Red carpet leads back to a nation in tatters

It was a spring-like Monday morning here as Afghan leader Hamid Karzai watched a hastily sewn flag rise over the long-abandoned Afghan embassy.

Much like Mr. Karzai's desperate nation, the dilapidated embassy is a testimony to neglect, with peeling paint, leaky roofs, sagging walls, and termites. Still, no one seemed to notice. Speaking of shared US-Afghan pain, partnership, and hope, Karzai dignified the moment. He seemed sincere, yet polished - even, some would say, chic.

"Tie it well, Haron," said Karzai, looking on in a silver lamb's-wool cap, flowing tunic, and emerald cape as his chargé d'affairs secured the flag line. Karzai later stepped into a sleek black Cadillac and zipped off with his entourage toward the White House, as US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage waved and smiled admiringly.

"I don't think any of us had any idea of the fantastic politician he has become," commented Mr. Armitage. "He's far better than we expected."

Karzai will need all the skills he can muster to hold together his fragile, wartorn, and bankrupt homeland, experts say.

Yet so far, Karzai, who today speaks to some 3,000 businessmen, scholars, and politicians at the World Economic Forum in New York, has impressed his American hosts with a political style that combines the charisma of a wise, tribal elder with the savvy of a well-traveled, English-speaking sophisticate.

"He comes out of a family who have been leaders in their area for generations," says Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) Maryland, a friend of Karzai's late father and brother, who owns a successful Afghan restaurant, the Helmand, in Baltimore. Shortly after Sept. 11, Mr. Sarbanes suggested that Armitage get in touch with Karzai - he did, and the rest is history.

ACQUAINTANCES say Karzai inherited his political skills from his father, a speaker in parliament in the 1970s under the last Afghan monarch and leader of the ancient Popolzaiclan based in the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan.

The fifth of eight children, Karzai has always been somewhat reserved, say family members and US officials who know him.After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, his father moved the family to Quetta, Pakistan. Karzai went to university in India, then stayed at his father's side in Pakistan as several other siblings migrated to the US.

Karzai served as deputy foreign minister in the post-Soviet mujahideen government from 1992 to 1994, and like many Afghans briefly supported the Taliban regime before rejecting its extremism. In 1999, his father was gunned down while walking home from a mosque in Quetta - assassinated, Karzai believes, by the Taliban. The son emerged as leader of the Popolzai and embraced his father's dream of a united, independent Afghanistan under central government rule.

It's a daunting challenge, and experts say only time will tell whether Karzai, head of Afghanistan's fragile, six-month interim authority, will succeed in unifying a country of warlords and ethnic rivals - and in achieving a modicum of independence while relying heavily on foreign financial and military aid.

On his US visit, however, Karzai has showcased the kind of political finesse that US officials, scholars, and Afghan-American supporters say makes him the right man for the job.

At a Georgetown University arena Sunday, Karzai incited standing ovations, stamping of feet, tears, and wild applause from thousands in the mainly Afghan-American audience - wooing the crowd with a mixture of poignant story-telling, self-deprecating humor, and brash invitations to "Come to Afghanistan!"

He told of the conservative mullahs who visited him on the second night of Ramadan and with a rough, hand-drawn map secretly showed the Americans there where to bomb the Taliban. He told of satellite phone calls from all over Afghanistan offering, "One message:Central government, independence, and unity for our people."

Then, speaking alternately in Farsi and Pashto, Karzai he promised "hopeful times" painting a vision of democracy, security, and women's rights. He appealed to the crowd of professionals to return to rebuild Afghanistan, offering safety, favorable treatment - and passports.

'You can come here and be there too!" he shouted, laughing, as the crowd roared.

"His passion shows for his people - there is no doubt," said Farad Pazhwak, a Fairfax, Va., publisher.

"We are all Afghans," said Abraham Lutfi, a Burke, Va. engineer, who, like many in the audience, declined to mention his ethnicity in a show of Afghan unity.

In Washington, Karzai also struck a careful balance between his grateful acceptance of American aid - including a nearly $300 million financial package and ongoing military assistance - and his pledges to build a sovereign, independent Afghanistan that can "stand back on its own feet."

He brushed aside the suggestion that Washington's plan to help train and establish an Afghan national army would prove politically sensitive at home. "It's training and a relationship between two independent, sovereign countries and nothing to worry others," he said during a Rose Garden appearance with Bush.

Yet during what one congressional staffer called a Washington "love-fest," Karzai, who sat next to first lady Laura Bush at Tuesday's State of the Union address, seemed at ease with the new coziness of Afghan-American ties. Over coffee and pastry at the ornate Senate Foreign Relations Committee room on Tuesday, he joked with senators and even allowed one, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, to try on his trademark green cape.

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