(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Hamid Karzai

Hamid Karzai, b. Dec. 24, 1957, became president of Afghanistan in June 2002. On Dec. 22, 2001, he had been named head of the interim executive council that was to oversee the government of Afghanistan for six months. He assumed that post after the Taliban regime had been driven from power by the U.S.-led war on terrorism launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Karzai's father headed the influential Popolzai clan of the Pashtun ethnic group in southern Afghanistan. He had served in the legislature during the reign of former king Zahir Shah, another member of the clan with whom the family maintained close ties. The young Karzai was an ardent nationalist who was fluent in Dari, English, French, Hindi, Pashto, and Urdu. He left Afghanistan with his family when the Soviets invaded in 1979 and attended university in India.

From Pakistan, Karzai worked to organize Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation. Returning to Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, he served (1992-94) as deputy foreign minister in the government of Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani. As Afghanistan became a battleground for various factions, Karzai initially backed the fundamentalist Taliban, who pledged to restore order. He soon became disillusioned, however, with what he believed was the growing influence of the Pakistani intelligence service and radical Arabs and other foreigners over the Taliban government. He fled to Quetta, Pakistan, in 1996. From there, he continued to criticize the Taliban. Karzai became the leader of the Popolzai clan when his father was assassinated in Pakistan in 1999, allegedly by the Taliban. He backed the U.S.-led effort to oust the Taliban from his homeland. On Oct. 8, 2001, a day after the bombing began, he reentered Afghanistan. There he organized indigenous resistance among the southern Pashtun tribes. He helped to negotiate the surrender of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, his birthplace.

As the new leader of Afghanistan, Karzai called for the expansion of the role of the international peacekeeping force to extend his government's control beyond the Kabul area. He also called for additional foreign aid to help Afghanistan rebuild. He had the backing of the United States, several influential Tajik former leaders of the Northern Alliance, and the former king. These supporters shared his vision of building a modern nation with a stable, multiethnic government free of outside influence. When Zahir Shah said he would not serve as head of the new transitional government to be appointed by the Loya Jirga (grand council) convened in June 2002, Karzai became the logical choice for that position. He was sworn in as president on June 19 after receiving roughly 85% of the vote. About half of the members of his more broadly based new cabinet were part of the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. The balance included a dozen other Pashtuns, three Uzbeks, two Hazaras, two Shiite Muslims, and one Turkmen. There were also three deputy presidents—one Tajik, one Hazara, and one Pashtun.

Karzai's new administration was to govern for 18 months. During this time it was to write a new constitution under which democratic elections would be held in 2004. But its fragility was demonstrated in July 2002 when Pashtun deputy president Haji Abdul Qadir, one of Afghanistan's most powerful warlords, was assassinated outside his office in the heart of Kabul less than three weeks after assuming office. On September 5, Karzai himself survived an assassination attempt in the northern city of Kandahar.

Karzai's government had limited success in extending its reach beyond Kabul. It continued to face opposition from both the Taliban and the warlords with their own private armies. In January 2004 a constitutional Loya Jirga finally ratified the new constitution that had been drafted by an Afghan commission working with UN and U.S. officials. It enshrined the strong presidency Karzai desired. Security concerns forced two postponements of the scheduled June presidential election. It was finally held on Oct. 9, 2004. Karzai faced 17 challengers. On November 3 he was officially declared the winner, with 55.4% of the vote. He was formally inaugurated on Dec. 7, 2004, in a ceremony attended by many foreign dignitaries. Elections for a new legislature did not take place until September 2005. Because Karzai had insisted that candidates stand as independents, rather than as members of political parties, the new legislature was weak and divided; it therefore posed little threat to his powers.

As president, Karzai survived several assassination attempts, including one on Apr. 27, 2008, believed to have been linked to Pakistan-based Al Qaeda militants. Due to security concerns, he spent most of his time confined to the presidential palace in Kabul. He was criticized for his inability to crack down on corruption and drug trafficking. Afghanistan's constitution called for Karzai's term to expire on May 21, 2009, with a presidential election to be held 30 to 60 days before that date. Karzai tried but failed to have the election held before his term expired. He then announced that he would remain in office until the poll, in which he would be a candidate. Despite his widespread unpopularity, however, Karzai remained the nation's most powerful politician.