Karzai to get better U.S. greeting

Sunday, January 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- He's not quite Cinderella, but when Hamid Karzai comes to town this week, Afghanistan's interim leader will have made a remarkable transformation from a largely ignored tribal representative into a crucial player in one of the world's hottest hot spots.

When he spoke before a Senate panel in July 2000 about the devastation and dangers facing his country, he was simply one of three people who gave testimony -- and was forgotten by the one senator who bothered to attend.

Today, the 44-year-old Karzai holds the precarious job of leading Afghanistan from war to the creation of a new government.

As such, the once overlooked man became the must-see attraction for members of Congress this winter. Two dozen lawmakers trekked halfway around the globe to visit the prime minister, eager to shake the hand and take the measure of the great Afghan hope, who is fluent in English.

Virtually all of those visitors have sung his praises.

"The guy is sharp. He's smart. He's savvy. He understands. He has the vision thing," said Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who spent 5 1/2 hours with Karzai in Kabul earlier this month.

Although he has no real power, said Biden, D-Del., "Karzai is a Pashtun tribal leader who is one guy everyone can agree upon, and I've met with everyone ... They know he may be the one guy among them who can deliver on what they're all desperately looking for."

Among those turning to him are the members of a multinational force charged with keeping the peace as the country transitions to a new government. He also is being asked to broker short-term financial help for "really rudimentary stuff," like keeping the lights on and paying secretaries' salaries.

Toast of the town

During Karzai's visit to Washington this week, he is expected to meet with House and Senate leaders, one of whom he just met in Kabul, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Once ignored, Karzai will now be the toast of the town.

"He's so direct, honest, bold in his honesty," said Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., who was part of a three-man House delegation that was the first congressional group to visit Afghanistan since the anti-terror war began. "He's a very capable person, the kind of guy who can build a coalition."

Pitts said he hopes Karzai will play a big role in the new government that will rule Afghanistan for two years while a constitution is drafted. A grand national assembly, or Loya Jirga, will meet in May to create that government.

"I wouldn't bet on it," Biden said of Karzai getting a major role. "I don't think he has the burning ambition that is seeking power."

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