on the ground
with us?
who is hamid karzai?

Soldiers on the ground with Hamid Karzai describe how the Pashtun tribal leader -- with no military experience -- led a grassroots movement against the Taliban regime, and eventually became the new leader of Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. David Fox
  U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander

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When you first heard the name Hamid Karzai, had you ever heard of him before?

No idea who he was, absolutely no idea. Didn't realize that he was going to become the chairman of the country, and had no idea at the time that there was a lot of maneuvering going on behind the scenes to make sure that he was the man that was going to lead Afghanistan. ...

When did you first meet him?

I met Hamid Karzai the morning of Nov. 29. We were in [a small] village. He was inside a mud-walled compound, inside a mud hut.

The first time I saw him, immediately I identified him from his picture. He spoke perfect English, probably spoke it better than about 50 percent of the guys with my element. ... The thing I remember is I immediately took a liking to him. He was very easy to talk to, very friendly. But the other thing I noticed was his two satellite telephones, and he was constantly giving interviews. When I walked in there, as a matter of fact, he was giving an interview to some news agency over the phone. He sat me down and we drank tea. Then we started our conversations about what we could do for the south, what his goals and objectives were for the south. Part of my intent was also that I wanted to make sure that he and his commanders were involved in all the decisions that were made. I didn't want this to be an American-only operation. I wanted him involved, and make sure that he understood clearly what I thought were the best ways to accomplish his objectives in the south.

He was not a military man?

Right. If he had any [experience], I never saw it. He had very little military experience. So my key task was to become his military adviser and advise him on all military matters. ...

[When did it become clear to you] how important Karzai was?

Within 24 hours, after listening to him and then the message traffic I was receiving from up north, I knew that he had to be protected at all costs, because he was the future of Afghanistan. Not everyone, but the United States and the international community at that time ... was posturing itself to support Karzai. When the Bonn accords started, that's when it really became apparent that he was the man. He is the guy that's going to lead Afghanistan in the future. So that's when he took on a completely different amount of significance, in that he had to be protected at all costs. An implied task turned out to be to make sure I was providing security for him, and also while we were fighting the battle south.

Tell the story of when he addressed the Bonn convention.

We'd been in Tarin Kowt for about three or four days. My concern was that the Taliban and Kandahar would not take Karzai and his forces seriously if we did not start moving south. He was continually negotiating with the Taliban for surrender. But I told him, "Unless we move south to prove that you have a credible force and prove to the Taliban that you are willing to confront them, the surrender negotiations are not going to go. They're just going to stall."

So I walked into his the building that he was staying in. We were getting ready to go, getting ready to move south. The phone rings, and it's somebody from Bonn. He picks it up and he gives his speech to the members of the Bonn accords. The speech lasts for five or six minutes. I'm looking at my watch, and I'm going, "We got to go, we got to go, we got to go south." ... He's on the phone and he's giving this speech, because I think at the time, he had been nominated. He had not been approved, but he had been nominated. So he was briefing or providing his insights, his intent; if he were selected to be chairman of Afghanistan, he would lead the country of Afghanistan into the future. ...

Did you talk to him about what was motivating him?

We had a number of conversations. One of the conversations I remember is that right after he was nominated, he was asked by [a] news organization, "Now that you've been nominated to be the chairman of Afghanistan, and you're a Pashtun, how would that affect your ability to govern the country?"

I remember him saying this like it was yesterday. He says, "I am not a Pashtun man. I am an Afghan man." I believe after our conversations that he sincerely wants to improve the life of the average Afghan. He wants the average Afghan to be able to send his children to school, for the individual to have to have a job to provide the basic necessities for himself and his family. He is very sincere in that he wants to improve their lot in life, and he understands this is Afghanistan's best chance. The entire international community is watching, and is willing [to provide] and is providing support. He realizes that this is their best opportunity to establish a free and stable Afghanistan.

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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Of course, the thing that was different with him from his contemporary opposition group leaders was that he did not share a lot of the background of a war fighter, as a warlord, as people use that term. Because he did not have that background, he was a different kind of animal, a different kind of leader that we are going to see emerge in the south. ...

These opposition group leaders have capability associated with them. They have forces loyal to them. It gives them the ability to influence things politically and militarily. Karzai did not [have that] in that traditional Afghan sense. What he brought was a different kind of power -- of example -- because he was willing to go in and lead people without that.

As he came in with not many soldiers to his credit, to his force, it was very much an iffy thing of how long he could survive. It was clear to us that the Taliban recognized him as a different kind of threat: Here's one of their own, a Pashtun, coming right into the heart of the Taliban homeland, different than traditional adversaries like the Tajiks or the Uzbeks. There [you already have] an ethnic history that colors the Taliban/inter-Taliban effort as well. Here's one of their own. ...

As he entered into the fray, the Pashtun tribes in the area rallied to him and developed this expanding force that gave them the additional capability and success in the battlefield. After being challenged significantly maybe twice in the battlefield, [they were] never significantly militarily challenged again by the Taliban.

Of course, our capabilities with him had a lot to do with that. But he enjoyed that moral advantage by being the kind of person he was, and not having the sort of baggage that some of the other leaders had. I think [that he] was recognized by a lot of the Pashtuns as having that moral advantage. That made him a significant player; politically, of course, more than anything, but militarily as well.

Capt. Jason Amerine,
  U.S. Special Forces A-team captain

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Hamid Karzai himself didn't want to be known as a warrior. He wanted to be known as somebody who was leading the people in an uprising against an unpopular government. Not only was it an unpopular government, but it was an illegitimate government supported by non-Afghanis, taking horrible actions against the people. So his focus was more of, "Let's assist the people in rising up," as opposed to, "Let's form an army and move through Oruzgan province, seizing ground." So the challenge that we had was ... [that] we want people to rise up, but we also need to have a good-sized force that could defend against the Taliban, because the people simply rising up ran the risk of being crushed by a well-organized force. ...

Karzai had an incredibly good intelligence network through the Pashtun tribal belt. If anything was going on, all the Pashtun tribesmen knew about it and got word to Karzai right away. The biggest tool in his intelligence network was the [satellite] telephone. He had them spread all over the province with key trusted leaders. So he was able to get word right away of anything going on. ... He worked the phones constantly. I think one of the biggest concerns that we had was just keeping the batteries powered up for him to use that telephone. ...

Whenever the phone rang, all of us were kind of wondering who's calling next. Maybe it's the BBC or maybe it was another senior Taliban leader trying to surrender. The satellite telephone was his greatest weapon. Arguably, it was our greatest weapon in the war, especially in the Pashtun tribal belt.

At the same time he's doing that, you're also asking him for what -- extra trucks, horses?

One of Hamid Karzai's greatest challenges was he didn't have a second in command. Part of that was by design. He was trying to gather a coalition of Pashtun tribes. For him to designate any one of them as his second in command would have caused a great deal of rivalry through all the relations. If he'd picked this tribal leader, "You're my second in command," then his cousins and brothers and so on would have all suddenly become a favored group of tribes, which would have made these other tribes angry. So he really couldn't afford to designate a second in command.

As a result, it was often amusing to have to watch the level of detail that he'd be having a focus on in his daily life. He might be speaking to U.N. representatives in one conversation on the phone. Then he'd hang up and deal with a man from Tarin Kowt that showed up saying that he'd lost a mule and he needed a new one. Hamid would direct, "OK, get this man a mule." ...

Was it apparent to you that that might be his future role?

As soon as we heard that we were going to be working with him, we had some pretty good indicators of how important he was going to be. In the course of a lot of these sat phone conversations, sitting in, him briefing me on different things going on, both at the lower level and at the geo-political level, it was clear that he was going to be a part of the interim government. His whole dream was the loya jirga. That was the whole point of it all. Put down the Taliban, have a loya jirga, and get a popular government, by the people, for the people; democracy really. ...

Because you knew that he was an important guy for Afghanistan, for the U.S., did that make you more cautious? Did it change your calculation?

We [could not] operate without Hamid Karzai being in the middle of things. As far as giving commands, he couldn't be very far removed. He had to be out constantly, giving guidance to people. We'd be out on the street, trying to organize a convoy to go carry out an operation, when things would get all fouled up through a language barrier problem. I'd have to grab him, and he'd have to come out on the street himself and start giving directions. That was a very dangerous place for him. ... It was really an ugly situation to be in, because on the one hand, he was so vitally important. But on the other hand, he couldn't carry out his cause without actually being up front, doing his job of leading his people. So I sort of had to [allay] my fears of his assassination a lot of times, and realize that we're going to have to assume some risk here in order to carry out our mission. We did what we could to safeguard him. ...

He had a number of bodyguards that were Pashtun fighters. We did what we could to make sure that they were staying on task. I'd frequently walk in some mornings, and a lot of the bodyguards would be asleep. We'd have to wake them up. I'd have to talk to Karzai: "Look, we need to keep you alive here. We can't make it easy for them to get you." We received very credible reports a number of times that there were assassins sent by Taliban that were coming up to try to get to us. ...

How did the battle [at Tarin Kowt] change Karzai's stature?

From what I could see, Karzai was always taken seriously. Before the battle, he was speaking to the Northern Alliance. He was talking to them specifically about, "Make sure you treat the prisoners well," and things like that. There was a great deal of dialogue going on. So politically, he had a great deal of clout. ...

In order to be a well-respected leader in that area, you need to be a good leader, have them respect your character and your affiliations to your tribes. They respect how you deal with people.

You also need to have some teeth to back that up. That fight in Tarin Kowt showed that we had teeth, because we didn't do it with many guys. So it was a huge victory with 30 Pashtuns. It really was a very big victory for Hamid, both militarily, and also in terms of just establishing his credibility with all the other leaders in the area that had been fighting, for decades, in some cases. You know, Hamid Karzai was a leader to be reckoned with.

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