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Karzai's quest: the man & the plan: decimated by decades of war, Afghanistan finally has hope for a brighter future. The interim leader, Hamid Karzai, might be the one to chart a new path. (International).

December 22 was a big day for Afghanistan. Standing before a crowd of 2,000 supporters, 44-year-old Hamid Karzai, an Afghan tribal leader from a distinguished family, was sworn in as the country's interim leader. He became the first person since 1973 to take control of the war-ravaged country peacefully.

Karzai then swore in the 29 cabinet members who will govern the country for six months. The inauguration ceremony in the capital, Kabul, marked the first phase of a political transition intended to lead to elections within two and a half years. The plans for Afghanistan's future were worked out by a wide array of Afghan leaders and international negotiators at a meeting in Bonn, Germany, in early December. A traditional Afghan tribal council, or loya jirga, will be held this spring to hammer out further details for a two-year transitional government.

"The significance of this day in Afghan history really depends on what happens in the future," said Karzai at the ceremony. "If we deliver, this will be a great day. If we don't deliver, this will go into oblivion."

The interim government faces a staggering task. Afghanistan is a desolate, drought-stricken landscape of bombed-out factories and fields studded with land mines. The country's prime economic activities are smuggling and primitive farming. Vast swaths remain ruled by warlords and bandits, Eighty percent of the population cannot read. One out of four children dies before the age of 5.


"What they need to focus on, unfortunately, is everything," says Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert from New York University who participated in the Bonn talks. The country, he explains, is absolutely at rock bottom. It is not only bankrupt, it has no administrative institutions. For instance, the government needs to hire teachers, but it has few functional schools to send them to and no currency with which to pay them.

Addressing these problems will require sustained assistance from the international community, experts say. Many are hoping the United States will lead the international effort to rebuild (see "Should We Rebuild Afghanistan?" page 29). "It wouldn't be possible without international aid," Rubin says.

The path forward may be daunting, but many say Karzai has the right background. He is a member of the Pashtun tribe, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group. A native of the southern city of Kandahar, Karzai lived in Pakistan during the Taliban's rule. He studied political science at college in India and speaks five languages fluently, including English.


"He's a very sophisticated, well-educated Afghan with a truly nationalist objective, not a regional or ethnic view," says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the University of Nebraska's Center for Afghan Studies. "And he's a good Muslim, but he's a moderate and he doesn't believe in imposing his religious views on others." Karzai, he adds, is "the best possible choice there could be."

Karzai has four brothers and a sister--and three teenage nieces who live in the U.S. and are American citizens. Shkala Karzai, 15, describes her uncle as fun-loving and constantly joking. It was strange to have her uncle suddenly in charge of Afghanistan, where she has never been. "When it first happened, I was like, `What?'" she says. "Then I realized he is the right person for the job. He's not an extremist like other people. He doesn't care about power; he wants all the happiness back in Afghanistan, the way it used to be."

Karzai's siblings call their brother in Kabul nightly, offering advice and encouragement. They all speak affectionately of him and praise his evenhandedness. "Hamid is a democrat," says his sister, Faozia Royan, who lives in Malden, Mass. "He has a special respect for women. He likes women and men to work side by side, shoulder to shoulder."

Karzai will need those diplomatic skills. The interim government is a delicate coalition of rival ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and others. "Let us come together and be brothers and sisters," Karzai said to his fellow Afghans at his December inauguration. "Let us forget the sad past."

FOCUS: New Afghan Leader Must Calm Tribal Rivalries and Revive a Shattered Economy


To help students understand the challenges facing Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan's interim government, as he works to rebuild his devastated country.

Discussion Questions:

* What argument might Hamid Karzai make to the leaders of Afghanistan's rival ethnic groups to persuade them to work together in peace?

* Does the U.S. have an obligation to lead the international effort to aid Afghanistan?

* During the reign of the Taliban, girls were forbidden to go to school. Should Afghanistan channel the bulk of its educational resources to girls' education to compensate for this past discrimination?


Background: Remind students of two key developments in Afghanistan's recent history: (1) Hamid Karzai took power after the U.S. defeated Afghanistan's Taliban regime; (2) the U.S. attacked the Taliban only after they refused to surrender terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, key suspect in the September 11 attacks.

Critical Thinking/Discussion: Direct students' attention to the observation of Afghanistan expert Thomas Gouttierre, that Hamid Karzai is the best choice for a leader because he has a "nationalist objective, not a regional or ethnic view."

What is Gouttierre's point? What is a nationalist objective, and why is that so important? (Students should understand that Karzai's national, as opposed to a regional or ethnic viewpoint, suggests that he will be inclusive, recognizing the rights of all Afghans. This strategy could help calm the ethnic- and region-based animosities that have plagued Afghanistan for so much of its history.)

Decision Making: Have students review the problems facing Afghanistan today. Assuming that international aid begins to flow, what should Karzai rebuild first, the education system, government agencies, banks, factories, or farmlands? Or will he have to focus on everything at once? Suppose a lack of funds requires that some projects be put on hold. Which projects do students believe are the most important? Which can be delayed for a time?

Web Watch: Check the Afghan Network for daily information about events in the country at

With reporting by DAVID ROHDE and FRANCIS X. CLINES of The New York Times.
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Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Feb 11, 2002
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