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What Are Karzai's Prospects to Bring About Peace in Afghanistan? - 2001-12-21

Afghanistan's post-Taleban interim government has begun work. How well it does depends to a large extent on the man who heads it: Hamid Karzai.

As the first snowflakes fell on Kabul, Hamid Karzai touched down at the airport last Friday and went directly to the presidential palace to begin the work of the interim government.

As its head, he faces a formidable task. He must try to establish peace and security in Afghanistan while preparing for the grand council that is to create a permanent government when it meets in six months. That means working in harmony with the other 30 members of the interim council and keeping the contentious warlords from fighting the government and each other.

He is the right man at the right time, says Dennis Kux, a former South Asian specialist for the State Department and author of "The United States and Pakistan: Disenchanted Allies."

As a Pashtun, Mr. Karzai represents Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, said Mr. Kux, and that also pleases Pakistan with its sizable Pashtun population. He is supported by the United States, where many of his relatives live. "He bridges the old and the new," said Mr. Kux. "He has a modern outlook. He is not one of those warlords who did so much damage to Afghanistan. He is also political. He deals with people. He is not a military type, even though he had the guts to go back in and try to overthrow the Taleban. So he was not just sitting outside the country."

Some people ask, "Karzai who?" Until recently, he was a rather obscure figure on the Afghan scene. That may be to his advantage, say observers. He has not made many enemies. He lacks the blood-stained record of other Afghan leaders.

Indeed, he is not known for his military exploits, said Alam Payind, director of Middle East studies at Ohio State University. "He comes from a family of administrators and bureaucrats in Afghanistan, and elected representatives," said Mr. Payind. "He learned a great deal from his father - negotiating skills and compromising and working with other groups. He served for a short period of time as deputy minister of foreign affairs in Afghanistan. So he is not an unknown quantity."

Pakistani reporter and author Ahmad Rashid said Mr. Karzai was considered a kind of lightweight who even gave money and weapons to the Taleban until he discovered they had been taken over by terrorists. When he started to organize against them, they murdered his father. Then he led a funeral procession from Pakistan across the border to Kandahar. The Taleban did not dare attack, and Mr. Karzai had established his reputation.

Much depends, of course, on how much help outside powers give the new government. Mr. Payind said an international armed force is essential. "It is an absolute necessity because after 23 years of wars, I do not think the Afghans are capable of doing so many things simultaneously in different directions," he said. "I think the whole world has a stake in Afghanistan right now. Otherwise, Afghanistan will continue to be a haven for not only international terrorists, but for the criminals of neighboring countries. The destabilizing factor of Afghanistan on neighboring countries is enormous."

Author Rashid said the new government is like an island in a sea of uncompromising warlords. But Karzai, if anyone, is the man to haul them in. The new foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, says Mr. Karzai is a patriot who will put Afghanistan first rather than his clan, his tribe or his ethnic group.