KABUL—Hamid Karzai has steered Afghanistan from the ruins of war to its first elected presidency, using skills honed from plotting to end Soviet occupation and negotiating the minefield of volatile Afghan politics.
The cosmopolitan Pashtun tribal chief’s aides and even his chief rival said Sunday that p reliminary results indicated he had won outright victory in the violence-stricken land’s first democratic poll.
Born in the key southern city of Kandahar in December 1957, Karzai grew up in the capital, Kabul, then studied politics in India and journalism in France.
He lived in exile in Pakistan during the 1980s Soviet occupation and the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime.
During both periods he criss-crossed the border to fight alongside mujahideen against the Soviets and to stir rebellion against the hard-line Islamic fundamentalists.
“The key to him being a great leader is that he lived outside for many years, then came back and fought jihad,” key aide Khaleeq Ahmad told AFP. “He’s a great diplomat.”
Now Karzai bears the hopes of many of uniting Afghanistan’s disparate tribes and ethnic groups—something Ahmad says only he can do.
“He’s a man of unity, a great people’s person and he understands the Afghan tribes very well,” Ahmad said.
“He considers himself Afghan before Pashtun. He represents the whole of Afghanistan. He speaks both languages [Dari and Pashto] very well.
“He can sit with people from the north part of Afghanistan and talk to them as if he’s one of their own. But he can also sit with people from another part of Afghanistan and talk with them as if he’s one of their own.”
In a 2002 interview with AFP, Karzai hit back at what he regards as an obsession with ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan.
“I’m an Afghan. I consider myself an Afghan, that’s it,” he said.
After working to overthrow the Soviets, Karzai returned to Kabul in 1992 and became deputy foreign minister. But as civil war enveloped the capital in 1994 he left for Kandahar.
When the Taliban took power in 1996, he briefly considered their offer to represent them at the United Nations, but declined.
As the Taliban turned Afghanistan into a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and their training camps, Karzai began working from Quetta in southwest Pakistan to oust them.
When US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban and al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks, Karzai led a daring horseback mission into the badlands of southern Afghanistan to muster tribes against them.
The Taliban tried to capture him in central Uruzgan province, but he escaped and lived to be chosen interim leader at the Bonn conference after the Taliban’s defeat in December 2001.
In June 2002 he was chosen by a “loya jirga,” a traditional council of elders, to continue as transitional leader.
Charismatic, joke-cracking, and with a sartorially elegant, tribal dress sense that has won the admiration of European designers, Karzai has presented a breezy face to the public over his near brushes with death.
In September 2002 a gunman opened fire on Karzai’s car in Kandahar. On September 16 this year insurgents fired rockets at his helicopter as it tried to land in Ghazni for a campaign rally.
“He’s like, ‘it happens.’ He always says that is in the hand of God. He even jokes about it later on. But he’s encountered death and danger throughout his life as a mujahideen, and after his father was killed in Quetta,” Ahmad said.
Politics has long been in Karzai’s family: his grandfather headed the national council during the reign of ex-king Zahir Shah, and his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was a member of parliament.
Karzai’s father was assassinated, allegedly by the Taliban, in Quetta in August 2000. He then inherited the mantle of chief of the influential Popalzai tribe.
Karzai now lives in seclusion in Kabul’s presidential palace surrounded by American guards. He is married to physician Zenat Karzai and lists his hobbies as hiking, horse riding, and classical music.
By Bronwyn Curran