Young leaders take Afghan helm

Four Afghan delegations choose Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, to head the interim government.

The youthful leaders of Afghanistan's new interim government offer a stark contrast to the long-bearded mullahs of the Taliban.

The new head of state, Hamid Karzai, a Western-oriented tribal leader fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, is seen as the best hope for closing the rifts in his war-torn country while opening it to the West.

Yesterday the Pentagon reported that Mr. Karzai was slightly injured when an American B-52 bomber missed its target.

His sister, Fozia Karzai, said from Boston that after a phone call to another sibling in Pakistan, she had determined that that her brother is "fine."

After eight days of UN-sponsored negotiations in Bonn among Afghanistan's various ethnic groups, Karzai is set to take office in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Dec. 22. Yesterday, four Afghan delegations signed a UN-brokered agreement that set a road map for the devastated country's political future and named a provisional cabinet of 30 ministers.

The Bonn agreement is a historic attempt to bring a stable, broad-based government to Afghanistan after two decades of war.

It also signifies an important generational change, with the removal from the political scene of Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who tried to delay the talks from Kabul. The accord gives only a figurehead role to the octogenarian former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who is to call a loya jirga - the traditional Afghan council - next summer to continue the political process.

The Northern Alliance is expected to hold three key ministries in the provisional government, with Abdullah Abdullah as foreign minister, Mohammed Quassim Fahim as defense minister, and Yunus Qanooni as interior minister.

The cabinet will include two women.

Karzai will face the challenge of presiding over a cabinet that the UN cobbled together based on a complicated formula of ethnicity, ability, and acceptability to others.

"Under the circumstances, you have to take a risk and give him a chance," says Citha Maass, Afghanistan expert with SWP, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Karzai's strengths are his youth, western orientation, fluency in English, and affiliation with the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. she says.

Pitfalls, says Dr. Maass, could be his ties to the US, as well as a potential conflict with other young ministers representing the Northern Alliance.

"Where I see a danger is that power will go to his head," says Maass, who knows Karzai personally. She questions whether he has the personality and maturity to play a conciliatory role.

While the Northern Alliance is composed primarily of Afghanistan's ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, Karzai comes from a prominent Pashtun tribe, the Popolzai, whose homeland is north of the embattled city of Kandahar. The Popolzai are a branch of the Durrani clan, which for the past 200 years has produced the country's kings.

"The family was conservative in the sense that it was rich. They were loyal to the king and wanted to keep the status quo," remembers an expatriate Afghan who studied at Kabul University with one of Karzai's six brothers in the 1960s.

"The father was a large landowner - of course they wanted to maintain this lifestyle." Yet the émigré, who asked not to be named, says the family was not conservative in any religious sense. Abdul-Ahad, Karzai's father, was a member of the Afghan parliament under the king.

Karzai was studying political science in Simla, India, when the Soviets launched their fateful invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The rest of his family fled to the US and later opened Afghan restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Cambridge, Mass.

Karzai himself relocated to Pakistan to aid the mujahideen in their guerrilla war against the Red Army. Following the Soviet withdrawal, Karzai served as deputy foreign minister in the early 1990s. As the Taliban, mostly fellow Pashtuns, rose to power, his initial sympathy for them eventually turned into disillusionment. He relocated to Quetta, Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border.

Several years ago, the Karzais became involved in anti-Taliban activities.

After his father was assassinated in Quetta two years ago, Karzai was chosen as the new chief of the Popolzai.

Once the US began its bombing campaign over Afghanistan in October, Karzai entered the country clandestinely with the mission of convincing Pashtun leaders to abandon the Taliban and to support a loya jirga to elect a new government.

There are conflicting reports about what happened when the Taliban finally tracked him down. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that US helicopters rescued Karzai and whisked him back to Pakistan, while Karzai himself denies that there was any American help or that he ever left Afghanistan. (In October, another anti-Taliban leader on a similar mission, Abdul Haq, walked into a Taliban ambush and was executed, despite a US military intervention to save him.)

"The exact circumstance of Karzai's rescue may have been colored by psychological warfare," says Maass, the Afghanistan analyst.

In any case, she says, because of his US ties, he doesn't enjoy the support of all Pashtuns.

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, rejects any portrayal of Karzai as America's man. Karzai was "not chosen by the US, not annointed by the US," he says. "He was chosen by the elders of his tribe two years ago."

While his brother Qayum advised the former king's delegation in Bonn, Karzai was north of Kandahar, the final Taliban stronghold. During the talks, he spoke by satellite phone twice with US special envoy James Dobbins and once with the UN's top representative.

Observers say that Karzai still must prove his abilities to run the country.

"He's generally acceptable to all parties and all of Afghanistan's neighbors," says one diplomatic observer.

A delegate from the so-called Peshawar Group criticized the result of the talks, however. "I'm fundamentally unhappy with the composition of the cabinet," says Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, who refused to sign the final document and declined a ministerial post. "There are people [in the cabinet] who are hardly literate."

Sunil Dasgupta, a researcher at Washington's Brookings Institution, says that the new agreement is a good start but that the interim government is still not representative enough of Pashtuns, who are expected to start pushing their interests once the tribal council is called.

Mr. Dasgupta says "the most critical thing for Afghanistan is actually to develop a state, and imposing legal order."

With the blessing of a UN Security Council resolution, which in the coming days is expected to mandate a multinational security force in Kabul, Karzai's interim administration will have the backing and attention of the international community - something no Afghan government has had in two decades.

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