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Afghan Leader Made Important Gains in Washington Visit - 2002-02-02

The head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, was in Washington this past week to both thank the Bush Administration for ridding his country of the Taleban and ask for help in rebuilding his shattered country. The intangible gains from Mr. Karzai's visit may prove to be just as important as the tangible ones.

Hamid Karzai had in Washington his brief moment of fleeting celebrity. He met President Bush and the top U.S. leaders to plead for more assistance, and, in an emotional moment, met with Afghan emigres. In his green robe and with his soft-spoken, humble manner, he was the most sought-after guest on every U.S. television and radio show.

Teresita Schaffer, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says Mr. Karzai got much of what he came for. "I think he got the most important thing, the most important two things: first of all, very wide exposure to the American leadership, not just to the president, important as that is, but Congress, the media, and those who, broadly speaking, shape American policies," she says. "And the other is an understanding that the United States will stay in for the long haul."

Mr. Karzai left Washington with a U.S. pledge to help train a new Afghan national army and reconstruction aid. But he did not get a pledge of U.S. participation in any expanded U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Mr. Karzai's flash of media exposure may well be the most important thing that he got in Washington. Analysts say Mr. Karzai's warm welcome demonstrates to Afghans back home that he is the fellow who can get the aid to rebuild his country.

Mr. Karzai is faced with the herculean task of trying to build an effective government and working institutions in a country where security has been virtually nonexistent and the rule of the gun has long prevailed. In fact, it was that lack of security that led many Afghans, including, initially Mr. Karzai, to welcome the strong hand of the Taleban.

Mr. Karzai has little armed support behind him. But, as Pakistani author and political analyst Ahmad Rashid points out, it is Mr. Karzai's newfound status that can help him prevail over the provincial warlords and their private armies. "The way he's going to extend his authority is not going to be through the power of the gun," he says. "He's going to use aid and money and reconstruction, and then a political process, which is really, hopefully going to sideline these warlords and make them less politically important. You know, they have muscle but they don't have much brain. That's the problem. And they're not particularly popular this time around."

Mr. Karzai could well emerge as the leader of a new government after the interim administration expires. But Mr. Karzai's success in Washington may also have a backlash at home. He is widely seen, says Ms. Schaffer, as someone who achieved his status backed by U.S. power. Now, she says, Mr. Karzai has to take some concrete actions to show his worth. "A lot rests on his personal credibility and his personal consensus-building ability. His consensus building skills are very high," she says. "He has to show in the next six months not only that he can continue to keep people working with him, but that he can make a few, visible critical steps in delivering the goods. This is a very tough test. Afghanistan is such awful shape."

The Loya Jirga, or grand council, that will choose Afghanistan's new form of government is to convene in June.