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Hamid Karzai no stranger to leadership

'A peaceful person'

'A peaceful person'

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(CNN) -- Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, has been involved in the politics of his homeland since the country was pushed into war when the Soviet Union invaded it in 1979.

Karzai fled the country like millions of other Afghans but unlike the majority of his eight siblings, he stayed in the region and took an active voice in how his homeland was governed.

His work paid off. He was first named interim leader of the country for six months after the fall of the Taliban. In June 2002, he was elected to a two-year term by the loya jirga, or "grand council, a traditional gathering of Afghanistan's tribal leaders to resolve issues of national importance.

As the head of state, he will have much influence over the development of the war-ravaged country. But he also has to satisfy a broad range of ethnic interests to ensure the peace so essential to the process of reconstruction actually holds.

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour speaks candidly with the interim leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai (December 21)
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But it is a fragile peace in Afghanistan and a dangerous life for its president.

In September, Karzai survived an assassination attempt when a gunman who had recently been recruited for security detail at the governor's palace tried to shoot him as he travelled in a vehicle in Kabul.

Karzai remained undeterred: "I've been through this before," Karzai said. "I've been hit three times at summits. Did that stop us from fighting? My father was assassinated by terrorists. Did that stop him from fighting against them?"

"I will not stop," the president said. "I'll continue."

Karzai, 44, is no stranger to leadership. Even while in exile, he remained chief of the large Popolzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. The tribe is part of the Pashtun ethnic group, the largest of the Afghan ethnic groups and one that traditionally has produced the country's leaders.

His family also has previous experience with public service. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was a former senator in the Afghan parliament before the overthrow of King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973.

Taliban support

He also served as deputy foreign minister in the Afghan government from 1992 to 1994 after the mujahedeen defeated the Soviets. But he grew weary of the fierce infighting between rival Afghan factions and initially supported the Taliban, who tried to name him as their ambassador to the United Nations.

But he grew suspicious of the movement as he saw it being infiltrated and controlled by non-Afghans. He and his father broke with the Taliban and began to criticize the religious movement while in exile in Quetta, Pakistan.

Karzai's opposition was hardened further when his father was murdered in 1999, shot while walking home from a mosque in Quetta. The family believe the Taliban were behind the shooting.

Upon his father's death, Karzai accepted his father's place as chief Popolzai leader and continued his anti-Taliban activities, which were not getting much attention until September 11, when Afghanistan became the focus of world attention.

In October, he slipped into Afghanistan to lobby his fellow Pashtuns to oppose the Taliban and assemble Loya Jirga, a traditional council of elders, to choose a new Afghan government.

"I was surprised, truly, to find out that the people were absolutely in support of an honorable life for Afghans and the return of peace, in support of Loya Jirga," he told CNN.

He barely avoided the Taliban's wrath at least one time and with the help of U.S. air power, Pashtun fighters overpowered the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Karzai helped negotiate the Taliban's surrender of Kandahar, the city from which the religious movement was created.

Peace and belief

Karzai was born in Kandahar. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he left and attended college in India. One of his professors remembered being impressed by the 24-year-old Karzai.

"If I go back to 1981 and remember his thought and vision, I am confident he will bring peace to Afghanistan," said Rajendra Chauhan.

Karzai, left, met with the exiled Afghan king in Rome earlier this week.
Karzai, left, met with the exiled Afghan king in Rome earlier this week.

Five of Karzai's brothers and a sister now reside in the United States and run a successful chain of Afghan restaurants in Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; and San Francisco, California. The restaurants are named Helmand, after the Afghan province west of Kandahar.

His siblings are supportive of his activities and talk to him daily via Karzai's satellite telephone.

"He's a very peaceful person," said Qayum Karzai, a brother who lives in Maryland. "He has enormous capabilities of dialogue and enormous diplomatic skill to negotiate, and is a person who really believes that Afghan national unity is the fundamental resource that we have to establish peace in Afghanistan."

Unlike most Afghan men, Karzai delayed marriage until he was in his early 40s, due to his political activities. His wife Zinat is a doctor. Karzai speaks English fluently along with six other languages.

Karzai did not attend the meetings in Bonn, Germany, that led to his appointment as interim leader but he was represented there and spoke to the gathering via satellite phone.

As the leader of a powerful Pashtun tribe and a relative of the former king, Karzai was seen as perhaps the best hope for leading the country as it begins to rebuild after 23 years of war.

When meeting with the former monarch, Karzai said he felt the "weight of responsibility" with his new role. In a CNN interview earlier this month in Kandahar, Karzai said his priorities are basic issues like roads for the country, to enable some kind of commerce and economy to flourish again, education, and a health system.

And while saying he was confident that international assistance would continue, he warned the world not to ignore Afghanistan again.

"I must be very blunt. If the world does not pay attention to Afghanistan, if it leaves it weak, and basically a country in which one can interfere, all these bad people are coming in," he said. "So a strong Afghanistan, a peaceful Afghanistan, is the best guarantee for all."

CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour and State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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