KABUL - Afghanistan's retired president, Hamid Karzai, meets his successor almost every day and advises him on key policy issues, he said in an interview, a role that could raise concerns in the West over ties with Kabul.
The former leader's relationship with the United States deteriorated sharply towards the end of more than a decade in power, but any hope foreign governments had of Karzai slipping quietly into retirement would appear to be misplaced.
Speaking at his large compound in the capital Kabul, Karzai said he still saw himself as a figure to be reckoned with in Afghan politics, despite stepping down four months ago.
"President Ashraf Ghani and I are meeting very, very often. Or, almost daily," said the 57-year-old scion of an influential Afghan family, who was handpicked by the United States and its allies to rule after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.
"So it's a relationship that I fully enjoy and have respect for... (On) the issues that have significance to the whole of the Afghan people, I'll be there," he told Reuters in a recent interview. "That's where we meet and discuss, and it's a very good cooperation."
Nazifullah Salarzai, Ghani's spokesman, said the two men met frequently.
"President Ghani meets the former Afghan president on a regular basis and seeks his consultations on most national and international issues," he said.
Karzai added that his lifestyle had changed little despite retiring, as he continued to host tribal and religious elders, lawmakers and government officials to discuss current events.
TROUBLE MAKER VS. PEACEMAKER?
Once the darling of the international community, Karzai turned troublemaker with fervently anti-Western speeches in his later years in power and by resisting US pressure to sign a crucial security treaty.
Ghani's leadership stands in stark contrast: the former World Bank official has proven a friend to Washington, is less prone to angry public outbursts and is blunt with staff he feels are falling short in their duties.
Ghani's first major act as president was to sign the US security agreement allowing a limited number of troops to remain in Afghanistan now the combat operation is over.
The bulk of NATO forces left Afghanistan before an end-2014 deadline, and Afghan security forces must cope with a vicious insurgency by Taliban militants that has killed thousands of people this year, and an economy hugely reliant on aid.
Kabul-based political analyst Bashir Bezhan said there was a risk that Ghani's strong ties with the international community could weaken if Karzai wielded too much influence.
"Our ties with the West, especially with the US, were deeply damaged," Bezhan said. "I think President Ashraf Ghani should move forward, not look back."
Karzai would not go into detail about what advice he gave Ghani, but he criticised the United States.
"I hope (the United States) will change and they will now focus entirely on helping and building a stronger, better Afghanistan," he said.
A senior official in Karzai's former administration who remains close to him said US relations were discussed.
"Karzai tells Ashraf Ghani to be very cautious dealing with the US and (that he) must react quickly and strongly when they breach the (security) agreement," said the source, who declined to be named.
KARZAI CALLS FOR UNITY
Asked whether Washington was worried by Karzai's active role in politics, a senior US administration official said:
"The United States is confident that President Ghani and Chief Executive (Abdullah) Abdullah are forging an inclusive, effective government that is responsive to all Afghans."
Bette Dam, author of "A Man and a Motorcycle", a book on how Karzai came to power, said it was not surprising the former leader was still so active politically.
"Karzai will, as much as he can, represent his tribe to maintain power for them, something that might not always be in the interest of Ghani," Dam said.
"But Karzai is more powerful, and that's why Ghani needs to take him more seriously and deal with it, (whether) he wants to or not."
In his interview, Karzai urged Afghans to be patient, as Ghani and his de facto deputy Abdullah, previously locked in a long dispute over this year's election outcome and how to share power, tried to form a government acceptable to both.
"Both the president and the CEO must be given time to make their decisions and appoint the people they consider to be right for their position," Karzai said.