LONDON – Looking a little like the king of Kabul
The last thing the world might have expected from the images flowing out of Afghanistan was that the country’s next leader would be hailed as a fashion plate. Yet “the most chic man in the world” was how Tom Ford, the creative director of Gucci, last week hailed Hamid Karzai, the head of Kabul’s interim government.
Almost overnight the 44-year-old Karzai has attained iconic status on a par with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, whose collarless “Nehru jacket” became a fashion must for celebrities including the Beatles.
Karzai’s trademark astrakhan hat and long coat embroidered in the national colours may not be as easily imitable. But the sartorial style, elegant yet traditional, is a reflection of the inner man who faces a challenge that would have daunted his lifelong idol, Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of Indian independence.
Karzai’s rapid rise to international prominence has been thrust upon him by events. But from Capitol Hill to Downing Street as well as Rome, Beijing and Tokyo, the man seen until recently as just another tribal leader has given every appearance of latent statesmanship.
In Tokyo, a few hastily learnt words of Japanese plus the expression of his personal pain at the destruction of Afghanistan’s giant Buddhist statues, played to the local audience and earned him praise from politicians as “a philosopher king” .
He has many of the attributes, including six languages: his native Pashto, plus Dari, Hindi and Urdu as well as the two tongues of global diplomacy — French and a gently American-accented English.
So is he a natural-born diplomat with fashion flair, or just a slick, smooth-talking warlord? There was an aftertaste of awkward reality in the gushing reception he received in Washington when Karzai revealed that in certain circumstances he supported Islamic sharia law, with its fierce retributions.
Strategists brushed under the magic carpet a statement that has yet to be tested in action. But it indicated a mentality able to understand that America’s thirst for vengeance means Karzai’s amnesty for rank-and-file Taliban does not extend to Mullah Omar, their leader.
What remains unclear is whether Karzai is a king-maker or sees himself as a king in the making. It was as a member of the “Rome group” representing Afghanistan’s king-in- exile Zahir Shah at negotiations in Germany that Karzai was chosen as the most acceptable interim leader.
He has described himself as a “caretaker” for the six months leading up to the Loya Jirga meeting of tribal leaders over which the former king will at least nominally preside. But at 87 Zafir Shah is little more than a totem, while the Karzai family is at least as prestigious.
An ethnic Pashtun, like 38% of Afghanistan’s population, he has been head of the Popolzai tribe since his father’s death in 1999. The Popolzai trace their lineage to 1747 and Afghanistan’s first king, the Persian conqueror Ahmed Shah Durrani, who built Kandahar upon land they gave him.
Hamid Karzai was born in Kandahar, on December 24, 1957, the fourth of seven sons and with one sister. They had a big house with a courtyard “large enough to ride a horse around” . He spent much of his early youth in the village of Kars, where his cousin Abdul, now 39 and living in Toronto, recalls them playing cricket and baseball together.
This was a very different Afghanistan. In 1964, a year after King Zahir Shah was received in Washington by President John F Kennedy, a constitution was introduced granting female emancipation and universal suffrage. His father Abdul Ahad became a senator in parliament.
Hamid went to Habibia high school in Kabul then on to Simla University in India where, at his father’s insistence that he maintain high moral standards, he boarded at the YMCA. Like any other 1970s student he grew his hair long and wore bell-bottomed trousers.
Things back home had deteriorated fast, particularly after 1973 when the king took an ill-advised trip to Rome for an optician’s appointment and lost control in a palace coup. The infighting that followed opened the door for the Soviet invasion of 1979. By the time Karzai graduated with an MA in international relations in 1982, his country was occupied and most young Afghan men were fighting a guerrilla war from the mountains.
Not himself a natural fighter — “I’m not a killer,” he insists — Karzai nonetheless joined the Afghan Jihad wing of the Afghan Liberation Front to work for a national unity that could throw out the invaders.
From that period dates his conviction that Afghanistan’s twin curses are foreign intervention and tribalism. Although he is regularly referred to as a Pashtun leader, he never describes himself as anything but simply “Afghan” .
Yet the quest for a peaceful, united Afghanistan has often seemed pointless to almost everyone involved. During the Soviet occupation most of his close family fled abroad. One brother is a professor at an American university. Four others run a chain of restaurants — named Helmand after a province near Kandahar — in Chicago, Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco, the sort of business nearly ruined by post-September 11 boycotts.
Karzai visited his émigré relatives over the years, acquiring that American twang, but as a senior official in the resistance he mainly lived in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he ran his house as a rest centre for mujaheddin. In the honeymoon period after the Russians pulled out he was briefly deputy foreign minister in the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, where he urged a wider ethnic mix in ministerial jobs.
The dangers were constantly emphasised. In 1993 he and several associates were ambushed while travelling inside Afghanistan and in a 30-minute gunfight his driver was killed. It says a lot about him that he has since sat alongside some of the men who ordered his assassination.
When renewed infighting in Kabul allowed the Taliban to take over in 1994, Karzai was at first enthusiastic, convinced that at last here was a regime that would put an end to foreign intervention. But the growing influence of Pakistan and the influx of Arab extremists disillusioned him enough to turn down the offer to become the Taliban’s man at the United Nations. From 1996 on, he renewed his ties with the “Rome group” campaigning for the Loya Jirga, which it has now become his task to establish.
For several years he was dismissed as a “coffee shop” politician who kept a salon in the Pakistani border town of Quetta at which émigré malcontents drank green tea, munched sugared almonds, muttered and did nothing more. But when his father was gunned down on the way home from a mosque in 1999 by a suspected Taliban agent, Karzai was galvanised. Elected head of the clan by a jirga of Popolzai elders, and presented with the symbolic silk turban, he put together a convoy of more than 300 vehicles to take his father’s body home to Kandahar, into the lion’s den. Not a hand was raised against him.
His emotional life has been overshadowed by the struggle. For many years he was close to an American journalist working in Afghanistan, Nancy DeWolf Smith, of The Wall Street Journal. In 1998 he married an Afghan doctor named Zinat.
Those who know him well dismiss allegations that with his grandfather’s Rolex on his wrist he represents an old-fashioned oligarchy. Most of his money has gone to the cause, and he is famously generous. DeWolf Smith recalls him pulling out his wallet to give money to a down-and-out at a US filling station.
With the American-led war in full swing last October, he needed little encouragement to sneak back into Afghanistan, walking often 18 hours a day by his own account, through Mullah Omar’s home province of Uruzgan to organise revolt.
In Afghanistan wars have always been easier to foster than peace. Karzai’s Toronto cousin recalls that as a boy he “preferred words to fists” . In the initial post-Taliban period he brokered a significant power-sharing deal between victorious warlords in Kandahar. But holding the reins of power is little short of a rodeo.
That is why, despite his belief that foreign meddling has been the root of Afghanistan’s problems and his consequent initial opposition to foreign troops on the ground, he has been asking for more. It is by no means the only paradox in play.
Karzai needs American and international support to have any chance of getting through his six-month tenure, let alone any extension. He must also convince his countrymen that his claim to be “nobody’s puppet” is true. He says he wants roads, schools, hospitals and an end to “warlordism” using “whatever means necessary” . To be more precise: whatever means available.
“I’m scared, though, now that he’s famous,” says DeWolf Smith. His idol Gandhi came close to being all things to all Indians, but still died at the hands of his fellow countrymen. There have been better omens.