Karzai comes home to problems

Sunday, February 3, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- On his first outing to the West as Afghanistan's leader, Hamid Karzai was feted and feasted, hailed for his chic and charm, praised for his political savvy. On Saturday, the fanfare ended abruptly -- with his return home.

Karzai landed before dawn in this darkened capital, where the threat of lawlessness still dictates a strictly enforced overnight curfew. Eschewing public appearances, he closeted himself in the presidential palace with aides. Rather than cheering crowds, he faced a host of pressing problems -- some old, some new.

Perhaps the most worrisome was the worst outbreak of factional fighting since Karzai took office five weeks ago as interim leader. A warlord aligned with his government, whose brother sits in Karzai's Cabinet, laid siege to the eastern Afghan town of Gardez to press his claim on the province's governorship.

The warlord, Bacha Khan, silenced his guns and pulled back his troops Friday after two days of fighting left more than 60 people dead -- but aides called it a temporary cease-fire, and vowed that the confrontation wasn't over yet.

Many Afghans viewed the violence in Gardez with dread, fearing it could signal a slide back into the type of bloody factional fighting that set the stage for the Taliban's rise.

Karzai's appeal for a larger international peacekeeping force deployed all around the country, rather than just in Kabul, got a sympathetic hearing -- but did not win a statement of support from either President Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a greater troop commitment.

Despite that, his trip, the first to the United States by an Afghan leader in nearly 30 years, was deemed a diplomatic triumph. Karzai was showered with goodwill and good wishes, applauded for his determination to rebuild Afghanistan.

'Hasn't he been in Japan?'

Some of his compatriots, though -- many of them living in homes with no electricity to power a television, even if they had one -- didn't even realize he'd been away.

"Hasn't he been in Japan?" asked 45-year-old vendor Saboor Ghafouri, thinking of the donor conference Karzai attended last month in Tokyo, where more than $5 billion in reconstruction aid was pledged.

Other Afghans followed events as best they could -- in Mohammed Nawabi's case, on a scratchy battery-powered radio, where he heard a rebroadcast of Karzai's speech last week to the United Nations Security Council. Like many here, he welcomed the idea of a greatly expanded security force.

"If the peacekeepers come to all provinces, problems like in Gardez would not happen," said Nawabi, who is 28 and jobless. "We want the world to help us, and help us make a national army, one that can watch over the whole country."

Providing security for all Afghanistan seems like a distant dream for the Karzai administration, which is so devoid of resources that most Afghans have forgotten what it is like to have access to basic government services.

While Karzai was away, his government notched up an achievement that was almost poignant in the depth of deprivation it illustrated -- the reopening of 18 neighborhood post offices in the capital. Since the 1990s, Kabul, a city of 1.2 million people, had been served by a single post office.

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