Hamid Karzai Moves From Lightweight to Heavyweight in Afghan Politics
Hamid Karzai has traveled a long distance politically over a relatively short period of time to emerge as the leader of Afghanistan's provisional council. In the 1980s, Afghan warlords and Western diplomats considered Karzai a lightweight - an intellectual who was a voracious reader and a snazzy dresser. Now, he is being counted upon to lead the effort that breaks Afghanistan's two-decade-long cycle of violence.
While he attempts to unite the 30-man cabinet and begin the difficult task of setting up an effective administration, Karzai will be challenged to accommodate several powerful warlords, including the Persian speaking leader Ismail Khan in Herat, the Hazara warlord Karim Khalili and the Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum in the north.
Karzai will be helped by the three modernizers in the Northern Alliance leadership - Dr Abdullah Abdullah, General Mohammed Fahim and Younis Qanooni. All three respect Karzai and, in fact, behind the scenes quietly told the UN before the Bonn talks began that they would be happy to work with Karzai if he were nominated as the future head of the interim government.
"Karzai is a man who shares our vision of building a modern stable Afghanistan and creating a multi-ethnic government," Dr Abdullah told me in an all-night conversation at his home in Kabul, just before the Bonn negotiations began. "We trust Karzai, he is a patriot who will put Afghanistan first rather than his clan, his tribe or his ethnic group," Abdullah added.
Abdullah's views, which were echoed by Qanooni, were stunning because it was evident that the three were ready to dump their own leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was the recognized President of Afghanistan. The troika's support for Karzai is indicative of tension within the Northern Alliance, with Rabbani fighting to beat back challenges to his authority mounted by younger members of the leadership. Although Abdullah, Gen. Fahim and Qanooni can secure the support of their own Tajiks, it remains to be seen whether they can sway other ethnic groups to win support for Karzai's administration.
Until just a few years ago, Karzai, who speaks six languages - Pushtu, Dari, Urdu, English, French and Hindi - had not seen military action. During the resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1979-89, he served as a mujaheddin adviser and diplomat. In that capacity, Karzai was a frequent visitor of embassies in Islamabad. He also ran a small hotel in Peshawar.
He maintained a relatively low profile following the departure of Soviet forces. Like many Afghans, however, he lamented the inability of the mujaheddin warlords to set aside their differences and rebuild Afghanistan in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet-supported regime of Najibullah.
"Like so many mujaheddin I believed in the Taliban when they first appeared on the scene in 1994 and they promised to end the warlordism, establish law and order and then call a Loya Jirga to decide upon who should rule Afghanistan, " Karzai told me in an interview in late September.
"I gave the Taliban $50,000 US to help run their movement and then handed over to them a large cache of weapons I had hidden away. I met Mullah Omar several times and he offered to appoint me as their envoy to the UN," Karzai said wistfully.
"The tragedy was that very soon the Taliban were taken over by Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI) and they became a proxy for a foreign power. Then they allowed Arabs and other foreigners to set up terrorist training camps on Afghan soil and I began to organize against them," he said.
"By 1997 it was clear to most Afghans that the Taliban were unacceptable because Osama bin Laden was playing a leadership role in the movement. I warned the Americans many times, but who was listening - nobody," he added.
From his home in Quetta, Karzai began to organize anti-Taliban opposition in 1998. He found support among some Pashtun tribal chiefs, who were angry with the Taliban for their close ties with Arab radicals. The Taliban reacted to Hamid Karzai's move swiftly. They murdered Karzai's father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, in 1999 - an act that appalled Karzai's Popalzai tribe. The elder Karzai had been chief of the Popalzai tribe, a former government minister and immensely respected for his wisdom amongst the southern Pashtun tribes.
Hamid Karzai was appointed the new Popalzai chief, even though Hamid has several older brothers living in the United States. The death of his father prompted Karzai to assemble a 300-vehicle convoy of tribal chiefs and mourners. Defying both Pakistan and the Taliban, Karzai took his father's body from Quetta to be buried in his home city of Kandahar. The Taliban did not intervene, fearing that an all-out war would break out amongst the Pashtuns of Kandahar. That single act of defiance helped Karzai shed the image of a lightweight and paved the way for his emergence as the provisional coalition's leader.
Within days of the September 11 attacks, Karzai began to assemble arms, money and communications gear. His intention was to prepare a tribal 'lashkar,' or militia, to enter Afghanistan and foment an anti-Taliban movement from within Afghanistan. He also approached the US, British and other European embassies for logistical support.
Wendy Chamberlain, the US ambassador to Pakistan ignored him because after September 11, Washington had left its political strategy in the so-called Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan to the Pakistani ISI, which maintained that it could split the Taliban movement and create so called "moderate Taliban." Moreover, the ISI was not keen to see Karzai play any dominant role in the anti-Taliban offensive.
The British embassy was more amenable and encouraged Karzai, knowing that until there was an indigenous uprising in the Pashtun belt against the Taliban, al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden would remain protected by the Taliban in the south.
On October 8, when Karzai entered Afghanistan the day after the US bombing started, he had a satellite phone but too few wireless sets to communicate with his men, little money, no sleeping bags or other supplies and insignificant Western support. His men were well armed, only because they had ferreted away weapons during the Taliban years, but they were short of ammunition and heavy weapons.
According to a US diplomat, the issue of whether or not to support Karzai provoked a heated debate between the US departments of state and defense. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly was reluctant to support Karzai out of concern that such a move would anger Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
"There was real anger at Powell from the military because he was accepting at face value whatever the Pakistanis were telling him, when in reality they were doing nothing constructive in the Pashtun belt," the US diplomat said.
Washington only decided to support Karzai in the first week of November - four weeks after the bombing campaign started - and only after the Pentagon had taken the decision to support a Northern Alliance attack on Mazar-i-Sharif.
Karzai will now adopt the same the strategy he used to woo the Pashtun tribes against the Taliban in order to run the new government when it is installed in Kabul on December 22. He is an unflagging negotiator and conciliator willing to spend days to win his point amongst the tribes. These skills will now be much in demand because he has several major problems.
The new Afghan government will initially be like an island in a sea of uncompromising warlords. Karzai will first have to gather around him like-minded Pashtun leaders from the east and the south, who have relatively clean track records and are not noted for their past butchery, drug smuggling or human rights violations.
The international community will have to pitch in, by providing funds for development and reconstruction of Afghanistan which will be a major incentive that Karzai can use to woo angry commanders and make ethnic warlords more amenable to supporting the idea of a broad based government.
There is little doubt that he will face immense difficulties and the roller coaster ride that is built into Afghanistan's politics today. However the once lightweight Karzai is now a heavy weight. It is typical of his personality that Karzai bears no rancor towards Pakistan. "Tell the Pakistani government that I want good relations with them, tell them we have to turn a new page, " he told me recently.
Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."