Mujahedin chief on mission to stir tribal revolt

War on Terrorism: Afghanistan
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Of all the places where an Afghan revolt against the Taliban might have begun, the desolate province of Uruzgan was the least likely.

Even on the map, it looks impenetrable, a wilderness of 13,000ft mountains and few roads. Those who know it speak of a harsh landscape of dry, jagged rolling hills, riddled with caves.

This is the Taliban heartland, home of its supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Several of his closest lieutenants also come from the province, and the Taliban have done much of their military recruiting there.

But it is in Uruzgan that the Taliban are facing their sternest test since the war in Afghanistan began. Hamid Karzai, an Afghan tribal chieftain and mujahedin veteran of the war against the Soviet Union has been attempting for the past two weeks to stir up a revolt in the province against the Taliban among his fellow Pashtun tribesmen.

The audacity of his attempt has infuriated the Taliban who have launched a massive manhunt to track him down.

Yesterday the Taliban claimed to have captured 25 of his followers and sentenced them to death by hanging. And the BBC reported that Mr Karzai, 46, a loyalist to the former king, Zahir Shah, narrowly escaped being captured.

Speaking from Pakistan, Mr Karzai's brother, Ahmed, said Hamid had been attacked while holding a meeting with tribal leaders. Asked if it was an ambush, Ahmed Karzai said: "Something like that. There was some heavy fighting yesterday. One of the people in the group was slightly injured. But we managed to talk to him. They are OK."

On Thursday, the Taliban news agency, Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), boasted that the Taliban were on the verge of seizing Mr Karzai.

"We are chasing them now," the Taliban's Information Minister, Qari Fazil Rabi, was quoted as saying. "Hamid Karzai and his companions fled to the mountains and two of their men were killed in the operation. We also seized 600 new guns which were dropped in the area by American helicopters."

Mr Karzai has been travelling clandestinely inside Afghanistan trying to persuade local leaders to join the effort to create a new government under the stewardship of the former king.

Reports in the United States say he could be the figurehead around whom a Pashtun revolt could be fomented and that he had succeeded in raising an entire province against the regime. If this is true, then Mr Karzai has the potential to attack and undermine the Taliban from within. A similar attempt to raise a rebellion by Abdul Haq collapsed a week ago when he was captured and executed by the Taliban close to the Pakistani border.

"He's a brave man to have chosen such a dangerous place," one Afghanistan expert said. "We always said that if the Taliban ever had a last stand it would be in southern Uruzgan. Instead it turns out that's where they're having their first stand."

The news of Mr Karzai's near-capture – so soon after Abdul Haq's dismal end, tortured and hanged after being betrayed in his own home province – seems like another sign of the enduring strength of the Taliban. "He's dicing with death," said a source. "But good for him for at least trying."

Mr Karzai is an Afghan aristocrat, a member of the Popolzai clan of the Pashtun ethnic group who dominate southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like many of his generation, he came to prominence during the 10-year war against the Soviet Union, which ended in 1989.

He was the deputy foreign minister in the mujahedin government, which was driven from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 after seven years of civil war. And at first, like many Pashtun nationalists, he threw in his lot with the Taliban.

"The Taliban were good, honest people," he told an interviewer last year. "I had no reservations about helping them ... it was only in September of 1994 that others began to appear at the meetings – silent ones I did not recognise, people who took over the Taliban movement. That was the hidden hand of Pakistani intelligence."

He fled Afghanistan and in 1999 became the head of the Popolzai clan after the mysterious assassination of his father, which he blamed on the Taliban. Mr Karzai's success or failure depends on his ethnic credentials as a Pashtun nobleman with nationalist credentials.

The Taliban are the only group to have come close to uniting the Pashtuns. Their most powerful enemies have always been the minority Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Northern Alliance – until the reappearance in Afghanistan of Mr Karzai.

An Afghanistan expert said: "For the Taliban to take on their own people, especially if they throw the Arab brigades [of Osama bin Laden] against Karzai – that could be seen as an affront to Pashtun nationalism."

Many suspect that the Allies' bombing campaign has strengthened rather than weakened the Taliban's grip. It would be ironic if Mr Karzai has returned to lead his people against the Taliban, only to find they have been turned against him by US bombs.