Can Karzai Pull Afghanistan Together?

When Hamid Karzai was named chairman of Afghanistan's interim government by a U.N.-sponsored conference in Bonn last November, many diplomats and analysts doubted the ethnic Pashtun leader from Kandahar would be able to keep the country from disintegrating into civil war. As Karzai set about forming a six-month interim government in Kabul, rival warlords around the country continued to fight, and the terrorist threat from vanquished Taliban rulers remained alive.

Yet Karzai, 44, a fluent English speaker who was educated in India, has so far surprised the skeptics. On June 10, when 1,500 Afghans from 32 provinces gather on a vacant Kabul soccer field for a Loya Jirga, or Council of Tribal Leaders, they are widely expected to elect Karzai as their leader for the next phase in Afghanistan's transition to democracy. Karzai, whose title will likely be Prime Minister, will head a Cabinet that will govern until Afghanistan's first free elections in 2004.

Despite earlier fears of civil war, most provincial Afghan leaders seem committed to supporting Karzai as head of the new transition government. He has won the support of leaders from several major ethnic groups, including the powerful Tajiks. He is backed by the Northern Alliance, which led the fight against Afghanistan's Taliban rulers. Perhaps his most prominent ally is former king Mohammed Zahir Shah, who returned to his native land recently after 29 years in exile in Italy and may be named head of state by the Loya Jirga. "The central government that emerges will have increased authority and legitimacy," says a Bush Administration official.

What diplomats and political observers will be watching for now is how effectively a new Karzai administration will be able to consolidate power further and govern the entire nation for the next two years. Currently, the Karzai government's control doesn't extend far beyond Kabul, where the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force and 550 British-trained Afghan troops are based. Regions such as Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north remain in the hands of ethnic leaders who led the anti-Taliban resistance and are reluctant to disband their militias.

To secure their support, Karzai has made alliances with strongmen. Leaders of the Northern Alliance, for example, are backing Karzai because they believe he will help them retain their influence. "If they respect Karzai, they are hoping that he will respect them," says Ahmad Zia Nickbine, a professor in Kabul University's faculty of social sciences. Although details of a constitution will be worked out over time, the provinces are expected to wield considerable power over their administrative and economic affairs. To ensure the peace, the government is taking steps to train--with Western help--an 80,000-strong army. None of the major warlords is "dedicated to opposing the government," says Barnett R. Rubin, a specialist on Afghanistan at New York University. "They just want to profit from the situation."

Of course, a new Karzai regime would still face a mammoth job of rebuilding roads and public works wrecked by 23 years of war. That task has barely begun, because only a fraction of the $1.8 billion pledged by foreign donors has arrived. "The challenge now is to get countries to translate their goodwill statements into real projects," says U.N. Development Programme Deputy Asia Director David Lockwood.

Continued global aid will be vital, well beyond the Loya Jirga. The big tests to this new democracy lie down the road, as the strains of Afghanistan's tortured politics surface.

By Pete Engardio in New York, Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay, and Christian Otton in Kabul, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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