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Walking a Political Tightrope

Hamid Karzai’s legendary balancing act between the diverse ethnic groups in Afghanistan will be stretched in the coming days as the Loya Jirga carves out the country's future political path.

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The future of Afghanistan? - Hamid Karzai in his trademark green and purple Uzbek gown

In the six months since being sworn in as Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai has cut a dashing figure on the international stage.

Dapper, politically shrewd and fluent in English, the jet-setting Karzai is seen by the West as the right man to lead Afghanistan out of its post-war poverty and warlordism and onto the path of democracy.

That impression has been buffered by the fact that Karzai has gleaming credentials among the locals – he is a powerful Pashtun tribal leader from the Taliban’s political stronghold of Kandahar and a member of the same clan as the former Afghan King, Zahir Shah.

Gulf between western and local perceptions

But the qualities that the western world values in Karzai do not automatically render him popular in his own country where tribal loyalties and parochial interests threaten to rupture any semblance of democracy.

Though Karzai has been credited with attracting much needed western aid and ensuring that Afghanistan remains an enduring image in the Western consciousness, several deeply traditional sections in his impoverished country have looked with resentment upon his western education and his hobnobbing with world leaders.

He has been accused of being a mere stooge of America, frittering away strategic Afghan interests to US troops and perhaps worse being an enemy of Islam by opening up traditional Afghanistan to the west.

Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek - tribes count in Afghanistan

The fact that Karzai is Pashtun immediately renders him unattractive to the powerful minority of Tajiks and Uzbeks who have shared power with him in his interim administration for the past six months.

Several key posts in the interim administration were handed over to the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance – the main bastion of resistance against the Taliban – under an agreement signed in Bonn last year. It was a move that antagonised several Pashtuns.

Karzai’s greatest challenge so far has been in unifying the various factions and ethnic rivals - a huge task that has made it difficult to focus on the actual job of governing the war-torn country.

Ousting the Taliban was common goal

But if there's one thing that the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance and Karzai agree on, it's the fight against the Taliban. Karzai’s own resistance to the Taliban is said to have endeared him to some Tajik and Uzbek pockets.

Born on December 24, 1957, the fourth of seven sons, Karzai went to school in Kabul before going abroad to India to study political science.

He served as deputy foreign minister in the post-Soviet mujahideen government from 1992 to 1994 and like many Afghans briefly supported the Taliban movement. But by late 1994, Karzai became suspicious of the movement, fearing it had been infiltrated and was controlled by foreigners, including Pakistanis and Arabs.

In 1999, Karzai’s father – a speaker in the parliament in the 1970s and leader of the ancient Poplzai clan in Kandahar - was assassinated while walking home from a mosque in Quetta. Karzai believes that the assassination was masterminded by the Taliban and has since embraced his father’s dream of a united, independent Afghanistan under central government rule.

Karzai has also maintained strong links with the former King, Zahir Shah, who has spent the last 30 years in exile. He has long supported the King’s plans to build a broad-based government in Afghanistan through the convening of a Loya Jirga.

Good job so far, challenges ahead

Observers believe that so far Karzai has stood up well to the daunting challenge of running a fragmented country.

The West largely credits him for maintaining a balance between a country of warlords and ethnic rivals and trying to achieve a modicum of independence while relying heavily on foreign financial and military aid.

Karzai has also received full marks for doggedly pursuing the vision of democracy, security and women’s rights that he painted on being elected the interim leader.

But observers advise caution.

They say the real test of Karzai’s influence with the diverse ethnic groups in Afghanistan hinges upon the success of the ongoing Loya Jirga to chart out a democratic path for the country.

Rumblings of discontent at Loya Jirga

Loja Dschirga Delegierte in Afghanistan

Loya Jirga delegates wait for the beginning of meeting, in Kabul, Tuesday, June 11, 2002. Loya Jirga or the Great Council is meeting to choose the new Afghan Government.( Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Pool)

Indeed, deep resentments between supporters of the former King, Zahir Shah - who see him as the father of the nation - and those from Karzai’s interim administration have already surfaced at the grand council.

Many from the pro-Shah group see a US hand in Zahir Shah’s decision not to run for President and instead throw his support behind Karzai.

The centuries-old Loya Jirga - which is to choose a new interim government that will rule for 18 months and adopt a new constitution - has already been marred by factional bickering, delays, back-room deals and rumours of rigging, foul play and strong-arm tactics.

Delegates angrily staged a walk-out on Wednesday, the second day of the Loya Jirga, saying they were sore about the lack of a free vote to decide the future of their war-shattered country. Several delegates also protested that the process was undemocratic with Karzai - interim leader and US favourite - the sole candidate for presidency.

Karzai too forward-looking for traditional Afghanistan?

Though it is widely believed that Hamid Karzai will be elected the new President of Afghanistan, his election will not be free of controversy.

It might satisfy the West, but within Afghanistan the former monarch Zahir Shah is still seen by a large number of Afghans as being the only bridge between traditionally warring tribes and those already in power.

For a country steeped in traditions, the former King restored to head of state would be a symbolic and logical outcome of the Loya Jirga.

But given the present world attention focused on Afghanistan and a dynamic Karzai wooing the west, a compromise could be reached by including the former monarch in the future government.

In his zeal for reform and modernity in tradition-rich Afghanistan, Karzai is discovering it is best to proceed slowly.

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