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New Interim Leader No Stranger to Afghan Politics - 2001-12-07

Hamid Karzai, the man named this week to head an interim administration in Afghanistan that takes over December 22 is not a new player in the strife-torn country. The 44-year-old Afghan was deeply involved in his country's politics long before he began his latest struggle against the now defeated Taleban.

Hamid Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun from the Popalzai tribe, and his family has long played an important role in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar region.

Mr. Karzai was leading his supporters in a struggle against Taleban forces near his birthplace of Kandahar when he learned that he had been selected by Afghan representatives meeting in Germany this week to head the interim administration.

In a satellite telephone interview conducted shortly before he was slightly injured by a bomb that killed three U.S. soldiers this week, Mr. Karzai said he was honored to know that his fellow countrymen put their trust in him.

"That is a great honor for me, and I am basically very grateful. And with the help of all mighty God, we will do all that human beings can possibly do to bring peace, security and economic well being for Afghanistan," he said.

Mr. Karzai's family moved to Quetta, in neighboring Pakistan, after Soviet troops invaded his country in 1979.

Following the ouster of the pro-Moscow government in Kabul in 1992, Mr. Karzai moved back to Afghanistan to become the country's deputy foreign minister. He quit that post after rival factions began battling each other in a civil war that destroyed much of the country and left the Taleban in control of Kabul and much of the country.

In a previous interview, Mr. Karzai said that, like many Afghans, he initially welcomed the Taleban rulers, because he believed they would bring peace and allow his countrymen to live with respect, dignity and honor. "Unfortunately, the Taleban turned out to be anything but that," he said. "It was during the Taleban [rule] that we lost our historical monuments. It was during their rule that Afghans began to suffer in an extremely humiliating manner, that the country's dignity and honor was humiliated, that all sorts of foreigners were brought into Afghanistan, that Afghanistan was delivered to foreigners and completely taken out of the hands of Afghans."

Because of his links with the West, the Taleban appointed Mr. Karzai its representative to New York. But, the Taleban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, canceled the appointment after learning Mr. Karzai did not wear a beard.

Mr. Karzai came out of political hibernation in October, after the United States launched its anti-terrorism military campaign to remove the Taleban and destroy Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida group.

He secretly entered southern Afghanistan to try to organize a tribal revolt against the Taleban. During the early part of his mission he was ambushed and nearly captured by the Taleban, but managed to escape with help from the U.S. military. Another Pashtun commander, Abdul Haq, who was caught on a similar mission in eastern Afghanistan, was executed by a Taleban firing squad.

According to Mr. Karzai, Afghanistan's neighbors have used his country for their own purposes, and until now, peace has not been allowed to take hold. "We hope that all neighbors of Afghanistan will recognize that a stable sovereign Afghanistan is in the interest of all," he says. "We hope that all our neighbors will recognize that an Afghanistan whose destiny and the government is determined by the people of Afghanistan is the best guarantee of friendship and security for all."

Since the conflict began two decades ago, most of the country's most skilled and educated people have fled. Mr. Karzai says he believes most of these people will return to help rebuild the country, if they know there will be peace. "Once Afghans know that Afghanistan is being governed by its own people through proper means that are available to the Afghans, that will bring confidence to the society; that will bring stability," he says. "And that stability and confidence will bring back those Afghans who have now immigrated to the rest of the world. Afghanistan needs its sons and daughters living abroad, and I am sure quite a few of them will come back."

Hamid Karzai is hoping for peace and reconstruction. His immediate challenge will be to prevent a new round of fighting among the nation's various factions, who have a long history of war and conflict.