Karzai's Difficult Days

Hamid Karzai has no army, virtually no tax revenues and very little real power. What the Afghan leader does have, apparently, is presence of mind. When Karzai flew back to Kabul from the eastern city of Jalalabad last week--his latest visit to the provinces to tamp down quarrelsome warlords--he was rushed by a mob of frustrated hajjis demanding a flight to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Muslims who had paid $1,500 for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca had waited for days in freezing weather. Karzai calmly stood before them and declared, "If you want to kill me, I'm ready," according to one witness, Rahmed Khoda. The mob halted, and Karzai assuaged it with a promise that planes would arrive soon.

One of Karzai's cabinet ministers who was at the airport at the same time was not so fortunate: Abdul Rahman, head of air transport in the new government, boarded a flight to India, and found his aircraft surrounded by another mob. When he opened the door of his plane to reason with the angry hajjis, some men rushed up the steps. "Why is there a plane for you and not for us?" those on the ground screamed. "You are supposed to be in charge!" The panicked minister offered to resign, and had a letter drawn up to that effect on the spot. But someone stabbed him to death and threw him down the steps.

What followed was a bizarre political drama that showed that, while Karzai is hailed in Washington as the emblem of a new Afghanistan, this ruined land is still defined by seething violence and old tribal enmities. And it's becoming increasingly clear that just about the only thing holding Karzai's shaky government together, apart from its leader's quick wits, is the backing of the U.S. military.

A day after Rahman's killing, Karzai announced that Rahman had been assassinated in an apparent plot by some of his own government ministers. Eight men, including a general and the deputy chief of intelligence, were arrested or sought--among them three who had flown to Saudi Arabia as part of the hajj. Karzai then denied that other, ordinary hajjis were involved. But in a government composed of formerly warring factions, many of Karzai's own officials began undercutting his accusations. One senior official told NEWSWEEK that he believed there was no conspiracy and that angry hajjis were, in fact, responsible. Others suggested that government officials who had hated Rahman exploited the anger of the hajjis to target him, or that exiled warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar orchestrated the killing to divide the government, a fragile coalition of Northern Alliance elements and Karzai's ethnic Pashtuns. A source in Karzai's own office said Saturday that the men were arrested mainly because they were at the airport and "did not try to stop the killing."

The controversy raised fresh questions about Karzai, who was named Afghanistan's interim leader in December largely because of his perceived ability to stay above the fray. It also provoked new doubts about the Bush administration's low-key approach to "nation-building"--which mainly involves small Special Forces teams on the ground and the implied threat of bombers overhead. The administration is debating whether to expand the peacekeeping mission, which involves a 3,900-soldier force (mostly Europeans) confined to Kabul. In a measure of its concern, the U.S. military sent a 90-man squad of Special Forces to Kabul on Saturday during the day of Rahman's funeral, NEWSWEEK has learned.

President George W. Bush continues to insist that no U.S. peacekeepers will be deployed. But various warlords are consolidating control, dividing Afghanistan into private fiefdoms, and international aid that might shore up Karzai is only trickling in. Days before the Rahman killing, Karzai managed to quell a fierce gun battle between two minor warlords, Haji Saifullah and Padcha Khan Zadran, over who would be governor of the southern province of Paktia. Karzai sent his uncle, Aziz Karzai, to tell both men, in effect, that the Americans would bomb the daylights out of whoever broke the peace again. Then he installed a brand-new governor. Zadran threatened to revive the conflict but later beat a snarling retreat, complaining to NEWSWEEK, "Karzai is abusing his power."

Col. Wayland Parker, the U.S. Army liaison to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Kabul, indicated that Karzai was dealing with such incidents in the only way he could: by playing Afghanistan's often savage political game. "Conspiracy theories are the order of the day in Afghanistan," the colonel said. "Nobody is Mr. Clean here." He said Karzai was contending with "a bunch of thugs." ISAF itself has sometimes been less than gentlemanly. Last Friday the security force sought to put on a soccer game at the Kabul stadium where the Taliban once performed ritual executions. But it found itself beating back angry Afghans who mobbed the front gate and tried to climb the walls. ISAF forces later killed an Afghan and wounded several others in a nighttime shooting.

The security force, which is there mainly to support Karzai's government, was also forced to explain why it didn't do more to stop Rahman's killing. Though ISAF was at the airport when the minister was murdered, the civil side of the tarmac where the hajjis were rioting was controlled by Karzai's security forces, said Neal Peckham, the ISAF spokesman. "They did not invite us to come across and intervene." But Colonel Parker admitted that the security force was "wrestling" with redefining its mission.

Until it does, or Afghanistan stabilizes, Karzai will have to live on his wits--and good will from many Afghans eager to shed what Karzai, at Rahman's funeral, called "the culture of the knife and the gun." Last week even many hajjis refused to blame him. "We're not disappointed in Karzai," said one, Abdul Raouf. "We're disappointed in you, the Americans and the international community. Couldn't you send us a few planes?" Raouf echoed a complaint increasingly heard in Afghanistan these days: that even under the Taliban, life could be more stable. "The Taliban gave us places to stay in Kabul, and they took us back home when we returned. Now there's nothing." For Hamid Karzai, the challenge is to make something out of nothing.