Afghan power brokers
International fundraiser in chief
KABUL - Behind the gates of the presidential palace here, guarded by fierce-eyed and poorly dressed Northern Alliance soldiers and a team of American commandos, is the most unusual man to ever rule Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai owes his position not to money, although he is personally well off. He is not a man of weapons, a scholar of the Koran, or an elder of a particular tribe. He owes his job as chairman of the Afghan interim government to the power of a single idea – the
loya jirga, or supreme council that allows Afghans to decide their own future government.
Most observers expect he will retain his job as chairman when the delegates of the
loya jirga gather in Kabul this week to choose their next government.
to continue story ↓
His popularity springs both from his unwillingness to cater to any one ethnic group. But most important, Mr. Karzai's success thus far springs from his ability to bring desperately needed dollars in international aid relief, in military and diplomatic support, and in secure promises from the US that this time, Afghanistan will not be left to rebuild itself on its own.
Cool and worldly, Karzai is a former employee of US oil company Unocal – one of two main oil companies that was bidding for the lucrative contract to build an oil pipeline from Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to seaports in Pakistan – and the son of a former Afghan parliament speaker. He has been the confident and earnest face of the Afghan people to the outside world, and the very antithesis of the wild-eyed warlord preaching jihad.
"I think the
loya jirga is the best instrument for the further strengthening of the national notion of the Afghan state," says Karzai, dressed in his trademark gray
shalwar kameez and black sport coat. "A lot of people are interested in the
loya jirga. They want to do away with the gunmen and warlords and return to civilization."
A former deputy foreign minister during the first Afghan government after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime, Karzai finds his greatest source of support comes from the US and its coalition against terrorism. The well-educated Karzai also has established clout as a fundraiser in chief, a man who can travel to Germany, Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the US, and return with millions of dollars in promised aid.
"He is very stubborn about the Afghan nation; he would not budge an inch about Afghanistan," says Karzai's brother, Qayum Karzai, a Baltimore restaurateur and head of Afghans for a Civil Society. "We are quite fortunate to have him. If anyone has the ability to frame Afghanistan within the national scope, it is Hamid."
The crucial moment that shaped Karzai's politics, some friends say, was the point that jubilant Afghan militias failed to create an Afghan nation after the fall of Najibullah in 1992. "All of what happened in the early 1990s really affected everybody, especially Karzai," says Muhammad Omar Babrakzai, deputy minister for frontier and tribal affairs in the current Karzai administration. "As we see him now, he's determined to work for a broad-based government with no racial, ethnic, or tribal dimension. He wants people to be Afghans."
But some Afghans, particularly members of Karzai's own Pashtun ethnic group, say that Karzai's influence extends just to the outskirts of Kabul. Indeed, some say it barely reaches the mainly ethnic Tajik guards at his own gate. "Mr. Hamid Karzai is an educated, bright-minded man and a learned person, he's a mujahed and a holy warrior," says Amanullah Khan, minister for frontier and tribal affairs, who considers himself a friend of Karzai. "But the problem is the people he keeps around him, about 12 advisers who are not as qualified as him."
Karzai's advisers, Mr. Khan says, are members of the Northern Alliance led by former President Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik. It was these men, he says, who advised Karzai to replace Khan's own brother, the warlord Badsha Khan, with another governor in the provincial capital of Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan.
"Hamid Karzai is the legitimate leader of Afghanistan for six months, and whatever he has to do to initiate agreement, he has to do," says Khan. "Otherwise, if he is misled, he will face the music which other leaders have faced over the last 23 years."
Whether all this talk is the usual grumbling found in any democracy or the opening salvo in yet another divisive struggle may be seen in the coming weeks and months. But Karzai says the country has already taken decisive steps away from its dreadful past. "The country is peaceful again, the refugees are returning in large numbers, and that is a very good sign," he says. "It's a beginning.... I think the foundation steps toward the participation of Afghans in their government is being laid."
What role each of these men will play in the new Afghanistan, after the
loya jirga is held June 10 to 16, has yet to be seen. Dostum, Karzai, and Gailani have all committed to supporting the results of the loya jirga. Badsha Khan says he will boycott the loya jirga, and Ismail Khan, who hasn't been accepted by Kabul as Herat's governor, also remains an enigma.
Whatever the results of the
loya jirga, it will be in the hands of men like these. They can make a new drive toward democracy, electing 111 representatives out of the 1,500 to constitute a legislative body. Or, they could reinstitute a constitutional monarchy. The possibilities are as wide open as the big Afghan sky that was once the only roof a
4 | 5