December 24, 1957 • Karz, Kandahar, Afghanistan
President of Afghanistan
For most of his life Hamid Karzai has dedicated himself to bringing peace and unity to his homeland of Afghanistan, a nearly impossible task because the country has been plagued by internal tensions and external threats for decades. During the 1980s, when Afghanistan was controlled by Soviet forces, Karzai fled to Pakistan, where he served as director for the Afghan National Liberation Front. In the early 1990s, following Soviet expulsion, Karzai filled several political posts in the newly installed Burhanuddin Rabbani government. For the remainder of the decade he traveled around the world, working tirelessly to raise awareness of his war-torn country and to raise funds to help his people, who had been ravaged by years of constant struggle. Afghanistan did eventually find itself the focus of international attention, but unfortunately it was because Taliban extremists, who had taken control of the country, were linked with the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Karzai rallied internal forces and joined with U.S. troops to oust the Islamic faction from power. After the fall of the Taliban, Karzai served as both the chairman and interim president of the transitional government. In December 2004, despite predictions to the contrary, the Afghani people filed to the polls to vote in their first presidential election. On December 7, 2004, the charismatic and devoted Karzai was officially named Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader.
Hamid Karzai was born on December 24, 1957, in Karz, a small village near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. His was a royal birth since members of the Karzai family, who belong to the Populzai clan, have been rulers of the country for over six hundred years. The Populzai clan is part of the Pashtun tribe, which is the largest Islamic ethnic group in Afghanistan, numbering close to half a million. Karzai's grandfather was president of the national council under King Mohammed Zahir Shah (1914–; ruled 1933–73); his father served as a senator in the king's parliament. Karzai has seven siblings—six brothers and one sister—five of whom live in the United States, where they run a chain of Afghan restaurants called Helmand.
"It is our humanity that ultimately brings us together, while the pursuit of narrow interests divides us all."
Although he spent most of his early years in Kandahar, Karzai attended high school in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. He also attended the Habibia School in Kabul, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science. In 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the entire Karzai family fled the country and settled in Quetta, Pakistan. Meanwhile Karzai continued his education in political science at the Himachal Pradesh University in Simla, India. In 1985 the studious Karzai traveled to Paris, France, to study journalism at the Ecole Superieure. By the age of twenty-eight, the future diplomat was fluent in seven languages and had racked up an impressive number of professional degrees.
During his years of self-imposed exile, Karzai retained close ties to his homeland. While living in Pakistan he was director of the Afghan National Liberation Front and worked for the mujahedin, a force of anti-Soviet guerillas (small bands of fighters who make surprise attacks) that funneled weapons and supplies from the United States to Afghanistan. In 1989, when Soviet forces were finally overthrown, the country was left in shambles. According to United Nations' estimates, nearly one million Afghanis had died during the decade of occupation and resistance. (The United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945 and composed of most of the countries in the world.) Various factions fought to gain control of the Afghan government, and in 1992 a coalition of Islamic groups known as the Seven Party Alliance named Burhanuddin Rabbani (1940–) president of the interim, or temporary, Islamic Council.
Taliban takes control
From 1992 through 1994 Karzai returned to Afghanistan and served as the deputy foreign minister in the Rabbani government. But life under Rabbani rule was chaotic, riddled by infighting within the Rabbani government and rife with corruption. A disillusioned Karzai resigned his post and left for Pakistan, where, for a time, he allied himself with a newly formed group called the Taliban. The Taliban was composed of conservative Islamic students and clerics who wanted to establish religious rule in Afghanistan. Some felt the Taliban were extremists, almost fanatical, but Karzai believed them to be allies since they were part of the Pashtun tribe. As he told Justin Huggler of the Independent, "The Taliban were good, honest people. I had no reservations about helping them."
Karzai's support of the Taliban, however, was short-lived. After the Taliban took control of the government in 1996 they used Islamic law to impose severe restrictions, especially on women, and their treatment of Afghani citizens was often brutal. When Taliban followers from outside the country began to establish terrorist camps throughout Afghanistan, Karzai distanced himself from the group, and he and his father, Abdul Mohamed, became outspoken opponents. In 1999, while walking home from a mosque (an Islamic house of worship), Abdul Mohamed was assassinated. Karzai blamed the Taliban, and he resolved to rid thecountry of the extremists. As the new khan, or head, of the Populzai clan, he also vowed to devote himself to his father's dream of creating a wholly unique Afghan government that would embrace all clans, tribes, and ethnicities.
From his outpost in Pakistan, Karzai organized a Taliban resistance movement. He also traveled frequently to the United States to plead for support against the Taliban, even appearing before the U.S. Senate. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked U.S. planes and crashed them into buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., the United States began to take Karzai and the Taliban threat more seriously. The September 11 attacks were directly linked to Taliban extremists, and U.S. troops were immediately sent out in full force. The U.S. military worked with the Northern Alliance— Afghani factions united to remove the Taliban; Karzai slipped into southern Afghanistan to supply intelligence reports and to rally southern tribes. In October 2001, after a month of massive attacks, the Taliban was finally toppled.
In December 2001 exiled Afghanistan politicians and Afghani tribal leaders met in Bonn, Germany, to discuss a new government structure. Karzai communicated via satellite telephone, and by unanimous vote, he was named interim president for six months, after which a loya jirga (a traditional council of Afghani elders) would be assembled to decide on future leadership. On December 22, 2001, Karzai was sworn in as president, along with a thirty-person cabinet, including representatives of various clans, two of whom were women.
In June 2002 the loya jirga gathered to choose new government leadership until elections could be held in 2004. Taking 1,295 out of 1,575 votes, Karzai was elected president of the Afghan Transitional Administration. Twenty-eight cabinet members were named and three vice presidents, representing multiple ethnic backgrounds, were installed. Violence erupted almost immediately. Just weeks after taking office, on July 6, 2002, Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir was assassinated. Karzai, himself, narrowly escaped being killed in September 2002 when a gunman opened fire as he was getting into his car. In addition car bombings and grenade attacks became everyday occurrences, aimed at both Afghani heads of state and foreign leaders stationed in the country on peacekeeping missions.
Despite threats to his safety, Karzai launched himself into his new post of president with tireless zeal. Given the constant skirmishes between the various clan warlords his first priority was to focus on security by re-establishing a strong national army and a unified police force. In an attempt to maintain control over the scattered provinces Karzai also fired more than twenty regional officials who were accused of drug trafficking, excessive taxation, and countless other types of corruption. At the most basic level, the new president was faced with the problem of providing his citizens with the simplest necessities. After years of being ravaged by war, many Afghanis had no access to safe drinking water, electricity, or passable roads.
To rally international support Karzai traveled to over fifteen countries, ultimately acquiring nearly $5 billion in aid. According to analysts and members of the press, Karzai was so successful because he charmed world leaders with his mild manner, his intelligent persuasiveness, and his stylish way of dressing. Wearing business suits mixed with colorful capes and wool fezzes, the Afghanistan president struck just the right balance between a modern-day politician and a traditional nationalist (someone who feels devotion and pride in his country and who advocates for strong national independence).
In late 2004, despite continued personal peril (by this time he had round-the-clock protection by U.S. bodyguards), Karzai was the top contender in the first presidential race in Afghanistan history. Analysts claimed that there was a lack of national interest and many were worried the elections would not take place given vocal threats of violence issued by Taliban representatives. On October 9, 2004, however, despite the threats, eight million Afghanis headed to the polls to cast their ballots. When the votes were counted, Karzai had defeated twenty-two opponents by taking 55.4 percent. According to William Safire of the New York Times, "The biggest winner is the cause of democracy in the world, and especially in this region, which much of the West assumed was too culturally backward to express a longing for freedom."
Karzai's inauguration took place on December 7, 2004, at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. With his hand placed on the Koran (the holy book of Islam) he recited this oath, as quoted on the Radio Free Afghanistan Web site: "I will safeguard the rights and interests of the Afghan people. And by the help of Almighty God—and the support of the nation—I will continue my efforts for the welfare and the development of the country. Almighty God, help me."
The crowd in attendance, which included such foreign dignitaries as Vice President Dick Cheney (1941–), gave Karzai a standing ovation as he proceeded to give his acceptance speech. Lisa Stein of U.S. News & World Report described a particularly heartfelt moment when the newly elected president proclaimed, "We have now left a hard and dark past behind us, and today we are opening a new chapter in our history. On this day of a new, peaceful, prosperous era for our country, I would like to wish the best for Afghanistan."
No easy answers
Despite Karzai's sincere intentions, rebuilding Afghanistan would prove to be a difficult task. In an attempt to further rein in regional warlords who relied on illegal drug trafficking, the new president announced he would put an end to the production of opium-poppy, which is used to create heroin. According to statistics issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 87 percent of opium sold in the worldwide drug trade originates in Afghanistan. Critics, however, claim that since taking office Karzai had done little to address the drug issue, in part because there was no easy solution, and also because the drug trade has been central to the country's economy for so long. As Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations told Nikola Krastev of Radio Free Europe, "It's very destabilizing in the country to take away people's only livelihood. And I think the Karzai government ... has soft-pedaled on this issue for that reason."
The biggest hurdle remained the constant outbreaks of violence among various ethnic groups, with the biggest threat coming from the Taliban, not official heads of government anymore, but still an active militant group. After the presidential elections many believed that the Taliban movement had been suppressed, but throughout 2005 tensions continued to increase. Almost daily there were attacks by Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan. Taliban terrorists staged kidnappings of several foreign visitors, and heated demonstrations against the Karzai government popped up on a regular basis.
In the early 1990s, after Soviet forces were driven out from Afghanistan, the country experienced a civil war as various warlords of several ethnic tribes fought for control. One of the groups that emerged was known as the Taliban, a word that comes from the Arabic term for "seeker" or "student." The term was appropriate because most of the Taliban members were Islamic clerics and students who were refugees studying at seminars in nearby Pakistan. Members of the Taliban were strict followers of Islam and belonged to the Pashtun tribe, which early on offered them considerable support.
The Taliban's first leader, Mohammed Omar (1959–), emerged in 1994 and quickly rose to prominence after organizing a sophisticated military unit of over 1,500 men. Omar's followers continued to increase, and over the next few years they overtook Afghanistan, beginning in the western regions. On September 26, 1996, the Taliban captured the capital city of Kabul; President Burhanuddin Rabbani fled and Omar established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with himself as the new head of state. Although the Taliban essentially ruled the majority of the country through 2001, only three nations recognized their authority: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States and the rest of the world took a hands-off approach to the Taliban, considering the amount of friction among other ethnic Afghan tribes seemed to be under control. For most Afghani citizens, however, life under Taliban rule was often brutal. Since Taliban members were strict followers of Islam, Islamic law was firmly enforced. For example, all television, music, and sports were banned; men were expected to trim their beards to a specific length; and criminals were severely punished. A person found guilty of robbery might have a hand cut off by the Taliban police.
The treatment of women under Taliban rule was particularly harsh. Women were forbidden to work outside the home; girls' schools were closed; and women were regularly prohibited from coming into direct contact with men. The Taliban also enforced a strict dress code: Women were not allowed in public unless their faces were completely covered by a veil known as a burqa.
On June 28, 2005, the violence reached a climax when a U.S. military helicopter carrying seventeen Americans was shot down over Kabul. Once again Karzai turned to the international community to come to the assistance of his country, pleading, in particular, for the United States and Australia to bring in more troops. According to Carlotta Gall of the Houston Chronicle, just months after his country had enjoyed its first taste of freedom Karzai's people were "feeling uneasy about the future."
For More Information
Fang, Bay. "After the Election, What? Afghan Elections." U.S. News & World Report (November 8, 2004): p. 38.
"The Final Results." National Review (November 8, 2004): p. 10.
Huggler, Justin. "Hamid Karzai: Steel in an Afghan Cloak." The Independent (UK) (May 21, 2002).
Moreau, Ron, and Sami Yousafzai. "Taliban Are Welcome: Interview with President Karzi." Newsweek (December 20, 2004): p. 32.
Safire, William. "The Best Political News of 2004: The Afghan Election." New York Times (November 29, 2004): p. 20.
Starr, S. Frederick. Silk Road to Success. The National Interest (Winter 2004): pp. 65–73.
Stein, Lisa. "A New, Peaceful Era." U.S. News & World Report (December 20, 2004): p. 14.
"Karzai Sworn in as Afghan President." Radio Free Afghanistan: Weekly Report (December 8, 2004). http://www.azadiradio.org/en/weeklyreport/2004/12/08.asp (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Krastev, Nikola. "Afghanistan: UN Highlights Long-Term Drug Threat." Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.com (June 29, 2005). http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/06/62e936a9-8a35-4a32-9f4b-fc384c67c507.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).