Our Man in Kabul

What Hamid Karzai’s Rise to Power Means For How He Will Govern Now

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a gathering discussing youth and national issues in Kabul September 17, 2013. Oman Sobhani / Reuters

Abdullah Abdullah was the first Afghan to suggest Hamid Karzai should become president of Afghanistan. It was one day in mid-November 2001, and we were in the cockpit of a CIA transport plane heading from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Afghanistan's Bagram airfield -- just liberated by Northern Alliance fighters -- where Abdullah and I were to meet with the rest of the Northern Alliance leadership.

Although Abdullah cautioned that his view was not shared by all his comrades in the alliance, it did have the support of the three most powerful: Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the minister of defense, Younis Qanooni, the minister of the interior, and Abdullah himself, then the alliance's foreign minister. All three were protégés of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the revered and influential military leader of the Northern Alliance who had been assassinated by al Qaeda operatives on the eve of 9/11.

Abdullah explained that he and his colleagues recognized that the other elements of the Afghan opposition could never unite around a non-Pashtun leader or one identified with the Northern Alliance. Karzai, in contrast, had good connections across the non-Taliban spectrum and a better prospect of forming and holding a broad coalition.

Over the next several weeks, diplomats from India, Iran, Russia, and several European governments echoed Abdullah's suggestion as they gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a United Nations conference that would establish the new Afghan government. Such consensus seemed remarkable at the time, though I later learned that Abdullah had planted the seed during his earlier travels to these countries.

As the senior U.S. representative to the conference, I found myself in an unlikely alliance with representatives from Iran, Russia, and India, all of us seeking to persuade disparate groups to agree on an interim constitution and a provisional leadership. Four anti-Taliban Afghan factions were represented in Bonn: in addition to the Northern Alliance, which by late November had secured control of every major city in the country except Kandahar, there was a group loosely aligned with

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