Hamid Karzai at Age 30

My own fascination with Kandahar began with the name itself. According to Peter Levi, Kandahar is probably the only Greek place name to have survived in Afghanistan, stemming from the Arabic form of Alexander’s name, Iskander. In 330 B.C., a year after his decisive victory over the Persian forces of Darius at Gaugamela, east of modern-day Mosul in Iraq, Alexander the Great led his army of thirty thousand men through what is now Kandahar. He left his elephants in the mud swamps west of the present-day city, then crossed the snowy summits of the Hindu Kush on foot.

I visited Kandahar briefly in November 1973, passing through by bus on my way from Herat to Kabul. I stopped for a night at a cheap hotel by the bus station near the city’s Herat Gate. The darkness and my own discomfort–I was slightly ill and horribly cold in the unheated hotel room–gave the evening a surreal quality. All I could recall later was a wind-blown square filled with bearded men in high black turbans smoking a water pipe. I sometimes wondered whether that square in my memory survived the years of bombing.

More recently, I came to know Hamid Karzai, a thirty-year-old Kandahar native and spokesman for Mojadidi’s Afghan National Liberation Front. Hamid was the son of Abdulahad Karzai, the khan (headman) of the Popalzai tribe, the branch of the Abdalis that produced Ahmad Shah Durrani. With Abdul Haq, Hamid Karzai represented for me all that was larger than life in the Afghan character. He was tall and clean-shaven, with a long nose and big black eyes. His thin bald head gave him the look of an eagle. Wearing a sparkling white shalwar kameez, he affected the dignity, courtly manners, and high breeding for which the Popalzai are known throughout Afghanistan. Hamid, unlike the crowd at NIFA [= National Islamic Front of Afghanistan], whose royalist sentiments and moderate politics he shared, was not a “Gucci muj[ahidin].” When he did wear Western dress, he preferred conservative blazers and slacks or a leather jacket. He moved between the Occidental and Oriental worlds without pretension or falsity. I remember him in his Peshawar villa, sitting on a carpet in a shalwar kameez, speaking Pukhtu [sic] with his turbaned Kandahari kinsmen, a copy of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss nearby. Hamid was one of six sons, but the only one who had not gone into exile in Europe or North America and who aspired to succeed his father as head of the Popalzai.

Throughout his childhood, Hamid had resented the restrictions placed on him as the son of one of Afghanistan’s most important men. He longed to escape Kandahar and the stifling routine of tribal ceremonies. He wanted to serve his country, but only as a diplomat living abroad in the West. His first shock and humiliation came as a student in India in 1979, when officials at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi informed him that the Taraki regime had imprisoned his father. A few months later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. “I suddenly realized how spoiled I was,” Hamid told me. “I realized that I had been consciously rejecting all the things that were really important and now were lost.”

A few months later, in 1980, Hamid visited a refugee camp near Quetta. As soon as he entered the camp, hundreds of Popalzai tribesmen gathered around him, smiling. “They thought that just because I was the khan’s son, I had the power to help them. I felt ashamed, because I knew I was just a naive student who was spending his college years thinking only of himself and his ambition. I was not what they thought I was. My goal from that moment on was to become the man that those refugees thought I was. To become a man like my father.”

The man that Hamid Karzai became was one who never tired of talking about the rich history of his tribe and the region of Kandahar. The story of the founding of the Popalzai–first told to me by Hamid–sounds like one of the archetypal tales in the Book of Genesis.

Abdal, the patriarch of the Abdalis (later the Durranis), died at the age of 105 and was succeeded by Rajar, who in turn passed over his oldest son and picked the younger but smarter Zirak to be headman. Zirak ruled for many years and had four sons. One day, near Kandahar, the family was breaking camp. By then Zirak was over 100 and too old even to move, let alone saddle his horse. He asked his oldest son, Barak, for help. Barak laughed and made fun of his father. The second son, Alik, did the same. The third son, Musa, told his father to get on a horse and follow him. When Zirak was not able, Musa kicked him and told him he must remain behind until the beasts devoured him. Popal, the youngest son, offered to carry his father on his back. Old Zirak never forgot the incident, and when he died at the age of 120, he invested Popal as head of the clan. Thus it was that Popal founded his own branch of the Abdali tribe.

The mythic, elemental quality of the story is enhanced by the fact that, though the origin of the Popalzai is relatively recent–the late fifteenth century–nobody can accurately date when the events took place. It is such stories that, stylistically at least, lend credence to the notion that the Pathans are descendants of the ancient Hebrews. True or not, one could at least say that the desert surrounding Kandahar was to the Pathans what the wilderness of Sinai was to the Hebrews: the seed-ground where an assemblage of tribes grew into a nation. To Hamid Karzai, Kandahar was “the home of our original Afghan culture, the genuine Afghanistan.”

SOURCE: Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1990, 2000, 2001), pp. 194-197

Soldiers of God is a thoughtful, insightful, highly readable book. Battlefield smart, rock solid.” –Dan Rather

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