My Nights With Hamid

The world is hounding the Afghan president to crack down on corruption and kick out entrenched warlords. I don't think he's going to do it, and I should know: I’m the man who wrote his autobiography.

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.

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.

In 2004, my long-held desire to visit Afghanistan was made possible by an opportunity to serve for four months as an advisor and journalism trainer in Karzai's press office, and I renewed my old acquaintance with the man who was now the leader of the nation. The following spring I invited him to be the 2005 commencement speaker at Boston University, where I teach, and to my great joy he accepted. By then he had been elected to a five-year term in Afghanistan's first ever national election. Before the ceremony, I asked the president if he wished to go on stage in his signature long green chappan and karakul cap, but no, he wanted academic regalia. I helped Karzai into the scholar's black robe, hood and tasseled cap, and under threatening mid-May Boston skies, the president of Afghanistan was greeted as a rock star by 20,000 graduates and guests. While he was in Boston, I slipped him a brief proposal that we do a book, an autobiographical history that I would ghost-write. A month later his chief of staff called from Kabul and said, "The president wants to do the book. What do we do now?"

I went back to Kabul and spent the next three months meeting with Karzai in the evenings after his official days ended, listening to him tell the story of his life and talk about being the leader of his war-ravaged country.

But when I arrived at the palace for our first meeting, the chief of staff took me aside and said, "He has changed his mind. He doesn't think he should do the book." I was panicky. I had come all this way, and taken months off without pay, for nothing? I was shown into his office still wondering what the hell I would say to turn him around. Two of his advisors were with him.

"They don't think I should do this book," Karzai said. "Why should I?"

"Mr. President," I began. "You are reluctant to produce a book as a sitting president. Well, then, let's not think of it as a book. Let's think of it as a sort of long op-ed piece in which a president makes an impassioned plea to the world to not abandon his country again. Think of it as giving a voice to your people." He pondered this. He looked at the advisers. They shrugged and nodded. I had turned them.

"All right," said Karzai. "Let's do it."

But he would change his mind at least twice more during our sessions, and I would go into my song-and-dance and change it back again.

Over the next three months, I lived in a little guest house and waited for my cellphone to ring and an Afghan voice to tell me, "The president wishes to see you tonight." An old black Soviet Lada would appear in the muddy lane at around 7, and I would be driven to the Arg Palace, the sprawling 19th-century compound where Karzai lives and works.

Sometimes the president and I would meet alone, either in his formal office or in a small study behind it where we would watch the television news, munch on raisins and pistachios, drink coffee (he preferred it to tea) and chit-chat. He was always a booster. "Try these almonds," he would command. "Afghan. The best!" Then I would turn on my recorder and he would talk about his life and his people, giving me the material for the book. Some nights he was relaxed and expansive. Other nights he seemed preoccupied, and he had much to worry about in his country. With the recorder on, he was always careful with his words. He did not want anything to get into print that he had not carefully considered, and if I tried to add contextual material in the drafts I showed him he would bark, "I didn't say that! Take it out." But throughout, he came across as a sort of romantic Afghan nationalist, living on visions of the peaceful Afghanistan of his boyhood and hoping to somehow bring about a return to those days.

 Occasionally we would meet at his residence, and after our session I would be invited to dine with the president at a long table that seated at least 20. Magically, at dinner time a dozen or more men -- it was always men only -- would appear for supper with Karzai. I sat at Karzai's right, and he would spoon food onto my plate. "Try this! A great Afghan dish!" We drank pomegranate juice, which he touted for its antioxidant properties. He was an autocrat of the dinner table. All eyes looked to him to lead the conversation, which was always in Pashto or Dari, neither of which I understood. No one spoke to me except Karzai.

One night I arrived at the residence to find him walking brisk laps around his circular driveway, and he commanded me to join him.

In the course of our meetings, which were often interrupted by unscheduled visits from aides and cabinet ministers and by many phone calls, I developed a picture of Karzai the president, trying to reconcile it with my memory of the genial spokesman I had met in Peshawar. It became clear that President Karzai still had a lot in common with that young man -- an eagerness to please, a dislike of conflict, a willingness to compromise, a need to find consensus.  In this spirit he allowed mujahideen warlords who had committed serious war crimes to join the government, while most rank-and-file Afghans would have preferred to see them locked away in Pol-i-charki prison. And while no one has yet accused him of being personally corrupt, he has tolerated corruption all around him, and he tacitly allowed his supporters to commit massive vote fraud in the August election.

Months after I left Kabul, and the book was ready for printing, Karzai waffled again and refused to allow publication. So I adapted the material I had gathered for a new book about the Afghan leader and his troubled country.

At the start of his second term, Karzai is under immense pressure from the new governments in Washington and London to grasp the nettle and clean house. But since the day in December 2001 when he was named head of the new post-Taliban government and had the support of the vast majority of the Afghan people, he has shied away from the hard decisions that might have set Afghanistan on a more promising course. I'm not sure if he has it in him to do it now.



The Other Vaclav

How the Czech president became Europe's public enemy number one.

After two years of debate, referendums, furious revision, and campaigning, the fate of the Lisbon Treaty to reform the European Union has come down to the signature of one man. Unfortunately for advocates of European integration, that man is Czech President Vaclav Klaus.

In his latest bid to scuttle the treaty's adoption, Klaus is insisting that a new, basically meaningless footnote be added, a demand that the the Czech government, which previously endorsed the treaty, is grudgingly supporting, despite the fact the treaty had been approved by the Czech Parliament. If he can delay matters long enough until an anti-Lisbon Conservative government comes to power in Britain, Klaus now has a small but not insignificant chance to sink the treaty altogether, a fitting swan song for the lifelong Euroskeptic.

Although mostly known outside his country for his skeptical views on global warming (environmentalism, in his opinion, is "the most prominent antiliberal, populist ideology of the contemporary world, comparable to communism and Nazism.) Klaus is one of the most important figures in post-communist Czech history, and the Lisbon battle is just the latest in a long series of controversial stances in his career. But lately, this lifelong iconoclast appears more and more as a tragic political figure. He is now totally isolated in Europe, shunned by most EU politicians, who view his obstructions as proof of his, and his country's, lack of democratic credentials.

When Klaus first appeared on the Czech political scene shortly after the fall of communism in November 1989, the public viewed him as a godsend. Compared with both the former communist power elite and the anti-communist dissident leaders who came to power at the end of 1989, he appeared, well, very Western.

He differed from the former dissidents not only in ideology but in appearance. Impeccably dressed and groomed, the well-spoken Klaus had nothing but scorn for those hairy men in old sweaters, many of whom still adhered to slightly utopian ideas of post-totalitarian politics.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the unofficial leader of the dissident movement in the 1980s, has recalled that Klaus was first introduced to pro-democracy leaders of the Civic Forum movement during their negotiations with the communist regime in the late 1980s. The dissidents were desperately searching for an economist familiar with Western free market theories. Klaus, who had studied at the University of Chicago as a disciple of Milton Friedman, fit the bill. He was hardly a dissident, having worked for years as a clerk for the Czechoslovak Central Bank -- but he certainly appeared to be competent.

Klaus became the first non-communist minister of finance in the government of "national reconciliation" that was created as a result of round-table talks with the communists in December 1989. He was later reappointed to the same position when the Civic Forum overwhelmingly won the first free elections in June 1990.

By then, however, his disputes with political theories voiced by some dissidents were growing increasingly vocal. Although some former dissident leaders believed that a broadly based civil movement, such as the Civic Forum, could continue governing and represent an alternative to political parties, Klaus wanted to follow political formulas used in the West. As a result, he began to use his increasing popularity to push the Civic Forum to transform into a regular political party.

In 1991, he and his followers broke from the Civic Forum to create a new conservative political party called the Civic Democratic Party. Klaus, who had already begun to be known both at home and abroad as an economic reformer, thus became also the most prominent political reformer in Czechoslovakia, taking this label away from Havel, the other Vaclav.

But 1991 was also the year when it started to be apparent that there were significant differences between Klaus' rhetoric and his policies. Klaus presented himself as a classic neoliberal, but in reality he tried to keep the state in control of many areas of the economy and had little taste for the controversial "shock therapy" privatization tactics used in neighboring Poland.

He defended a policy of what could be called "economic nationalism," keeping the most important Czech companies in Czech hands, and he resisted the privatization of banks. The privatization schemes that were carried out under Klaus' watch were plagued by corruption and lack of transparency.

Klaus also played a key role in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. In 1992, his Civic Democrats won elections in what is now the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, by contrast, leftist and nationalist parties dominated. Sensing the writing on the wall, Klaus began advocating the dissolution of the country.

Although this effort was strongly resisted by President Havel and other former dissidents, Klaus' actions were, in retrospect, quite rational. The Czechoslovakian government was already paralyzed by growing Slovak demands for autonomy, but after Slovak nationalist parties were swept into power in 1992, it became obvious that the state could no longer function.

The fact that Klaus was able to force the volatile Slovak nationalist leader Vladimir Meciar to sit down with him and organize a civilized, nonviolent division of Czechoslovakia into two independent states is today viewed as a major achievement.

It was shortly after this that Klaus' distrust of the European project came to the forefront. Although, as prime minister of the independent Czech Republic, Klaus had submitted the Czech Republic's application for membership in the European Union in 1995, he was always less then enthusiastic about the EU, which he saw as an over regulated socialist enterprise. By the time a successor left-wing Czech government completed the process of accession in 2002, Klaus had already positioned himself as a Euroskeptic.

After losing power in 1997, Klaus had decided to give his Civic Democrats a different image. Reformist policies were to a large extent replaced by an emphasis on nationalism, Euroskepticism, and populism. Klaus' change in tone did boost his popularity to some extent, but was not successful enough to bring him back as the prime minister.

But Klaus accomplished a major political coup in 2003 when he was elected to succeed Havel as the country's president. Ironically, the Czech Republic's most prominent right-winger could never have pulled it off without securing the support of the unreformed Communist Party.

The Czech presidency is traditionally a mostly ceremonial position, and the limits of the office have often proved frustrating for the proactive Klaus. During his first term, he repeatedly tested the limits of his constitutional powers by refusing, for example, to name judges recommended to him by the Ministry of Justice or by refusing to sign international treaties that had been recommended to him for ratification by the parliament. He also vetoed many bills approved by the Parliament, often simply because he disagreed with them ideologically.

This was a departure from Havel's relatively light touch and was certainly not appreciated by the leftist government. Klaus also found himself on a collision course with the pro-EU forces in Parliament when he criticized various reforms the Czech Republic had adopted to meet EU membership criteria.

To maintain high visibility as Czech president, despite his lack of executive powers, Klaus has repeatedly chosen highly controversial topics to call attention to himself. He criticized, for example, the influence of civil society as a new ideology, which he calls "NGO-ism." He also protested what he deems a new, potentially totalitarian ideology, which he calls "human-rightism." And he has fought repeated wars with the judiciary, describing its influence in modern democratic societies as a "tyranny of judges."

Klaus also became one of the chief opponents of the conventional wisdom on global warming, claiming, for example, that "icebergs melt only in the films of Al Gore," whom he describes as "the arch-priest" of the new totalitarian ideology of environmentalism. In the past few years, he spent more of his intellectual energy and travel time fighting the proponents of global-warming theories than speaking on relevant issues in Czech politics.

Klaus' dislike of the European Union is the one issue that has remained dominant throughout his years in power, and it has only grown more extreme over time. Although he once felt that realistically, the Czechs have no alternative to EU membership, he now claims that the EU is more dangerous to Czech security than is Russia.

He is also a staunch opponent of the common European currency and he does not mind using offensive language and exaggerations to support his views.  In 1999 he declared that "efforts to introduce the euro are to a large extent driven by EU bureaucrats who eat breakfast in Venice, lunch in Paris, and dine in Copenhagen, and do not like changing money three times a day."

His opposition to further European integration stems not only from his nationalism, which is rooted in romantic 19th-century ideas of national identity, but also from his libertarian and conservative beliefs. In Klaus's world, the EU is an increasingly over-regulated, socialist organization that artificially suffocates the national identities of its members.

The Lisbon fight is Klaus' highest profile anti-European battle yet. and the president has made numerous efforts to sabotage the approval of the treaty in the Czech Republic. Last year he made an emotional appeal to the Constitutional Court to reject the treaty because it is supposedly incompatible with the Czech Constitution.

The Constitutional Court in the end ruled the opposite, and subsequently both houses of the Czech Parliament recommended the treaty to Klaus for ratification. Now that Ireland has finally approved the treaty in its second referendum, and Klaus' closest ally in the European Union, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, ratified the treaty in Poland, the completion of the ratification process in the entire EU depends on Klaus' signature.

To at least delay the ratification, he now wants the EU -- after the ratification process has been finished in 26 other EU countries and despite the approval of the treaty by the Czech Parliament -- to guarantee to the Czech Republic that the European Charter of Rights, which is part of the Lisbon Treaty, will not apply to the Czech Republic and cannot, therefore, be used by Sudeten Germans, 3 million of whom were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II, to reclaim their property confiscated by the Czechoslovak state.

This is a transparent ploy. All legal studies show that there is no such danger, because the charter cannot be applied retroactively. The EU may try to accommodate Klaus's demand, but more likely he is on a collision course not only with the EU, but also with the Czech government and major political parties, who increasingly view his behavior as violating his constitutional duties.

A man who was once viewed by many Czechs as a guarantee that Western democratic procedures would prevail in the Czech Republic is now seen as defying these very procedures for the sake of his own increasingly extremist beliefs. It's a sad end for a remarkable political career.