By Jeremy Laurence and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - In central Kabul, a few minutes' walk from the ornate presidential office, workmen are putting the finishing touches to an imposing new residence and office complex: the retirement compound of the outgoing Afghan president.
It is an eloquent metaphor. Hamid Karzai may be officially leaving, but his influence will loom large over the new leader.
Karzai's new home sits at the edge of the sprawling grounds of the Arg palace, behind a tight security perimeter of blast walls, razor wire, sniper towers and soldiers armed with AK47s.
Such protection is understandable, given that his two immediate predecessors met grisly ends, one assassinated by a suicide bomber and the other castrated and hanged.
Karzai has also survived would-be assassins. Even so, few believe the mercurial leader, whose fulminations against U.S. "colonial power" have increased in recent years, will go quietly into retirement.
At 56 years of age, he is still in his political prime and says he won't stop speaking out in Afghanistan's interest. Proximity alone means he will have the ear of the new president.
"If asked for advice, he will be there ready to help. He will be at the service of his people," his spokesman Aimal Faizi said, when asked about Karzai's retirement plans. Faizi said the president had already turned down prestigious international offers in favor of staying at home.
A senior Afghan government official said there had been high-level talks about the formation of a so-called elite council, to be chaired by Karzai, to discuss issues of state.
"President Karzai has dealt with more than 40 Western countries during his rule and he knows the alphabet of each country's politics, especially the U.S.," the official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.
NO LAME DUCK
The two men jostling to replace Karzai - former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani - say they want him on their team.
Karzai is constitutionally obliged to step down, 13 years and two full terms after being sworn in as leader in Kabul.
U.S. officials, who in recent years have been unusually public in voicing their frustration with him, say privately that they are looking forward to not dealing with Karzai anymore.
Moreover, his departure will clear the way for a long-delayed bilateral security agreement (BSA) allowing a small force of U.S. troops to stay beyond a year-end deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave Afghanistan.
Abdullah and Ghani, who will contest a run-off for the presidency early next month, say they will sign the pact allowing up to 10,000 U.S. soldiers to remain in Afghanistan for counter-insurgency and training purposes.
Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, despite getting the approval of parliament and a loyal jirga of tribal leaders, accusing the Americans of double-crossing him in the past.
His decision not to put his name to it also appears to spring from a desire to burnish a nationalistic legacy rather than drift into a lame-duck presidency.
Karzai has assumed the persona of the 'founding father' of the new Afghanistan, but he also concedes the BSA is in the best interests of all Afghans, signaling its smooth passage after his departure.
Karzai's prickly relationship with the Obama administration stands in sharp contrast to his early years in power, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush hailed him as a great friend.
In a warning to his critics in Washington, Karzai has said he would not be putting his feet up. Being a retired president, he said recently, affords "plenty of freedom to move around, and regain my freedom of speech. A lot more of that."
KARZAI: DOING A PUTIN?
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of independent research organization Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, says Karzai has positioned himself well to stay in the political game.
"Karzai successfully has worked with all major contenders for his succession and contributed, through different allies, to their electoral mobilization," Ruttig said. "So he will remain influential. How much will depend on personal relations."
Abdullah and Ghani have both offered Karzai a position as an adviser. Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, says he has refused offers of official titles and office space at the palace.
"He will have privileges, a budget and we will ask for his advice in national affairs ... but that doesn't mean in executive affairs we follow his way," said Azita Rafhat, Ghani's spokeswoman.
Karzai defeated Abdullah in the disputed 2009 presidential election. Despite that, he is expected to work more closely with an Abdullah administration than one run by Ghani.
On Sunday, Abdullah received the backing of Zalmay Rassoul, who finished third in the first round of voting last month and is known to have the support of the powerful Karzai clan.
"President Karzai will have a special place in the next government, and the new president will seek his advice on internal politics, foreign policy, peace talks and so on," said Abdullah's spokesman, Hussain Sangcharaki.
Abdullah polled nearly a million more votes than Ghani in the first round and is favorite to win the second round.
Media reports have widely speculated that Karzai is "doing a Putin" by stepping down as president, and that he will still be pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly stepped down after two terms and waited in the wings as prime minister before returning as president at the following election.
Ruttig dismissed the idea that Karzai was doing the same. "The Afghan constitution says two terms. It would be a very innovative interpretation to read this as 'but after a pause you can have a third one'," he said.
However, Karzai told parliament in March the entire constitution, bar an article protecting the Islamic code, should be revised. He raised eyebrows when he spoke of upgrading the "political administration".
Abdul Rauf Enami, a member of the judicial reform and anti-corruption committee of the lower house, said Karzai favored dropping the U.S-style presidential system in favor of a parliamentary system.
"In such a system the power will be with the prime minister and he would be responsible to the parliament," added Jahfar Mehdawee, an MP from Kabul.
Such a new political system could offer a fresh start for old hands.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Paul Tait)