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A Man With a Mission

The world will be watching Kabul on Saturday as the post-Taliban government takes power. All eyes will be turned to one man in particular: Hamid Karzai. Can he lead the devastated country back to normal life?

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Afghanistan's new leader.

"The rule of the gun must end in Afghanistan." Hamid Karzai has vowed to put Afghanistan's 23 years of war, desecration and warlords behind him when he takes power on Saturday.

The Pashtun tribal leader was for most of the world an unknown exile until just a few weeks ago. The royalists from Rome nominated him for the challenging position at the UN-sponsored talks in Germany. Despite his absence - Karzai was in southern Afghanistan negotiating the Taliban surrender of Kandahar – his combination of traditional ties and modern experience won him the delegates’ support.

The 30-member interim government will be in power for six months. It is dominated by the militarily dominant Northern Alliance coalition of ethnic minorities and supporters of ex-King Zahir Shah. They will share power with the country’s traditionally dominant Pashtuns.

A cosmopolitan traditionalist

Karzai was born in Kandahar as the fourth of seven sons. He went to school in Kabul before studying political science in India. Sticking to the family tradition of public service, he followed his father into politics in the 1980s.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Karzai was mainly dedicated to the opposition movement.

Verteidigungsminister Donald H. Rumsfeld mit dem Interimsminister von Afghanistan Hamid Karzai

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, right, meets with Hamid Karzai, the new interim Prime Minister of Afghanistan, left, at Bagram Airfield, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001 in Afghanistan. (AP Photo, Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)

He spent longer periods of time in the United States, where his family ran Afghan restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore. He has been educated in the West, speaks fluent English, and is at ease with the media – traits which give him strong support from Washington (photo with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).

On the traditional side, Karzai big passion is the national sport buzkashi, a tumultuous game in which horsemen battle for possession of a headless goat.

The 46-year-old, described as having a quick and clever sense of humor, did not settle down until two years ago. He wed an Afghan obstetrician-gynecologist active in helping refugees in Pakistan.

Controversial choice

But Karzai’s appointment is not without controversy. Many Afghans claim his record is anything but clean.

When the Taliban started up in Kandahar in 1994, Karzai knew many of their leaders from the Soviet war and supported their drive to end chaos and lawlessness there. He regarded the Taliban as Pashtun, like himself. He served as deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1994 after the mujahideen (holy warriors) defeated the communists.

But within a few months, he became suspicious of the group. Karzai was not pleased with how it had been infiltrated by foreign elements such as Pakistani, Arab, and Chechen extremists and soon split with the movement.

In 1997, Karzai and his father, former senator Abdul Ahad Karzai, began campaigning against the Taliban from their exile base in Quetta, just across the border in Pakistan. Two years later, the senior Karzai was assassinated. The death was attributed to the Taliban. Karzai then became determined to follow his father’s wishes of setting up a multi-ethnic, broad-based government rule in Afghanistan.

UN support

Karzai's mission has strong backing from the West, most importantly the United Nations. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pledged that the world body would support the Afghans and give them whatever help was needed to implement the power-sharing plan.

"We will be there with them on 22 December to give them whatever assistance we can, and we are going to take them on their word and work with them in good faith to implement the agreement that they willingly signed in Bonn," Mr Annan said.

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