed to encourage the growth of political parties or state institutions, preferring to strike personal deals with warlords and other powerful individuals to keep a lid on the rivalries and prevent his government from collapsing.
Many experts say Karzai saw himself as less a president than a tribal chief, like his late father, who was leader of the influential Popalzai clan of the Pashtuns. Invested with extraordinary powers under a constitution that officials in the George W. Bush administration helped write, Karzai handed out key government posts and the money that often came with them, underwritten in part by bags of cash supplied by the CIA.
"He preferred working with corrupt people, because they could be bought," said Khalid Pashtoon, a lawmaker from Karzai's southern province of Kandahar. "Any honest person, he thought he would become a threat to his leadership."
Karzai built a patronage network so vast that nearly all of the more than two dozen major candidates for president or vice president this year at one time held a post in his government. Critics say the practice enriched elites and cronies, including members of his large extended family, while his government grew estranged from ordinary Afghans.
"The distribution of wealth did not help people who were at the very lowest level of society," said Hamidullah Farooqi, a former transportation minister under Karzai. "The gap between poor and rich has become very wide."
Nowhere is that gap more evident than in Kabul's Sherpur neighborhood, a former military cantonment where many senior officials and contractors who profited from the boom have built four-story mansions with mirrored glass and indoor pools. In between them are one-room shops with bare lightbulbs like the one run by Ali Mohammad, a tailor who has worked in Sherpur since before the Taliban era and has never saved enough money to replace his 30-year-old bicycle.
"Some people are living in tents. Others have five and six of these houses," Mohammad said.
He gestured toward his nephew, a high school graduate sitting sullenly next to him. "The government should be providing jobs for boys like him. But this is what happens when you have corruption in the government and all this money flowing in from outside the country with no transparency."
At times, Karzai has seemed clearly moved by human suffering. He shed tears publicly when Afghan civilians were mistakenly killed in coalition airstrikes, and he forced Western military commanders to adopt stricter restrictions on the use of air power in populated areas. But to skeptics, his emotions were a populist tactic, aimed at strengthening his hand in an increasingly tendentious relationship with the United States.
Former Afghan officials say that whatever tension existed between the Bush and Karzai administrations, the two leaders shared a personal warmth. There has been no such rapport between Karzai and President Obama.
Soon after Obama took office in 2009, his special envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry began meeting openly with candidates challenging Karzai for reelection. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in his recent memoir, said Karzai viewed the sessions as an effort to oust him. The Obama administration has denied such a motive, but Afghan officials said the damage to the relationship was real.