In my first one-on-one meeting in Kabul with Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan, he vacillated. He waffled. The leader of one of the toughest countries to lead in the world was being indecisive. I thought: This is not a good sign.
My acquaintance with Karzai began almost 20 years earlier, in Peshawar, Pakistan. When I first saw Peshawar in November 1986, it was like landing on another planet. Bearded men in turbans, women wearing burqas. Donkey carts, camel caravans, herds of sheep, horse-drawn tongas sharing the road with giant smoke-belching Bedford "jingle trucks," gaily painted, noisy little three-wheeled taxis, and hordes of humanity, much of it armed. Narrow, crooked cobbled streets lined with tiny mud-walled shops selling carpets and lapis jewelry. Roaring engines, honking horns, bleating sheep -- and occasional gunfire or explosions -- provided the sound track. I felt I'd walked into the Star Wars bar on Tatooine.
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I had gone to Peshawar to set up a training center for Afghan journalists, and to recruit trainees I visited the headquarters of all seven of the major Afghan resistance groups, from the Hezb-i-Islami faction headed by the fire-breathing, acid-throwing Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to the moderate Afghan National Liberation Front led by the scholarly professor Sibghatullah Mujaddidi. It was at the latter's offices where I encountered Karzai, the ANLF spokesman. I remember the sense of relief, after dealing with some of the less-friendly factions, to be ushered into a clean, comfortable reception room and be greeted by a fit, smiling young man with a trim beard and an already-balding pate. Although he wore the traditional shalwar kameez and sandals, his outfits always seemed tailored, pressed, and spotless. Among the foreign journalists who drank at the American Club in Peshawar's University Town, Hamid Karzai was the unanimous choice as Best-Dressed Afghan.
The India-educated Karzai, fluent in English, enjoyed mingling with the Western crowd. He would turn up at parties hosted by the director of the American Center or the U.S. consul, drinking tea or soda and chatting easily with wine-swilling guests. He also liked to slip into Peshawar's only luxury hotel, the Intercontinental, for a dip in the swimming pool. I once told a gathering of South Asia analysts that while they may have thought of themselves as Afghan "experts," I was the only person in the room who had seen Hamid Karzai in a Speedo.
After leaving Peshawar at the end of August 1988, I did not see Karzai again for 16 years, until in the aftermath of 9/11 when America jumped into Afghanistan with both boots, driving out the Taliban and their Arab "guest," Osama bin Laden, and Hamid Karzai was named head of the new interim government in Kabul.