A born leader who offers Afghans the best chance for a stable future
The hard work is just beginning for Hamid Karzai as his war-ravaged country lurches towards elections. Peter Kammerer reports
Somewhere between a rock and a hard place sits Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. Heavily protected from assassins' bullets and bombs and anxiously watching violence increase as the final stage of the country's democratic process nears, this is not a leader in full control of his country.
Few would wish themselves to be in such a position - on the inside looking forlornly out. Public relations gurus searching for a location to show that the US-led 'war on terrorism' is making gains had best look elsewhere.
There are bright spots: the elections on September 18 will be the first opportunity Afghans have had in 36 years to choose their parliamentary and provincial leaders, the illegal production of opium is down and roads and other infrastructure are being built, albeit slowly.
But then there are the killings and kidnappings, apparently orchestrated by the resurgent Taleban; growing political opposition by warlords with self-interest rather than the national good at heart; and perhaps the crux of the problem, a lack of international commitment to the nation's rebirth.
These are circumstances Mr Karzai has pointed out as loudly as possible: his foreign visits reverberate with the plea, 'Please don't forget about us'.
But being heard above the battles of Iraq, terrorist attacks from Bali to London, concern in the US and Europe about China's growth, oil price rises, the tsunami and now Hurricane Katrina is not easy; some would say, impossible.
Yet of all the Afghan politicians able to scale a seemingly insurmountable wall, few other than political opponents would agree that Mr Karzai is the one with most chance of succeeding.
He is a born leader, charismatic, pragmatic and nationalistic. Married with no children, at 47, he is politically young with much still to give his people. His English is good and his clothing, a blend of traditional Afghan and western, has made him a favourite with foreign governments.
The creative director of the Italian fashion house Gucci, Tom Ford, hailed him as the world's 'most chic man' when he debuted on the global political catwalk with a visit to the US in 2002. Layering Nehru-collar shirts, a waistcoat and jacket, and topping off the effect with a lambskin hat and silk shawl, he started a trend of sorts that earned him an international reputation for being as fashionably stylish as politically savvy.
Splashed across television screens the world over, there could have been no better advertisement than Mr Karzai for a country emerging from six years of oppressive rule by the fundamentalist Muslim Taleban, six more under the thumb of selfish warlords, a decade of often brutish occupation by the Soviet Union and several years of communist authoritarianism.
In reality, though, this was less a man who could well have just stepped off a Giorgio Armani runway as one doing his utmost to unite his fractious nation. While he was mixing ethnic and western clothing, he was also joining traditional attire from Afghanistan's north and south.
That is the way of the leader - always trying to reach out to opponents in an effort to win consensus.
His credentials to lead Afghans would seem impeccable - strong links to Afghanistan's royal past, its 1960s 'golden era', the resistance to communism and Soviet rule and the struggle against the Taleban.
Equally significantly, no Afghan leader has the ear of the US as greatly. With anti-US sentiment high in Muslim nations, the latter may seem to be a hindrance rather than an advantage. Afghans, though, know the reality: that for now, no other country offers as much hope.
Half of the US$4.5 billion pledged towards Afghanistan's future is coming from the US. While it is trickling through, it has become a lifeline to progress, however slow that may seem to be taking place. Then there is the matter of security. Of the 30,000 foreign troops chasing insurgents in an effort to make the country, and more immediately, the polls, safe, 20,000 are American.
But he has been heavily critical of abuse by American soldiers of Afghan prisoners and called for Afghanistan's military to be put in charge of foreign troops on its soil - a suggestion that has been rejected outright by the US.
Claims Mr Karzai is an American stooge may not be entirely laid to rest by such efforts - certainly it is because of US influence that he got to where he is - but there is also no doubt that he puts his country before all else. He has risked his life for his nation and people too many times to suggest otherwise.
Born into a powerful ethnic Pashtun tribe near the southern city of Kandahar, once the political stronghold of the Taleban, Mr Karzai hails from the same clan as former king and 'father of the nation', Mohammad Zahir Shah. His taste for politics came from his father, who was a member of parliament in the 1960s and early 1970s, at one time rising to be the speaker.
Educated in Kabul, he left Afghanistan with his family when Soviet troops invaded in 1979 and went to Simla in India, where he did a post-graduate degree in political science. Finishing his studies in 1982, he joined his family in Pakistan and took a leading role in the struggle against the Soviet occupation. He became director of operations of the Afghan National Liberation Front.
His work led to crystalisation of strong nationalist views. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, he returned to his homeland determined that foreign powers would never again gain a foothold. In 1992, he joined the mujahedeen government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, and was appointed a deputy foreign minister, but divisions and the rise of provincial warlords brought the return of unrest. The emergence of the Taleban caught his interest and he briefly supported them, seeing in the extremist group stability and an end to the violence. But by 1996, after the Taleban had taken power by overthrowing Mr Rabbani, he had begun to have his doubts.
After he rejected an offer to become the regime's UN ambassador, he and his family were again forced to flee, this time settling in the Pakistani city of Quetta. There, in July 1999, his father was assassinated, apparently by gunmen with Taleban links.
So began another attempt to free Afghanistan from oppression. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, the Taleban and the al-Qaeda terrorist network they were protecting became Washington's foremost target and Mr Karzai joined the effort.
The following month, he returned to Afghanistan and gathered support, building a fighting force near Kandahar.
He survived an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being killed by an American bombing raid north of the city.
With the fall of the Taleban in November, the UN stepped in and gathered Afghan groups near the German city of Bonn to form an interim administration under Mr Karzai's leadership.
That was confirmed by a tribal council six months later and in November last year, he became Afghanistan's first democratically elected president.
Confirmation of his leadership has not meant a wider control of the country. Warlords have re-emerged and the Taleban are again a threat in the south. More than 1,100 people have been killed in fighting so far this year, almost 200 more than for all of last year.
Since an assassination attempt near Gardez last September, Mr Karzai now rarely leaves the capital. He is heavily reliant on ministers to go to provincial towns and cities to get his message across.
The past 33/4 years of leadership have been a test run for the real cut-and-thrust of Afghan political life. If he thinks that the hardest work is behind him, Mr Karzai is mistaken - it has just begun.
If his track record is any indication, though, he may just be the best person to rise to the challenge.
'There could have been no better advert than Mr Karzai for a country emerging from six years of oppressive rule by the fundamentalist Muslim Taleban, six more under the thumb of selfish warlords, a decade of occupation by the Soviet Union and several years of communist authoritarianism'