WASHINGTON – It was almost as though Hamid Karzai had never left home.
The Afghan prime minister stood Sunday night before thousands of Afghan-Americans, alternating between his country's two main languages, Pashtu and Dari, rarely displaying his mastery of English.
During his 75-minute appearance, including 30 minutes of answering questions, Karzai never mentioned the U.S. role in making possible his improbable rise to power five weeks ago, ending more than five years of Taliban rule.
Karzai planned to meet Monday with President Bush for a review of Afghanistan's security and reconstruction programs. He also will be a guest of honor when Bush delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
The scene Sunday night was a basketball gymnasium at Georgetown University. Above him as he spoke were an American flag and a Christian cross, symbolic of Georgetown's Roman Catholic affiliation.
His audience reflected the hope that the changed circumstances have given their homeland, frequently interrupting Karzai's words with applause and laughter.
"From difficult times, we will live in positive times, productive times," Karzai said.
Near the end of his appearance, Karzai said in response to a question that he could favor the punishment, prescribed under Islamic law, of cutting the hands off thieves.
He acknowledged that he is not an expert on the issue and that the law is subject to differing interpretations. He added he would favor such punishment only when Afghanistan ceases to be a poverty-stricken country.
Karzai also called on audience members to return to Afghanistan so they can lend their skills to the task of national reconstruction.
"Without your cooperation, we're not going to make it," he said.
And in a message to youthful Afghan-Americans that drew laughter, he said: "You are the future of our country. Study hard, work hard, make money and bring it to Afghanistan."
Almost exactly a week earlier, Karzai had spoken to a gathering in Japan, appealing to donor countries at an Afghan reconstruction conference to be generous. They pledged $1.8 billion the first year and $4.5 billion over five years.
In the aftermath of that conference, he said, "our responsibility is starting. We have to say to these people [donors] that we are going to deliver."
Earlier, Karzai attended a prayer service at a mosque in northern Virginia. There were hundreds of Afghan-Americans present, no less enthusiastic about their country's changed political outlook than were his listeners at Georgetown hours later.
Seated on a gold and green carpet, the gathering listened intently as Karzai spelled out his message in Afghanistan's two languages.
Before Karzai spoke, the assemblage prayed to Allah for the success of the democratic process on which their homeland is now embarked.