QUETTA, Pakistan - The ambush was bad enough - 10 hours of shooting and sniping in the barren rocky passes above a village in southern Afghanistan. But the hardest part, Hamed Karzai says, was the ensuing three-day retreat, moving day and night through the hills with a hundred men, living off little more than stale bread and green tea while wondering who might be lurking over the next rise.
"We were walking 18 hours a day," Karzai says by satellite telephone, insisting he is now safe, and still inside Afghanistan, no matter what the Pentagon says. "It's dangerous, but one must take certain risks. It's my country, and I thought I must do it."
Karzai's quixotic journey, an enterprise that he began as an undercover political insurgent only to become a reluctant guerrilla fighter, has lasted 34 days. By trading on his standing as a tribal leader, he is trying to rouse anti-Taliban sentiment among his people, even if they happen to live right in Mullah Mohammed Omar's back yard.
So, while American bombers and a few commando units have come and gone from Afghanistan's southern reaches, Karzai, 46, has mostly stayed the course, making the rounds of mountain villages to convene small tribal councils, while presenting himself as the envoy of Afghanistan's aging and exiled king. In a war in which most of the world's attention has focused on the aspirations of the Northern Alliance, Karzai's elusive little caravan represents the only current hope for starting a homegrown second front.
"We're trying to work up the population for a loya jirga," he says, referring to a traditional deliberative process in which tribal elders meet to work out problems and disputes, governing by committee. "We want to raise an alternate voice to what the terrorists are doing."
His odds for success don't seem promising.
"Given the state of repression by the Taliban at the moment, and also with the bombing going on, what he's trying to do is very difficult," says Ahmad Rashid, the Pakistani author of the recent book Taliban. "But he's the only game in town right now."
As if to illustrate the difficulties facing his mission, Karzai's phone connection goes dead 15 minutes into his interview, just as he begins discussing the capture and execution of Abdul Haq. Haq, another Afghan exile with esteemed tribal credentials, crossed the border into Afghanistan with similar intentions, although his mission was hundreds of miles to the north.
He, too, was banking on old loyalties to help him work against the Taliban. Five days after entering Afghanistan, he was dead.
`He's not going to come out'
One of Karzai's younger brothers, Shah Wali Karzai, waits for a few minutes after the connection is broken, to see whether Hamed Karzai will be able to call back. The phone remains silent, so he gives up for the night. He is asked how long he thinks Hamed Karzai will stay in Afghanistan.
"He's not going to come out," Shah Wali Karzai says. "I think he will stay."
The implication seems obvious. Hamed Karzai will either succeed or die trying.
Opinion seems split in the borderlands of Pakistan over whether Karzai's mission is brave or merely foolhardy, but it caught virtually everyone but his family by surprise.
One day he was in Quetta, telling friends he had to drive south to Karachi. The next thing they knew, he was instead in Kandahar. All it took to clear the border checkpoint was a Taliban-worthy beard he had been growing for months, and he crossed into Afghanistan on Oct. 8, the day after the first American airstrikes.
Some who had worked and plotted alongside him for years felt betrayed and now question his decision.
"Everyone had been trusting each other and talking to each other about everything, and then he goes off by himself and does this without telling anyone," says Engineer Pashtoon, an exile leader who took his name from the profession he once pursued.
"I am really glad he is safe, because we cannot afford to lose such people. If he was a teen-ager, I would understand why he felt like he had to act so suddenly. But he is a very experienced person, so how did he make such a mistake? Every night someone is calling me and saying, `What do you think?' And I tell them, `I don't know.' He has closed us out of it. Definitely, there is a scar of mistrust already forming."
But even though Karzai's move was precipitous, he and his brothers (one of whom, Qayum, lives in Baltimore and is owner of the Helmand restaurant) say his course of action was anything but impulsive.
"He was always talking about going back inside Afghanistan," says brother Ahmed Karzai, seated on a floor cushion in the family's home in Quetta. Shah Wali Karzai agrees, saying that Hamed Karzai had been planning to make such a move for years, even if it took a war to set those plans in motion.