A few weeks later I met Pat at "the restaurant" in Baltimore. Helmand
-- named for the river near where the Karzais grew up in Afghanistan -- is
one of three Afghan restaurants in the United States run by Karzai family
members. (The others are in Cambridge, Mass. and San Francisco) Pat
had just sold her insurance business to devote all her energy to running the
restaurant ... and re-building Afghanistan. Her husband, Qayum, was temporarily
in Afghanistan helping his younger brother get the country back on its feet.
While plates of leek-filled ravioli, marinated lamb and baked pumpkin arrived
from the restaurant kitchen, Pat explained that while she's never been to
Afghanistan, she was, in essence, married to the country by now. During the
Soviet occupation and subsequent years of civil war, her in-laws lived in their
Howard County home; Hamid stayed there on his frequent visits to Washington. He
loved her homemade scones, she said, and recalled the long walks Hamid took in
the early mornings across the Maryland countryside.
Pat liked our approach of telling the story through first-person accounts and
said she was confident Hamid would enjoy recounting his incredible journey -- if
he had the time. "I'll call Qayum and make sure he gets you into see Hamid,"
she said, adding that she would like to send a care package with me -- if I
didn't mind. How could I mind? What better calling card could I have to gain
access to the Presidential Palace in Kabul than a care package from a family
member in America?
The night before I left for Afghanistan, Pat arrived with two books by George
Soros, some Dr. Scholl's footcare products, a stack of white cotton t-shirts,
The Encyclopedia of Letters, two bottles of gentian root, a pair of
tennis shoots and a couple of bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Each item was
identified for either her husband or one of her three brothers-in-law who were
now living in Afghanistan, and unable to obtain these essentials. The only item
for "the chairman" was a letter from his good friend -- and Afghan scholar --
In early May Kabul was hot and dusty. In my journal I wrote, "First
impressions: A chaotic city that moves slowly, fueled by endless cups of tea,
with occasional spurts of activity." One of those spurts came during lunch on
our first day, when the not-always-reliable satellite phone chirped into action
for the first time. It was Qayum Karzai inviting me to breakfast at his home
the next morning.
Not quite as handsome as his younger brother, Qayum is just as polished, and,
like Hamid, clearly comfortable moving seamlessly between Afghan and American
cultures. He quickly grasped that we needed some "quality" time with The
Chairman, as he now called his brother, and said he would try to arrange a
preliminary meeting for us to explain the project. Two days later, we were
ushered into Chairman Karzai's office on the second floor of one of the many
buildings in the walled compound of the Presidential Palace. Our presence on
the day's agenda had caused a minor uproar with the press secretary, Yusef
Nuristani. Qayum had completely bypassed the established procedures for
arranging interviews. He'd gone straight to Hamid. For him, it was a family
matter -- doing a favor for one of Pat's friends. By the time Nuristani found
out about it, there was little he could do to stop it.
For close to 20 minutes we were completely alone with Karzai. No press
officers, no fluttering assistants. He was pleased to receive the letter from
Tomsen, but asked, "Where are Pat's scones? I was so hoping she would send some
scones with you." Scones notwithstanding, he was eager to be a part of our
project. "It's such a magnificent story," he said, not so much boasting about
his own accomplishment, as appreciating the drama and significance of a
quixotic mission that surprisingly landed him in the Presidential Palace. "I
will try to give you as much time as you need," he offered. I thanked him and
mentioned we would need an hour to set up our cameras and lights. His mood
changed abruptly. "What! This is television? Only 15 minutes, no more." It
was pointless to try to argue. He wasn't rude; he was firm. Being in front of a
television camera for an hour or more was just not something he would do. We
were given a six o'clock appointment the following Monday.
Over the weekend, I managed to reach Qayum to see what could be done to extend
our time. Qayum said he would talk with his brother and the still-ruffled press
secretary. Maybe we could get more time. "He likes telling the story, and maybe
he'll just get into it once he gets going."
But when Monday arrived, moments before we were about to leave for the
Presidential Palace, Mr. Nuristani called. "Something has come up. The Chairman
cannot do the interview today." My heart sank. "But he hopes you can come at 8
o'clock tomorrow morning," -- the heart rebounded -- "... and you will have
thirty minutes." Even better. The delay was fortuitous in other ways. Minutes
before our original appointment, a massive thunderstorm ripped through Kabul,
shutting down all electricity for the rest of the night. Our interview would
have been done in the dark.
By the next morning, as we talked our way through several security checkpoints
into the Presidential Palace, the air was clear and cool for the first time in
a week. After looking at a few rather drab rooms in the Palace, we asked if Mr.
Karzai would be willing to do the interview outdoors. "I think he would prefer
that," Nuristani said, showing us a quiet, walled-in courtyard with a fountain
and a massive tree reported to be 800 years old. A perfect place. With no
lights to set up, we were ready to shoot far ahead of schedule. Much to our
surprise, breakfast was graciously offered by the staff. We graciously
accepted. A large round table appeared; soon it was covered with a white, linen
table cloth, silverware and china. Fried eggs and bacon plus traditional Afghan
bread quickly followed. And, of course, a cup of green Afghan tea. It seemed
oddly incongruous to be eating so elegantly, awaiting Hamid Karzai, in a place
that nine months earlier was the center of the Taliban government in
At the appointed time Karzai arrived. Within minutes of sitting down in front
of the camera, Karzai confirmed for me what another Western journalist had said
about him. Hamid Karzai is one of the few people in Afghanistan who can tell a
good anecdotal story, and, more importantly, he understands the value of
anecdotes. Again, with no hovering aides nearby, Karzai quickly returned in his
mind to the uncertain days of October, when, without any assurance of U.S.
support, he headed off from his home in Pakistan on the back of a motorcycle to
organize a people's rebellion.
Rich with detail, always willing to go back to add a little more, Karzai
unfolded his story, piece by piece. It was, I felt sure, one of the most
detailed interviews he'd given about his journey, and certainly the longest
interview for television. We'd been talking for 45
minutes and only gotten as far as the battle to save Tarin Kowt -- about half
way through my question list -- when he looked at this watch and stood up. He'd
obviously gotten over his reluctance to do more than 15 minutes in front of a
camera, but now we had another problem. "I'm very sorry. I have a meeting of
the loya jirga council, and I am already 15 minutes late. Why don't
we continue this evening?"
To such a question from a head of state, there is only one answer. "That would
be fine," I said, realizing immediately we wouldn't be able to resume outside
in the garden, and would be faced with an inescapable "continuity" problem.
There is nothing, per se, wrong about conducting an interview in two different
places, except that when the two parts are edited together in the final film,
it can be distracting to the viewers. "Hey, wasn't that guy outside the last
time we saw him ... and look, now he's inside." When viewers start thinking
about those things, they've stopped thinking about what the man is saying. But
we had no choice.
"You see those men over there?" Karzai asked as he got up to leave, motioning
to the three men sitting off in the corner. "They were part of the group who
were with me early on, before we got to Tarin Kowt. Take a look at that one in
the suit! You'd never have recognized him last November in the woods with me.
You should talk with them! See you tonight."
While waiting to resume the interview with Karzai, I made my first of many
trips to Bagram Airbase -- the Soviet-built military base that had changed hands
several times in fierce fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, and
was now "little America," the Afghani home of the 10th Mountain
Division. The contrast between the quiet tranquility of the Palace garden and
the fine tan dust and searing heat that defined Bagram was stark. It was harder
to gain access to the U.S. military base than the Presidential Palace, and once
there, no one was offering fried eggs served on china with linen tablecloths.
I was glad to be back in Kabul shortly before sunset, with plenty of time to
set up our lights in a large and worn out reception room. Mr. Nuristani, who had
warmed considerably by now, apologized that the Chairman would be a few minutes
late. "He's going to the mosque for evening prayers." From the second floor
window, I saw Karzai -- alone -- walking to a small mosque on the palace grounds.
A few minutes later, he emerged with a group of colleagues and soon was in
front of our cameras again.
Fighting allergies, and at the tail end of a full day of meetings and events,
Karzai was obviously tired. But once he resumed his story, he was right back in
the dust and uncertainty of his life five months earlier. "Unbelievable," was
how he described the day in early December when an errant U.S. bomb fell on his
position. At least 20 people -- including three American soldiers who were
with him -- were killed by the blast; Karzai -- who escaped with a small cut --
could have been one of them. The bomb that fell out of the clear morning sky
came just minutes before Karzai heard he was to lead Afghanistan's new
government, and hours before a Taliban commander arrived to discuss terms on
surrendering Kandahar -- the last major Taliban stronghold.
Our interview ended where it began - with Hamid Karzai entering Kandahar. This
time, however, it was not on the back of a motorcycle, but leading a convoy of
two or three hundred vehicles, with red, green and black Afghan flags flying
proudly from every pick up truck, car and horse-drawn wagon.
In the end, our 15 minute interview had stretched to nearly an hour and a
half, and, had he not been tired and on his way to dinner with the former king,
I suspect Karzai could have talked on into the night about the most incredible
journey of his life.
home + on the ground + assessing the campaign + with us or against us? + fighting on two fronts: a chronology
epilogue + discussion + interviews + links & readings + introduction + video + reporter's notebook
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
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