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Reporter's Notebook: The Karzai Interview By Christopher Buchanan

To tell the story of Hamid Karzai's improbable journey from his exile in Pakistan to his installation as the US-backed leader of Afghanistan it was essential to have more than a superficial fifteen-minute interview with the man.

Our British colleagues at Brook Lapping Productions, who co-produced "Campaign Against Terror." had made overtures through Karzai's press office and the Afghan Embassy in London. They'd gotten nowhere.

Then one Saturday afternoon in February, I was having lunch with a fellow filmmaker in Washington. "So, what are you working on now?" came the inevitable question. When I explained the broad scope of our two-hour special -- the military, political and diplomatic response to 9/11 -- a smile came over her face. "Oh, you might like to talk to my insurance agent," she said. It seemed like an odd response, until she told me the agent's name: Pat Karzai, the Baltimore-based sister-in-law of Afghanistan's new interim chairman.

Buchanan was the associate producer of "Campaign Against Terror."

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 -- Peter Tomsen.

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 Afghanistan.

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.

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