The Great New Afghan Hope

  • Share
  • Read Later
At work last Thursday in the office of his headquarters, a huddle of mud huts in the southern Afghan desert, in Shahwalikot, Hamid Karzai had no reason to be concerned by the rumble of a B-52 bomber overhead. The Americans were his strong supporters. Just outside his window there were U.S. commandos working with anti-Taliban Pashtun fighters. Besides, he had plenty of other things on his mind. The night before, the soft-spoken Pashtun tribal leader had received word that he had been chosen as Afghanistan's interim Prime Minister by the U.N.-sponsored gathering of Afghan factions in Bonn, Germany. And that afternoon several high-ranking Taliban commanders were driving out to Shahwalikot to lay down conditions for their surrender of Kandahar, the last city in the Taliban's grip.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Even when the B-52 started circling overhead in a slow, white-tailed arc, Karzai was unperturbed. All morning U.S. bombers and fighter planes had been hammering Taliban positions several miles away at the Kandahar airport. Then suddenly Karzai's world blew apart. The mud walls of his office shook as if they were turning to dust, and the windows blasted in, cutting his face with flying glass. Just a few hundred yards away, a stray 2,000-lb. bomb from the American plane had slammed down. The same bomb killed three American servicemen, as well as seven Afghans, including two of Karzai's top lieutenants, and very nearly killed the man on whom the world has pinned its hopes for the immediate future of Afghanistan. "We were still picking up the wounded 1 1/2 hours later when the Taliban came," Karzai told TIME. "In those circumstances, you just try your best to function normally."

Karzai, 43, is good at keeping a cool head in extreme circumstances. He describes himself as "a politician, not a fighter." Educated partly in India, he speaks English fluently, as well as six other languages. Over his Afghan tunic he often wears a double-breasted blazer. But his quiet, reassuring manner masks the determination of a man single-mindedly intent on ousting the Taliban. After two sessions with the Taliban commanders last week, he secured the surrender of Kandahar, a city Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar once promised his fighters would defend to the death.

While the Taliban fled before the handover could take place, Karzai's diplomatic efforts suggest that the faith placed in him by the Bonn conference is well founded. Afghans who think that Afghanistan can be led only by battle-hardened fighters are skeptical of Karzai. But a country devastated by the misrule of warlords could do worse than be guided for a while by someone with the manner and judgment of a civilian. As an elder of the half-million-member Popolzai tribe in southern Afghanistan, he has leadership experience. Karzai's father was also chief tribal leader until July 1999, when the 75-year-old was shot to death on the street in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where father and son had both fled from the Taliban. The killing is presumed to have been carried out by Taliban agents. All but one of Karzai's siblings--he has six brothers and one sister--have built successful careers in business or academia in the U.S. Two Maryland-based brothers own Afghan restaurants in three states--named Helmand, after the province just west of Kandahar. Though he has visited the U.S. several times, on occasion meeting with high-ranking cia, State Department and other government officials, Karzai has remained mostly in Afghanistan or in exile in Pakistan, embroiled in the tortured politics of his homeland.

"He has been the strongest foe of the Taliban," says Mahmood Karzai, 47, a brother living in Boston. "I always told him to leave Pakistan because I thought he was in danger, but he stayed because he is hardheaded." Unlike most Afghan men, who marry in their early 20s, Karzai remained a bachelor until just a couple of years ago. "Having a wife was not a priority to him," says Pat Karzai, who is married to Hamid's older brother Qayum in Baltimore. "He was only dedicated to Afghanistan." Family members say it was the final illness of his mother, who had expressed the wish to see him settled before she died, that led Karzai to marry at last, in January 1999. His wife Zinat is an obstetrician-gynecologist active in assisting refugees in Pakistan.

After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Karzai fled to Pakistan, where he built supply lines between anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas and American backers. When the mujahedin took power in 1992, he returned to serve for two years as Deputy Foreign Minister in the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Disillusionment with the infighting of that regime led him to switch over, briefly, to the Taliban, which once tried to make him its U.N. ambassador, a post he declined. But Karzai, an Islamic moderate, soon turned against the Taliban's stringencies, especially its brutal restrictions on women, and returned to Pakistan. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth, a friend of Karzai's, says that after the murder of his father, Karzai approached Washington with plans for leading resistance to the Taliban. "It did seem like a mission impossible," says Inderfurth, "because he'd be putting himself at great risk."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2