How my friend outwitted the mullahs
Daily Telegraph (UK) Dec. 8, 2001
Ahmed Rashid tells the inside story of how the new Afghan leader Hamid Karzai joined the 'heavyweights' and engineered the downfall of the Taliban
IF Mullah Mohammed Omar has not gone into one of his periodic epileptic-like convulsions in which he sees visions and hears a voice praising his divine role, he may be regretting that he failed to keep Afghanistan's new leader, Hamid Karzai, on his side.
"Like so many mujahideen I believed in the Taliban when they first appeared on the scene in 1994," Karzai told me in an interview in late September. "They promised to end the warlordism, establish law and order and then call a Loya Jirga to decide upon who should rule Afghanistan.
"I gave the Taliban $50,000 to help run their movement and then handed over to them a large cache of weapons I had hidden away. I met Mullah Omar several times and he offered to appoint me as their envoy to the UN.
"The tragedy was that very soon the Taliban were taken over by Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI) and they became a proxy for a foreign power. Then they allowed Arabs and other foreigners to set up terrorist training camps on Afghan soil and I began to organise against them.
"By 1997 it was clear to most Afghans that the Taliban were unacceptable because Osama bin Laden was playing a leadership role in the movement. I warned the Americans many times, but who was listening? Nobody."
From his home in Quetta, Karzai began to organise an underground opposition among Pathan tribal chiefs in 1998 to overthrow the Taliban. Although the Taliban exercised power ruthlessly, there was anger among the Pathan tribes that they had allowed the Arabs such prominence and that their policies had antagonised the non-Pathans in the north of the country.
The Taliban reacted to Karzai's move swiftly. They murdered his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, in 1999.
The elder Karzai had been chief of the Popalzai tribe and a former government minister and was immensely respected for his wisdom among the southern Pathan tribes.
His death led to the tribal Jirga, or council, annointing Hamid Karzai as their new chief, even though Hamid has several elder brothers who live in the US.
Until now Karzai had never seen military action, having been an adviser and diplomat for the mujahideen groups in the 1980s. He courted the embassies in Islamabad and ran a small hotel in Peshawar to make ends meet where mujahideen would come and stayed for free.
In the 1980s the burly Afghan warlords and Western diplomats considered him a lightweight - an intellectual who spoke six languages (Pashto, Dari, Urdu, English, French and Hindi), who was a voracious reader and a snazzy dresser even when wearing his Afghan costume.
But the death of his father prompted him to take a daring step. Assembling a 300-vehicle convoy of tribal chiefs and mourners and defying both Pakistan and the Taliban, Karzai took his father's body from Quetta in Pakistan to be buried in his home city of Kandahar.
The Taliban scowled but dared not intervene fearing that an all-out war would break out among the Pathans of Kandahar. That single act of defiance defined Karzai as a gutsy, brave individual with leadership qualities who could now be trusted by the Afghan warlords and feared by the Taliban.
It was an even more important signal for his own tribesmen who had feared that the English-speaking and suit-wearing son of Abdul Ahad would be too soft to be a real leader.
More and more tribal elders now travelled to his home in Quetta to plot the downfall of the Taliban and placed their weapons caches under his control. Reports filtered out of Kandahar saying that Mullah Omar was furious at Karzai's bravado and now plotted his assassination.
Last month a hit list prepared by the Taliban and sanctioned by Mullah Omar of their Afghan enemies at home and abroad had Karzai's name at the top.
The list, which has been obtained by The Daily Telegraph, was found by German police in an al-Qa'eda terrorist flat in Hamburg after September 11.
In order to make the hitmen's task easier, Mullah Omar demanded from Pakistan that it expel the Karzai clan from the country. In their attempt to appease the Taliban, President Pervaiz Musharraf's military regime bowed to his wishes.
The ISI refused to renew Karzai's family residence visa in July and ordered him and his family to leave the country by Sept 30.
A friend of mine for more than than 18 years, Karzai came to stay with me in Lahore in early September in order to discuss his options. For Karzai it was crunch time: he either left for the West to become just another emigre Afghan politician hovering around the former King Zahr Shah in Rome or he took his life in his hands and went inside Afghanistan to foment rebellion.
Karzai was in two minds as to what do to. "Our people are not yet ready for guerrilla war against the Taliban and the Taliban are still very strong and ruthless and they will carry out reprisals against the civilian population," he told me.
"But how can I leave all my people and the anti-Taliban network I have created?"
The events of September 11 were to decide his course of action.
Within days of the attack on the World Trade Centre, Karzai began to assemble arms, money, wireless sets and satellite telephones and began to prepare a tribal lashkar or militia to enter Afghanistan with him. He also approached the US, British and other European embassies for logistical support.
Wendy Chamberlain, the US ambassador to Pakistan, ignored him because, after September 11, Washington had left its political strategy in the Pathan belt to the ISI. This maintained that it could split the Taliban movement and create so-called "moderate Taliban". Moreover, the ISI was not keen to see Karzai play any dominant role.
The British embassy was more amenable and encouraged Mr Karzai, knowing that until there was an indigenous uprising in the Pathan belt against the Taliban, bin Laden would remain protected by the Taliban in the south.
On Oct 8, when Karzai entered Afghanistan the day after the US bombing started, he had a satellite phone but too few wireless sets to communicate with his men, little money, no sleeping bags or other supplies and insignificant western support.
His men were well armed only because they had ferreted away weapons during the Taliban years, but they were short of ammunition and heavy weapons.
Washington only decided to support Karzai in the first week of November - four weeks after the bombing campaign started - and only after the Pentagon had taken the decision to support a Northern Alliance attack on Mazar-i-Sharif.
The secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the State Department, which had gone along with the ISI bluster about splitting the Taliban, now faced a put-down by the Pentagon's military planners, who demanded that the US military ignore the ISI and help anti-Taliban Pathans such as Karzai.
Mr Powell had hitherto insisted that nothing should be done to annoy President Musharraf in case Pakistan's support for the US military campaign flagged.
"There was real anger at Powell from the military because he was accepting at face value whatever the Pakistanis were telling him, when in reality they were doing nothing constructive in the Pathan belt," said a US diplomat later.
As Mazar fell and the Taliban were rapidly rolled back, the CIA and the Pentagon now ran around to devise quickly their own policy in the Pathan belt and foment an uprising, minus Pakistan.
James Dobbins, a seasoned US diplomatic negotiator, was appointed as special ambassador to the Afghans. On his first trip to Islamabad he pointed out to the ISI that Karzai was the only supporter of Zahir Shah who had had the gall to go "inside" and raise rebellion. The ISI continued to debunk Karzai, arguing that he had no support in the Pathan belt.
With the US now seriously concerned about the Pathan belt, Karzai, whom I spoke to often while he was in Afghanistan, began to receive its support at the end of the first week in November. "The Americans are finally taking me seriously, because for the moment there is nobody else in the Pathan area," he said.
The rest is history. Karzai will now adopt the same strategy he used to woo the Pathan tribes against the Taliban in order to run the new government when it is installed in Kabul on Dec 22.
He is an unflagging negotiator and conciliator, willing to spend days in order to win his point among the tribes. These skills will now be much in demand.
Here Karzai will be helped by the three modernising musketeers of the Northern Alliance, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Gen Mohammed Fahim and Younis Qanooni. All three respect Karzai.
"Karzai is a man who shares our vision of building a modern stable Afghanistan and creating a multi-ethnic government," Dr Abdullah told me in an all-night conversation at his home in Kabul, just before the Bonn negotiations began.
"We trust Karzai, he is a patriot who will put Afghanistan first rather than his clan, his tribe or his ethnic group."
There is little doubt that Karzai will face immense difficulties. But whatever the challenges, the once lightweight is now a heavyweight.
It is typical of his personality that Karzai bears no rancour towards Pakistan. "Tell the Pakistani government that I want good relations with them," he told me recently. "Tell them we have to turn a new page."
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