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RESPONSE TO TERROR | AFGHAN OPPOSITION

Despite Perils, Tribal Chief Is Driven to Oust Taliban

Conflict: Hamid Karzai tries to recruit Afghans for a coalition regime. The U.S. is counting on him to mobilize opposition in the south.

November 11, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUETTA, Pakistan — In a remote valley high in the mountains of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai is calling on tribal elders, religious leaders and warriors to join his effort to bring peace and a new regime to their nation.

His mission, in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan, is fraught with peril. A supporter of the nation's exiled monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, Karzai is calling for a loya jirga, the traditional Afghan convocation of elders used to choose a new leader. It is implicitly a call for the overthrow of the Taliban.

The fundamentalist Islamic regime has announced a death sentence for anyone who supports Zaher Shah, and Karzai is surviving day to day. He and his bodyguards fended off Taliban soldiers Nov. 1, and he was pulled out of Afghanistan by U.S. helicopters last Sunday. He returned to his homeland within days, and there is little doubt that Taliban troops are still hunting for him.

But he seems prepared to take the risk in part because it is a role he long has expected to fill.

"Of course he is in a lot of danger now, but we have been preparing for this for 20 years, not just since Sept. 11," said younger brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who lives in the western Pakistani city of Quetta. "The place where he is now is mountains and high valleys and he has his people around him."

His family is prominent in the Popolzai clan, part of the Durrani tribe that has been linked to Afghan's royal dynasty since the 1700s. They are also Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group of the country and the Taliban. In the southern provinces of Afghanistan where Karzai is now working, most people are Pushtuns.

Within that ethnic group his name is well known because his father served in the Afghan parliament for many years, at one time as its speaker. The father was assassinated two years ago in Quetta. Hamid, the fourth of seven sons and the one most steeped in politics, took his place in the struggle to dislodge the Taliban.

Karzai, 44, is one of the few Afghan leaders that U.S. officials have named publicly as an ally, and they are counting on him to rally what is believed to be latent opposition to the Taliban that exists even in the movement's southern Afghanistan stronghold. At the moment, at least, the Bush administration appears to have no other strategy--short of deploying U.S. ground troops--to counter the Taliban in the south.

With his fluency in English and his urbane manner, Karzai puts Western officials at ease. But ultimately the test of his mettle will be in the wilds of Afghanistan, where loyalties are divided among local warlords, tribal allegiances and the Taliban, and people are often swayed by hard calculations about which side is most likely to survive.

"The tribes are still powerful but not as powerful as they were historically in Afghanistan," said Anders Fange, civil affairs coordinator for a U.N. mission in Afghanistan and a 20-year veteran of working with the country.

"With the emergence of a more modern centralized state and the rise of moujahedeen, who fought the Soviets and were supplied with weapons and money from Pakistan, allegiances came to be based less on tribal power," Fange added. "And then the Taliban came, and they are not tribal."

Karzai is Media Savvy

Karzai is aware that it is dangerous to rely too much on tribal ties and has emphasized his willingness to work with all groups in Afghanistan--including the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance--as long as they accept the importance of convening a loya jirga. In the past few weeks, he has employed his considerable gift for communication and knowledge of how to use the media.

He has given interviews by satellite phone from his mountain hideaway to CNN, CBS, BBC and, most important, to the Pushtu-language radio service carried by the BBC. The latter is heard across the country by ordinary Afghans, whose support Karzai will need most if his movement is to succeed.

"He's very street smart," said Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "He has the ability to adapt. You like him when you talk to him in an intellectual conversation, but he can also talk to his own people in Afghanistan."

Karzai used an interview with the Pushtu-language service to reassure the Afghan people that despite the Taliban attack he was alive and at work in his home country. In later broadcasts, he said he had talked to Taliban commanders as well as Northern Alliance figures and would even work with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the regime's leader.

"Afghans must be empowered to take control of their country. If you do that, you will have an end to terrorism. If you don't, the trouble will continue and there will be no end to it," Karzai told The Times before he slipped into Afghanistan in early October. "In my opinion, the majority of the people want a loya jirga."

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