Hamid Karzai, the Afghan leader backed by Washington to stir up a Pashtun rebellion against the Taliban, is said to be back in Afghanistan after American helicopters rescued him from the brink of capture by Taliban forces.
Mr Karzai, 43, is head of the Pashtun Popolzai clan, which inhabits the area around Kandahar, also the stronghold of the Taliban. His family says he crossed into Afghanistan from his base in the Pakistani city of Quetta a month ago, but was ambushed by Taliban fighters while he was meeting tribal elders in Uruzgan province, north of Kandahar.
Last week the Afghan regime said it was closing in on Mr Karzai and his supporters in the mountains of Uruzgan after American helicopter gunships helped him escape from a clash. While his family in Quetta was insisting he was "fine", and was rallying support among the Pashtun, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said Mr Karzai had been spirited out of Afghanistan on Sunday in a US helicopter.
Sources say the would-be rebel leader, a former deputy foreign minister in the Afghan government deposed by the Taliban, was surrounded by hostile forces, outnumbered and outgunned. One of his followers who escaped to Pakistan said Mr Karzai had about 200 men, opposed by 700 Taliban fighters. When he realised his position was hopeless, he asked for American help. Warplanes struck at his Taliban opponents, blunting their attack, and an American helicopter lifted him out, with his closest aides.
On Tuesday Mr Rumsfeld said Mr Karzai had been brought out with senior associates for consultations in Pakistan, but played down the rescue, saying it was "not an extraction in the sense of a military campaign". But a senior US officer told The New York Times: "If we had done nothing, he would have died."
The American difficulty in putting pressure on the Taliban in its Pashtun heartland contrasts with the Northern Alliance's claimed successes around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, for which it credits US help. Yesterday opposition forces said they had captured the Shurgar district, near Mazar, after massive American air strikes on Taliban front lines. The regime denied the claim, but Ustad Mohakik, the leading Shia Muslim commander in the Alliance, said: "We have captured Shurgar after Taliban troops withdrew." The Americans "pounded Taliban bunkers and positions in the front lines. It has had a very good impact."
But the more help America gives the Pashtuns' ethnic rivals in the Northern Alliance, the more difficult Mr Karzai's task. One source familiar with Afghan tribal politics said the public backing he was receiving from Mr Rumsfeld and the Pentagon was "making him look like an American stooge". Mr Karzai's family has done its best to play down his involvement with the Americans.
The Taliban has made much of US forces saving him from the fate of another Pashtun leader, Abdul Haq, captured and executed after he entered Afghanistan last month. On Monday Haq's nephew, Izatullah, was executed as a warning to would-be rebels. His family said he was buried beside his uncle at the family's ancestral home near Jalalabad.
Exactly where Mr Karzai is now is unknown, but The Independent's source said he was taking a severe risk. The Taliban are said to have hanged, as a warning, three villagers in contact with Mr Karzai. The form of execution also sent a message: that instead of being shot, as would happen with military captives, they were being treated as criminals.
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