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Lonely at the top

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Spend time with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, and you discover how he uses a light touch--plus a lot of U.S. firepower--to keep the warlords at bay and his country united

How do you run a country just emerging from a brutal civil war and still teeming with armed warlords? Especially if you don't have a military of your own? For Hamid Karzai, the answer sometimes is just to take care of the little things. On a recent afternoon, Afghanistan's interim leader decides to take the pulse of the capital, Kabul, on foot. Before setting out, he removes his trademark green-striped Uzbek robe and puts on a less flashy overcoat. Accompanied by a pair of aides but no bodyguards, he strolls through the palace gates to check out the city. He stops at a shop selling TV dishes, which had been banned by the fundamentalist Islamic former rulers, the Taliban, and exchanges friendly banter with a boy in the park. And then, like pretty much everyone else in Kabul, the leader of Afghanistan is besieged by beggars. An aggressive woman repeatedly demands "Baksheesh!" until Karzai finally throws up his hands, saying, "I don't have any money." A local man steps in to help and whisks Karzai back to the safety of his palace in a mud-splashed Mitsubishi Pajero.

These are trying times for Afghanistan's leader. As the dust settles from America's rout of the Taliban, the nation is barely holding together. Its implacable problems, forgotten in the brief moment of triumph, are now front and center. Warlords are trying to carve up the country. Opium is once again the No. 1 crop. And scheming neighbors are attempting to put their own guys in power in Kabul. The strain on Karzai is evident during the several days that I spend with him. The promise of foreign aid helps keep the peace, as do the American bombing raids aimed at some of his enemies. But Karzai, in spite of his outward optimism, must surely wonder whether the long knives are out for him.

Shakespeare would envy the complexity of the scene as Afghanistan's leaders gather to bury a colleague, Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman, who was murdered at the Kabul airport two weeks ago. Though Karzai presides, it is apparent that while he possesses the ceremonial trappings of his office--a presidential guard and an off-tune military band--the real power lies elsewhere. Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim and Interior Minister Younus Qanooni both arrive for memorial prayers with a retinue of armed warriors. The assorted dignitaries remove their shoes to enter the local mosque. Karzai later notes with black humor that a Cabinet member's shoes were stolen. It's a tough crowd.

As the procession advances to the Pious Martyr's Cemetery, an ancient necropolis sloping into a lake, the assembled ministers appear dutifully mournful. Beside the open grave, Karzai pledges that Rahman's murder won't go unpunished. It's a charged moment: many of the funeral-goers were openly hostile toward Rahman. Some believe that they should be the rulers of Afghanistan and that Karzai stands in their path. When it's time to leave, Karzai strides briskly out among the tombstones. Hustling along behind him, with their bayonets and greatcoats, the guards resemble a 19th century army retreating through the cemetery's twilight gloom.

Karzai, who was selected by prominent Afghans to lead the country until this June, jokingly calls himself "a pauper king." He wants it that way. He tells the palace chef to dish up simple food for his retinue. "Do you know what little the people have to eat out there?" Karzai says to his chef. His office has only a single computer and a fax machine. The United Nations gave Karzai and his Cabinet officials their cell phones, and some of his ministers keep punching the wrong buttons.

It's early morning, three days after Rahman was killed, and Karzai calculates that it's the right time to call U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Presidents of Iran and Pakistan. He has 6,500 angry, stranded Afghan pilgrims on his hands--and no planes to fly them to Mecca. The U.S., Iran and Pakistan all oblige with aircraft. "For two days, I've had to turn this government into a national airline," Karzai says. "We've done nothing but send pilgrims to Mecca."

In the afternoon, Karzai holds a press conference on aid, but all the journalists want to talk about is the minister's assassination and whether it presages a power struggle with the heavyweights of the Northern Alliance, Fahim and Qanooni. Karzai deflects the question, exhibiting the bouncy optimism that many take for naivete. He's like a high-wire artist pretending to be only a few feet above ground. "How do I do this?" says Karzai. "I don't know. I just go ahead."

Inside the bomb-scarred old palace, Karzai occupies a simple, one-room apartment. The building is also home to a number of unwelcome squatters, including several commanders loyal to the Defense Minister. Karzai wants them out. But he can't be too pushy. Despite their dubious allegiance, these men happen to head his security, and the slouching guards at the massive stone gates regard Karzai's visitors with open suspicion and disdain. Karzai wants them replaced, and the Americans are hastily training bodyguards for him. But for now, Western diplomats--and even his staff--are worried that Karzai is vulnerable to assassination. "Why shouldn't I feel safe?" he counters. As he speaks, some of his young staff members eye one another anxiously. One confesses he has nightmares of taking a bullet for the boss.

Fighting the Taliban and running the fragile government have clearly taken a toll on Karzai's health. He looks a decade older than 44, and when he is fatigued, his facial muscles twitch. Born in Kandahar and educated in India, Karzai is the scion of a noble Pashtun clan. He glides easily between the traditional and the modern worlds. He relishes sparring with tribal visitors, who come grumbling about their local rivals or demanding special attention. It's like the court of a traditional Afghan chieftain. Everyone has his say, but Karzai, with humor but firmness, imposes his will.

Kabul has become a favorite stopover for foreign dignitaries and assorted publicity seekers, and Karzai has to receive them all. On a recent weekday, the main attraction is General Richard Myers, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Karzai wants American help in building up a national army. International firepower, he argues, is the best way to answer the warlords. Myers offers U.S. help in training a "nucleus" of 600 Afghan troops. Karzai expresses gratitude but says, "The cost of the U.S. not staying committed is too high." If the Americans leave, he adds, "Afghanistan could slide back into lawlessness and anarchy."

The Muslim holiday of Eid dawns in Kabul, but Karzai won't be spending time with his family. His 28-year-old wife, an Afghan doctor, is still living in the Pakistan town of Quetta. Karzai jokes that she is staying put until he finds a decent place to live. Colleagues say he is concerned about her security and that of friends. "Imagine that once you had to live in a jungle full of wild beasts," he says. "Afterward, it takes a while to stop thinking that those beasts are still out there." Many Afghans are convinced that fearsome creatures are still stalking outside Karzai's palace gates.


Cover Date: March 4, 2002


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