President Hamid Karzai is the public face of Afghanistan's troubled transition to democracy, the head of a weak civilian government in a country long controlled by gunmen, the recipient of American support in a society ambivalent toward the United States.
Yet barring an unforeseen or calamitous turn of events, Karzai likely will be elected to a five-year presidential term in late September. The 47-year-old Afghan leader arrives in the United States on Tuesday to begin a two-week international tour that he hopes will serve as a high-profile curtain raiser for his campaign back home.
Since he was installed as Afghanistan's interim leader following the U.S.-led ouster of Islamic Taliban rule in late 2001, Karzai has been belittled as an American puppet, an indecisive leader and a hypocrite who touts democratic ideals while making backroom deals to cling to power. But he prefers to describe himself as a realist who puts the need to pacify his jittery postwar nation before all other goals.
In an interview Sunday on the lawn of his official residence, Karzai outlined his concerns and aspirations for the country, making clear his position that establishing a strong and stable government is a higher priority than building an instant or perfect democracy.
"The Afghan people want elections, and they want stability," he said. "Are they compatible? If there is a choice between bringing peace and security, and holding competitive elections, we must decide very carefully."
U.N. officials and other foreign observers here have expressed increasing concerns that slow and regionally lopsided voter registration, delays in disarming regional militias and mounting Islamic militia attacks could undermine the credibility and security of the elections. But Karzai has said repeatedly that the vote, already delayed by three months, cannot be allowed to slip again.
Many Afghans say they believe Karzai is under U.S. pressure to hold elections soon to provide President Bush with a foreign policy success and bolster his reelection chances. Karzai will travel to Georgia and California this week, then visit the White House and address a joint meeting of Congress on June 15.
In the interview, however, Karzai said the Afghan public was clamoring for the right to choose its leaders, but he also said his victory at the polls would help strengthen the weak central government and maintain the momentum of national reconstruction.
"The Afghan people have suffered for years. We must provide them the opportunity to vote for and create a more legitimate government than we have today," he said. "I want to be more legitimate than I am today."
Yet Karzai, who lives in a heavily guarded residential compound with deer, fruit trees and tennis courts, also suggested he had acquired no love for the trappings of power, saying he is "embarrassed by the pomp" and dreams of retiring to a quiet garden spot in his native southern province of Kandahar.
Last week, Karzai said he was stung by American columnist Robert Novak's description of him as "hopelessly corrupt." In the interview he defended his personal honesty and said he had been frustrated in attempts to attack corruption, especially because Afghan public institutions are weak and the reach of the central government is extremely limited.
"I know there is serious corruption, but somehow I cannot grab it; it is a mirage," Karzai said. He said he intends to create a special corruption court, and he vowed to publicly denounce and prosecute any official found to be corrupt, no matter how highly placed.
As for himself, the president quoted a proverb in the Pashto language: "A person who is naked is not afraid of water." Even if senior officials were to be drenched by scandal, he added, "I would not get wet."
Another major issue that concerns Afghans is intimidation and abuse by gunmen, who have controlled much of the country for years. An internationally backed program to disarm and demobilize about 50,000 fighters before elections has met with resistance from senior militia leaders.
But instead of standing up to the warlords, Karzai has angered many Afghans, including his own aides, by holding private negotiations with them over the past two weeks. The capital is rife with rumors of Karzai promising a share of power to men responsible for years of destructive factional fighting and rapacious rule.
"Mr. Karzai has the right to talk to everyone, to create a good atmosphere for elections. But if he makes a coalition with the fundamentalists, it will kill democracy," said Abdul Hamid Mobarez, the deputy information minister. "People want the warlords to be weakened, not made more powerful."
In the interview, the president sketched a different version of the meetings, saying the militia bosses had offered not to field a candidate against him out of patriotic motives. He said they agreed the country and its institutions "could not sustain" competitive elections between polarized camps without degenerating into conflict.
Karzai adamantly denied having made a deal to form a coalition government, but said he wanted to bring the militia bosses "into the political process, not push them into a corner" or "frighten them away. . . . We are not going to conduct a court of the past."
He said he was less worried about the threat from Islamic terrorism and regional militias than about such issues as poor public service, official corruption, weak provincial administration and political interference by Afghanistan's neighbors.
Often described as a leader cut off from his constituents, Karzai acknowledged that ever since he escaped an assassination attempt in Kandahar in 2002, his personal security has become an obsessive priority for his Afghan and American staff.
But he said he takes the common pulse by meeting constantly with visitors from across the country, listening to their complaints and trying to act on them. Karzai also participates in a weekly radio show called "You and the President," in which he answers questions from the public, although his answers are taped.
Last week, he took questions on low public salaries, judicial bias and his criteria for selecting a new cabinet if elected. In his answer to the third caller, Karzai said he would choose senior aides "according to their patriotism and professionalism. . . . The next cabinet should be representative of the people and acceptable to all."
Eight individuals have declared their intent to challenge Karzai in September. Others could still emerge, but so far none enjoys either Karzai's national stature or international support, and election laws place all challengers at a further disadvantage by allowing only 30 days of campaigning.
Karzai's challengers, though unlikely to defeat him, have already begun raising questions that could weaken his campaign or at least require a public airing. Some have criticized him for reaching out to so-called moderates among the Taliban leadership or neglecting the interests of his Pashtun ethnic group, Afghanistan's largest.
Masooda Jalal, an outspoken physician who ran against Karzai in his successful bid to continue as transitional president during a national convention in 2002, said she was browbeaten by officials who accused her of undermining the U.N. process for Afghan democracy.
"People made the mistake of thinking the process and Karzai were the same thing," Jalal said. "I was seen as a challenge to both, so I was marginalized. I have no office, no party, no international support. I just want to represent myself and the democratic rights of Afghan women."
More recently, Karzai's opponents have jointly protested a provision in the new election law that requires presidential candidates to collect 10,000 voter ID cards as proof of support, a requirement that could be seen as contravening ballot secrecy and a feat that few minority candidates can easily manage.
Last week Karzai said he would consider changing the law, and in the interview he stressed the importance of holding "free, fair and fearless elections." But he clearly expects to win in September, and he clearly believes that continuity, rather than competition, is what's best for his politically fragile country.
"We are building a nation from scratch," he said. "People want stability and they have tasked me to deliver it to them. They see the train is moving, and they want the current pace to continue. They don't want me to cause friction . . . or make any sudden moves that could bring unnecessary bloodshed. They don't want the train to stop."