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  January 29, 2002  

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Central Asia/Russia

Mr Karzai goes to Washington

By Marc Erikson

Afghanistan's interim (and likely longer-term) leader, Hamid Karzai, 44, is in Washington, DC, for a well-choreographed state visit: prayers at a local mosque, meetings with Afghan community leaders, a flag-raising at Afghanistan's once and future embassy (for years empty and in disrepair), a tour of Capitol Hill and the Pentagon for meetings with congressional and military leaders, and last - but certainly not least - attendance as guest of honor at President George W Bush's Tuesday State of the Union address. Washington pulls out the stops for the man who represents victory and US future hopes, even as prime US war targets Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large.

The goal is "bringing Afghanistan into the fold", said a Brookings Institution analyst. But Karzai was brought into the US fold long ago. In the 1980s, as the Afghan mujahideen were fighting Soviet occupiers, the smart-dressing, Quetta, Pakistan-based "Gucci guerrilla", as American correspondents referred to Karzai's likes at the time, helped organize "logistical support" (facilitating US weapons shipments). But much of his time then and later was also spent in the US where several of his brothers and a sister ran, and still run, "Helmand" (a province west of Kandahar) brand Afghan restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore.

The man who spotted Karzai's leadership potential and recruited him to "the fold" was then RAND (the Santa Monica, California think tank, mostly conducting contract research for the Pentagon) program director, now US National Security Council member and special Bush envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. Like Karzai, Khalilzad is an ethnic Pashtun (born Mazar-i-Sharif, PhD University of Chicago). He headed Bush's defense department transition team, and served under present US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Reagan State and Bush I Defense Departments. Also like Karzai (whom Mullah Omar once asked to represent the Taliban at the UN), Khalilzad early on supported and urged engagement of the Taliban regime, only to drop such notions when the true nature of the regime became patently obvious by 1998. And one further thing both men have in common is that in 1996/97 they advised American oil company Unocal on the US$2 billion project of a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline. In 2000, Khalilzad invited Karzai to address a RAND seminar on Afghanistan; the same year, Karzai also testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and met periodically with Christina Rocca, then a Senate aide (to Kansas Republican Sen Sam Brownback), now the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "To us, he is still Hamid, a man we've dealt with for some time," said a state department official.

Such close connections to the US foreign policy, security and intelligence community lay Karzai open to the charge of being an American puppet - a dangerous charge in Afghanistan where leaders overly beholden to foreign regimes have not fared well, as the fate of Soviet-imposed ones attests. But Karzai has other credentials that put him in better stead, and to the extent he can bring in the bread (foreign aid and investment), he will likely be able to live down the "American stooge" tag opponents are trying to pin on him. He became the head of the Popolzai tribe of Pashtuns in 1999 when his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, a former senator in the Afghan parliament before the overthrow of King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973, was assassinated in Quetta - almost certainly by Taliban agents. The Popolzai are a branch of the Durrani clan, the Pashtuns' second largest, and almost every Afghan king since Ahmed Shah Durrani (1747) has been drawn from their ranks. Thus, Karzai, a relative of the deposed king, has the proper tribal and family lineage. Also to his credit is that he appears to have developed the courage of his convictions: last October, with the help of members of the 5th US Special Forces Group, he infiltrated Taliban territory in Kandahar region to organize Pashtun resistance to the Mullah Omar regime. It nearly cost him his life; but unlike fellow Pashtun resistance leader Abdul Haq who was caught by the Taliban and executed, he escaped capture by the skin of his teeth (and an American helicopter).

Karzai's principal challenges lie ahead. He acquitted himself well at the recent Tokyo Afghanistan aid donors' meeting and persuasively laid out the cause of reconstruction. But how far will the US$4.5 billion over five years pledged there carry his war-devastated country? The last time anyone counted (1990), Afghanistan's foreign debt stood at US$5.5 billion - nearly four times the country's 1999 GDP. Debt service, which Karzai says will be paid, will be over US$100 million per year. So, deduct 12 percent from the donation pledges. Much of the rest will go to rebuilding a functioning national administration (including police and military forces), paying salaries, and repairing or building minimal transportation, communications and utilities infrastructure.

The key to reconstruction and sustainable longer-term future economic development lies with foreign investment. Not only cynics suggest that Karzai might do well to renew his Unocal contacts to begin bringing that in. But his first task is to assure a measure of political stability and to assert Kabul authority over regional tribal chiefs and warlords. A loya jirga (grand assembly) of representatives of the nation's ethnic, regional and religious groups scheduled for this coming June will be a step in that direction and appoint another interim government for a period of 18 months when general elections are to be held. Karzai may not be the ideal figure to guide the initial process of administrative, political and economic reconstruction. However, not only Washington, but most Afghans will probably agree that there's at present no alternative.

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