Hamid Karzai's hopes for peace as troops prepare to leave

Hamid Karzai is a patient man. He sat willingly as the portrait photographer placed him on one seat, then another, asked him to put his hat on, then take it off, directed his gaze this way, then that.

As I watched him swivel in the suite in London's Claridge's Hotel, it struck me how he has had to be patient for many years now. And to shift direction. And to look many ways, almost simultaneously.

Because Hamid Karzai has been his country's leader for eleven years, survived five known assassination attempts, withstood pressure from inside and outside Afghanistan, from friends and enemies, to quit. He is a man who has fought Taliban leaders who would like to see him dead, while at the same time trying to lure them into talks that would see real peace in his country for the first time in decades.

I talked with him for almost an hour. He desperately wants to discuss the future not the past. However, that doesn't stop him from taking a few swipes at the mistakes he believes the British have made in recent years.

Helmand Province, for example, was, he says, a better place before the boots of the Parachute Regiment hit the dusty ground there in 2006.

Opportunities for reconstruction were lost, special forces raids and bombings drove Afghans to seek revenge.

But now British and American troops are preparing to leave. They are due to pull out by the end of next year. President Obama is considering the "zero option"; leaving not a single American soldier in the country in any residual role. That, President Karzai told me, is "utopian".


]( other words, he might like it to happen in theory, but in practice he'd rather it didn't. He's in the odd situation of both wanting to see the back of the foreign troops and needing their help for a bit longer.

He is in London for talks with Pakistan's President Zardari, a man who I last interviewed in his palace amid a haze of rose petal fragrance, sprayed around the room by one of his flunkies before he entered. Karzai and Zardari have been brought together by David Cameron for a third round of talks aimed at securing peace in Afghanistan once the coalition troops leave.

Karzai believes the Taliban and his government could talk and solve their disagreements, Afghan to Afghan. But outsiders are interfering, he says, making peace elusive. He is exaggerating the willingness of the Taliban to discuss anything. There is still no sign of direct talks; no sign that the Taliban are willing to enter dialogue with a man they see as a puppet of the West. Their campaign of spectacular attacks in Kabul is, if anything, intensifying.

Bill Neely with Hamid Karzai in a joint interview with the Guardian Credit: ITV News

Karzai is also here, for the first time in the summits with Pakistan, with his entire foreign, military and intelligence team. President Zardari has brought the same. The talks are deep, serious, and at as high a level as possible.

So, dinner at Chequers, talks on his country's future and time too for Prince Charles, whose son Prince Harry has just returned from service in Afghanistan. The President may be far too diplomatic to question Charles on Harry's remarks about killing Taliban. But when I asked him about Harry's statements, he didn't fire off a "no comment", choosing instead to make a few remarks and choosing his words carefully.

Karzai is a gentle man from a nation of fiercesome fighters. He speaks of the British as guests in his country, as the Taliban spoke of Osama bin Laden as a guest who, in the end, they simply could not order out.

But time is running out for the British.

And perhaps for Karzai; he believes his life is under threat; it comes with the job, he told me when I asked if he feared for his survival.

Afghanistan is entering a dangerous phase, he concedes.

Through it all, this enduring, engaging man will need to look two ways at once, shift positions quickly and keep his patience.

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