Hamid Karzai, the tribal chieftain who is attempting to raise a revolt against the Taliban, is alive and safe inside Afghanistan, and attracting ever greater numbers of followers to his cause, according to his family.
"It is a revolt and it will grow, and surely it will become very big," said his younger brother, Ahmed Wakil Karzai, last night. "If he can continue to move freely, if he can hold on there and people realise that that there is a safe place they can go, then it will happen very quickly."
Mr Karzai, a veteran of the 10-year war against the Soviet Union, entered Afghanistan almost a month ago, with the aim of undermining support for the Taliban among the Pashtun people, the country's dominant ethnic group.
There were fears for his life last week after he narrowly escaped a Taliban ambush and a six-hour gun battle. But according to his brother, he is safely encamped in the country's central Urozgan province, with armed supporters, and a growing number of Afghans attracted by Mr Karzai's political project – an ethnically inclusive coalition government, inaugurated by the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah.
"More and more people are joining him," Ahmed Wakil Karzai said in the south-western Pakistani city of Quetta. "I just spoke to him on the telephone and I was able to pass onto him the names of more people in Afghanistan who want to join him. The Taliban know where he is ... but they can't attack him, so there must be lots of people with him."
Mr Karzai's family will not give details of his whereabouts or reveal the number of supporters he has attracted. But it is clear that the accounts of his movements given by the Taliban have been exaggerated and in some cases fabricated.
Last week, they claimed to be hunting down Mr Karzai, and later to have captured more than 20 of his men, some of whom were later hanged. On Saturday, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Saleem Zaeef, claimed that he had been left Afghanistan in an American helicopter. And yesterday, there were reports from the Taliban that he had retreated to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"Since last week they keep coming up with different stories about where he is," said the younger Mr Karzai. "They realise that if people know he is there, they will join him." In the absence of a full-scale ground offensive, the success of the coalition campaign against the Taliban depends upon men like Mr Karzai – Pashtun leaders with the charisma and respect to undermine Taliban support from within.
"The Taliban have no fixed bases now," said Ahmed Wakil Karzai. "They're moving round, and you can drop bomb after bomb, but they will not be defeated without action on the ground." Hopes of this happening suffered a blow last month when another former mujahedin commander, Abdul Haq, was captured and summarily executed by the Taliban a few days after entering eastern Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai, however, appears to command greater confidence among the American and British governments – to the anger of Haq's supporters who believed that he was neglected by the coalition.
"The truth about Abdul Haq is that he was away from the people for too long," a Karzai supporter said last night. "He became cut off in the 1990s, but Hamid was never cut off."
The younger Mr Karzai declined to say whether his brother was receiving foreign support, but a series of leaked reports in the Washington Post suggest that the CIA has high hopes for Mr Karzai.
According to his brother, he has a base somewhere in Urozgan and travels from village to village, by foot and also by car, holding talks with local leaders. He drove into Afghanistan just after the bombing campaign began, and passed unrecognised through the Taliban checkpoints.
"He doesn't spend much time in any one place," said Ahmed Wakil Karzai. "The Taliban know where he is, so of course he is in danger. They won't give up, but they'll never get Hamid. For them he is the most wanted."Reuse content