Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai may be pro-American, honest and capable of rebuilding Afghanistan with billions in foreign aid, but his grip on power is fragile at best.
When he arrives in Washington on Monday to meet President Bush, he will have risen from a minor figure in the Afghan opposition to the great conciliator among the fierce ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
His weakness is that he has no army of his own, nor can he command the heavily armed factions loyal to the nation’s warlords.
According to his envoy in Washington, Haroun Amin, what Mr. Karzai needs to build backing for his government is money.
“If there is no money, he can’t pay the public servants,” Mr. Amin said in an interview yesterday. “When some assets are unfrozen and some money is given, he can take the people away from the war and warlords and put them to work.”
In Tokyo yesterday, the United States, Japan, Europe and Saudi Arabia pledged more than $1 billion in aid for Afghanistan this year.
But Mr. Amin said that the money should be given directly to the Karzai administration for distribution so as to boost its credibility.
Mr. Karzai was chosen to head the six-month interim administration of Afghanistan by a multiethnic Afghan council in Bonn last month.
Mr. Karzai speaks English fluently and served as a deputy foreign minister in Afghanistan’s first mujahideen government in 1992.
As the warlords then tore the country to pieces, he at first backed the Taliban, which seized power in 1996, offering them cash and weapons. But then he became convinced they were controlled by Arabs and Pakistanis, he told Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid.
“These Arabs, together with their foreign supporters and the Taliban, destroyed miles and miles of houses and orchards and vineyards,” Mr. Karzaik told the British Broadcasting Corp.
“These Arabs are in Afghanistan to learn to shoot. They learn to shoot on live targets and those live targets are the Afghan people, our children our women. We want them out.”
Although he is from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, at the Bonn conference he was endorsed over Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani by Tajik and other non-Pashtun political leaders.
The aging Mr. Rabbani, a former president who was driven from power by the Taliban in 1996, was seen by younger Tajik and other Afghan politicians as out of touch and stubborn, while Mr. Karzai presented a more modern and affable face.
Mr. Karzai hails from a family long connected to the royal family and to leadership roles in Afghan governments of the past.
During the 1980 to 1990 Afghan war against the Soviets, he played a diplomatic and organizing role in exile in Pakistan rather than leading one of the fighting mujahideen groups that later tore the country to pieces after the Soviets withdrew.
Mr. Karzai’s decision to form opposition to the Taliban in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1998, led the Taliban to execute his father, former government minister Abdul Ahad Karzai and head of the Popalzai tribe.
The tribe passed over his older brothers living in the United States to select Hamid as new tribal leader, and he swiftly organized without Taliban or Pakistani permission a funeral convoy from Quetta to Kandahar that Taliban leaders feared to halt.
That daring move, according to Mr. Rashid, changed perceptions of Mr. Karzai, who went from being seen as a diplomatic lightweight to a real leader.
He entered Afghanistan with a small armed force against the Taliban after the United states began bombing Afghanistan last Oct. 7 in retaliation for the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
After the collapse of the Taliban, he was able to include leaders of the powerful Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara factions who made up the Northern Alliance in his interim government.
His greatest rivals are Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum, Herat leader Ismail Khan and Hazara warlord Karim Khalili.
His three strongest allies are also from the non-Pashtu regions of the country: Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah; Gen. Mohammed Fahim, the successor to legendary Tajik fighter Shah Ahmed Masood; and Interior Minister Younis Qanooni.
Mr. Karzai also remains linked to the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973 and lives in Rome.
Mr. Amin said Mr. Karzai’s strength is that he not only can unite the diverse Afghan ethnic groups but also speak to the international players, such as Iran and Pakistan, that could easily derail any peace settlement.