Karzai, Hamid (1957–)

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Karzai, Hamid

Hamid Karzai (sometimes known as "the mayor of Kabul") is the president of Afghanistan. He was installed under the aegis of the invading U.S. forces in 2001, and subsequently confirmed by parliamentary action in 2002 and an election in 2004.


Born on 24 December 1957 in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, Karzai was the fourth of seven sons and one daughter. Karzai was born into the ethnic Pash-tun Popolzai tribe, of which his father, Abdul Ahad, was the head. This tribe had once been the largest landowner in southern Kandahar. It was on Popolzai land that the city of Kandahar was built. Karzai grew up aware of his tribal heritage and deeply committed to the responsibilities that came with being the son of the tribal chief. His father was a senator in the Afghan Parliament under the king, Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in a coup in 1973.

Karzai's father believed in a good education for his children. The young Karzai studied in Kandahar and later in Habibia High School in Kabul. He went to university in Simla, India. By the time he graduated in 1982 with a master's degree in international relations, the war against the Soviet Union, which had sent the Red Army into Afghanistan in December 1979, was in full swing. Karzai chose to go to the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar, where he found a like-minded group of religiously moderate men helping to wage the war against the Soviet Union. He joined the Afghan Liberation Front, led by Sibgatullah Mojaddidi. For a decade Karzai lived in Peshawar, struggling to gain greater support for his party from Western governments financing the anti-communist insurgency, the smallest of the mujahideen groups battling the Russians.


The international assistance that came from the United States and other countries supporting the Afghan resistance went to the most radical, religiously rigid groups with expansionist agendas that wanted to see narrow Islamic regimes installed in all Muslim countries. The rebel groups, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami Party and Ahmad Shah Masoud's Jamiʿat-e Islami Party, which had the backing of the Pakistani military and the U.S. government and often battled each other, imposed strict control over women in their territory and adhered to a strict form of Islam. For Karzai it was a constant struggle to gain assistance for his smaller party. (Meanwhile, Karzai's brothers lived in the United States, running a chain of successful restaurants.)

When the mujahideen took power in Afghanistan in 1992 and the communist President Mohammed Najibullah stepped down, Karzai went to Kabul. The interim leader of the new postcommunist government was Mojaddidi, leader of the Afghan Liberation Front, with whom he had worked throughout the anti-Soviet war.

In line with an agreement among all the mujahideen groups, Mojaddidi stepped down after two months in favor Burhanuddin Rabbani, another mujahideen leader, who was to have held elections within four months but instead held onto power for four bloody years until his overthrow by the Taliban. Karzai became deputy foreign minister in Rabbani's government. Disturbed by the deteriorating situation in his homeland as mujahideen groups battled each other for power, Karzai sought to find some common ground between them, in an attempt to bring peace. In 1993 as deputy minister, Karzai took it upon himself to try to bring warring mujahideen groups together. Their relentless warring in the end killed fifty thousand Afghans in Kabul alone before being overthrown by the Taliban in 1996.


Name: Hamid Karzai

Birth: 1957, Kandahar province, Afghanistan

Family: Wife, Zenat; one son, Mir Waiz

Nationality: Afghan

Education: Attended university in Simla, India; master's in international relations, 1982


  • 1982: Returns to Afghanistan after graduating from university in India; Joins religiously moderate group in Peshawar in war against Soviets
  • Mid-1990s: Serves as deputy foreign minister
  • 1999: Father is killed; becomes head of Popolzai tribe
  • 2001: Named chairman of interim government in Afghanistan following U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan
  • 2002: Confirmed as president by parliamentary action
  • 2004: Elected president of Afghanistan

While Rabbani was Afghanistan's president, the real power was wielded by Masoud, the defense minister. Masoud's archenemy was Hekmatyar, the prime minister, who refused to come to Kabul. Instead he waged a bloody battle against Masoud's men from his headquarters in Charasyab, southeast of the capital.

First Karzai sought to bring a better ethnic balance to the new mujahideen government. According to his own telling, Karzai went to Masoud, who was an ethnic Tajik, and pleaded with him to make a trip to southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the country's ethnic Pash-tuns. He told Masoud to engage the Pashtuns, bring them into the government, give them a greater share of power. By this he hoped to see ethnic harmony in the capital of Kabul by seeing all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups fairly represented. But his advice was ignored and the capital soon filled with Masoud supporters, who were largely ethnic Tajiks, and only a small portion were from other ethnic groups including Pashtuns.

Karzai also attempted to bring a negotiated peace to the bitter factional fighting that had come to characterize the mujahidin government of which he was a part. But he was stopped and imprisoned by Mohammed Fahim, a Masoud loyalist. Beaten and accused of being a traitor for trying to broker negotiations with Hekmatyar, Karzai found a way to escape and fled to Pakistan.

From his home in Quetta, capital of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, Karzai watched as the mujahideen government deteriorated further and corruption and lawlessness took over his homeland. At this time, the Taliban, a religious movement of devout clerics, many of whom had only a minimum of education, was emerging in his hometown in Kandahar. The shura, or council of elders, that ruled there was weak.

The Taliban initially appeared to Karzai to be a solution to the anarchy that had taken hold of Afghanistan. He viewed them as a means to a peaceful transition to the rule of law. He initially believed that they had no desire to rule the country, but rather wished to impose peace and step aside for others to rule. Karzai was sought out by the Taliban to be their ambassador to the United Nations, a position he would have taken, but according to him was denied him by Pakistan, which had begun to influence the religious movement by infiltrating the movement with religious students from Pakistan. As a result Karzai began to move away from the Taliban. Instead, he traveled the globe seeking international support for an alternative to the Taliban, but the international community was not interested in Afghanistan.

While living in Quetta Karzai had kept in close contact with his tribesmen in Kandahar. His father had been a respected elder and he was also held in high regard. When his father was gunned down in Quetta in 1999 Karzai took over his position as head of the Popolzai tribe. Karzai could not say who had killed his father—as of 2007, it remains unclear whether he was killed by the Taliban or by tribal enemies—but his father's death galvanized Karzai. He promoted the former king Zahir Shah—who had lived in exile in Italy since 1973 and was 85 years old in 1999—as a rallying point, a means to unify his fractured nation with the support of Afghanistan's ex-king. He crisscrossed the globe looking for allies. Then came the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, planned and executed by people who enjoyed the patronage of the Taliban government.

Just days before the 11 September attacks, the government of Pakistan had refused to extend Karzai's visa. He was still living in Pakistan, as do millions of other Afghans without proper documents, but the government of Pakistan threatened to expel him. When the United States declared war on the Taliban in October, Karzai decided to go to Afghanistan to try to rally his southern Pashtun tribes against the Taliban. He first met with his tribesmen in Quetta. Initially he had no backing from the United States.

On his trip to Afghanistan, Karzai was accompanied only by a small number of close friends. The Pashtuns he met wanted to know what support he had, who was backing him. They wanted to know if it was the United States. But he was alone. Even on the eve of the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan, Afghans were not ready publicly to support anyone who could not prove he had powerful allies. According to Karzai, "They just told me that they didn't think I could win against the Taliban on my own and they couldn't risk being with me when I lost." Karzai eventually gained U.S. support after his old friend Abdul Haq was captured and killed by the Arabs in the days before the Taliban's ouster in November 2001. Haq had been a former mujahideen commander and ethnic Pash-tun who had strong U.S. support and was seen as having strong support inside Afghanistan. Arab militants connected with usama bin ladin were strong on intelligence, discovered Haq's whereabouts in Afghanistan, and killed him. The new U.S. support gave Karzai strength. He waged his battle against the Taliban with his allies, Pash-tun tribesmen, mostly from their headquarters deep in the mountains of southern Uruzgan province.

In December 2001, after the Taliban had fled Kabul and the battle for southern Kandahar was being waged bitterly, Karzai negotiated a peace deal. The Taliban would leave and Karzai's ally Mullah Naqibullah would take control of Kandahar under the deal negotiated by Karzai. But the pre-Taliban governor, Gul Aga Sherzai, who had been kicked out by the Taliban back in 1994 because of his corruption and violence, took control of the government buildings and took power.

Karzai was made chairman of an interim government by Afghan politicians and international community representatives led by the United Nations and the United States in an agreement signed 5 December 2001 in Bonn, Germany. That agreement allowed the takeover of Afghanistan by the violent mujahideen warlords whose corrupt, lawless behavior had given rise to the Taliban. Karzai was named president of the transitional government in June 2002 by the Loya Jirga (parliament) and elected president in 2004 but his parliament was heavily dominated by the mujahideen leaders. Among these mujahideen leaders was Abdur Rasul Sayyaf, considered one of the most violent of the warlords during the mujahideen rule. The warlords returned to power also dominated the drug trade and returned opium and heroin production to Afghanistan after the drugs had been cut out completely by the Taliban.

Karzai's authority is limited to Kabul because his warlord ministers in parliament have been given free rule of the country, something that had the support of Washington's first ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. It was Khalilzad who helped write the plan to integrate mujahideen warlords into the government with the idea that if they are involved in the process they will behave in a more acceptable way. Khalilzad's plan did not work, however, and the country has returned to its old lawless system, run by warlords. This lawlessness and the power of the warlords have returned strength to the Taliban movement, which had been devastated after the U.S. invasion in 2001. By 2007 his country was overrun with poppy production, a thriving illicit trade in which his own ministers and military were complicit.


While Karzai did have trouble gaining support from the United States in his initial fight against the Taliban, the shift in the Bush administration's attitude toward him is evident in the U.S. support of his appointment to the presidency of Afghanistan in 2001.


Karzai will be remembered as the first president of post-Taliban Afghanistan. However, it remains to be seen how he will handle the situation of his country after the U.S. invasion, especially in light of the reemerging strength of the Taliban and the power of warlords in Parliament.


Buncombe, Andrew, "Afghan President Is Targeted by Taliban's Rockets during Speech." Independent (11 June 2007). Available from http://www.independent.co.uk.

"Hamid Karzai: Shrewd Statesman." BBC News. Updated 14 June 2002. Available from http://www.news.bbc.co.uk.

"Times Topics: Hamid Karzai News." New York Times. Available from http://www.nytimes.com.

Tyson, Anne Scott, "Red Carpet Leads Back to a Nation in Tatters." Christian Science Monitor (31 January 2002). Available from http://www.csmonitor.com.

                                           Kathy Gannon