An exiled chief returns from the US, with a business plan

When Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai was growing up, Kabul was a place where the country's elite sent their children to study at the American school - or to hang around the Intercontinental Hotel to swim, play tennis, and hobnob at the city's hottest nightclub.

Now, on his first visit to Kabul in almost a decade, the hotel that once represented the arrival of the good life in Afghanistan is but a war-rattled shell of its former self. Though the elevator buttons still promise access to the long-defunct health club, the main form of exercise here is chilly marches up flights of dirty cement stairs. Amenities like water, flushing toilets, and telephones are not available to most guests.

The tribal leader returned to Kabul this weekend to witness the inauguration of Afghanistan's interim government - and to begin sowing the seeds of big business in a way, he says, that only an Afghan can.

"If you are going to bring in a foreign team to do things, I for one will have my doubts," says Ahmadzai, one of the chiefs of a tribe by the same name. He comes from the privileged echelon of the Kochi tribe - many of whose 1.2 million members remain nomadic - and belongs to the Ghilzai group of the Pashtun, the nation's largest ethnic group.

With his clean-shaven face, and tidy shirt and tie that look torn from a page of a trendy American clothing catalogue, Ahmadzai doesn't seem a typical tribal chieftain. He presents a face of Afghanistan that is radically different from the one that the world has grown accustomed to seeing.

And although it would be a lot easier to live the comfortable life that so many Afghans abroad have carved out for themselves - his wife and three children live in Virginia, while he maintains transport and other businesses out of Peshawar, Pakistan - Ahmadzai is hoping that he can help reconstruct Afghanistan by investing in its economic renewal. He also hopes to take a seat on the loya jirga, the 700-member council that will convene in six months to decide the country's future.

But Ahmadzai is doubtful that many of his exiled countrymen will be keen to return to a country so wasted it doesn't even offer a functioning education system, or a phone network. "Anyone with any financial means ... left this town," he says. "They were Westernized. They will only come back when the country is rebuilt."

Ahmadzai's plans are realistically low-tech. On the land he owns, he's thinking: electric station, steel mill, plastics plant, furniture factory. These are the bread-and-butter basics of development that Afghanistan was on the road to achieving when violence began to consume his country while he was finishing high school.

Ahmadzai's father was a transport minister. A communist coup in 1978 - followed by the Soviet invasion the next year - sent family members scrambling to get out of the country alive.

Coming home to Kabul, to be certain, is not easy. Sitting in the hotel dining room where time has stood still - the '70s design has remained untouched, but everything has grown dingier, and in places, damaged by gunfire - he says he is not talking nostalgia. "If we're are able to bring this country back to the conditions it was in in the mid-70s," he trails off, and begins again. "As stupid as that sounds, for us it's a reality."

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