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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 17:43 GMT
That's nice, I'm prime minister!
Kabul residents listen to the radio
Kabul residents heard news of the agreement on the radio
By Lyse Doucet in Kabul

It began as another Kabul day. A gentle morning sun filtering through the last of the autumn leaves.

Suddenly a colleague called out, cutting through the morning song of bicycle bells, the shouts of children begging in the streets.

A deal had struck at the Bonn talks on an interim government for Afghanistan.

It was one of those moments when a journalist comes to a sudden halt. What should I do next?

I reached for a satellite telephone to call another satphone in a mud house somewhere in southern Afghanistan - the military base of the man chosen to lead Afghanistan's new interim council.

Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai was surprised at being named prime minister
I'd known Hamid Karzai for many years. "Hamid", I shouted down a crackling line, "what's your reaction to your appointment as prime minister?"

"Am I the prime minister?" he asked.

I paused. "Yes, I heard it on the BBC."

"Are you sure?," he insisted, unable to suppress a note of delight, causing me then to pull back.

"Hasn't the United Nations called you?" I asked.

"No" he said. "I've been too busy here."

Taleban surrender

While Bonn discussed the mechanics of peace, Hamid Karzai was still in the thick of war, negotiating a Taleban surrender in their last redoubt.

"So how does it feel to be prime minister?" I asked again.

"It's nice!" he declared - an unassuming first response from a 40-something man who was suddenly given a grand title.

And like all titles given to him in this war - tribal commander, Pashtun leader, it seemed an odd fit - even though he was indeed all three.

After his father's assassination a few years ago, Hamid Karzai was thrust to the head of the Popalzais, a branch of the Pashtun tribe that gave Afghanistan most of its kings.

When I first met him in Pakistan in 1988, in the dying months of the Soviet occupation of this country, he was the deputy of one of the more moderate mujahideen leaders.

With a tweed jacket worn with a traditional tunic and trousers, he was, like many educated Afghans - caught between a desire for a life with some easeful pursuits, and the rigours of his culture and war.

In these months, I've looked back too. To when I lived here in Kabul, a decade ago, a place already drained by war. Now Afghans have suffered through another decade and more.

Our last meeting was for tea in Islamabad, at the start of this war.

And when a tea bag arrived floating in a cup, he scolded the waiter, saying this just wasn't acceptable.

"Tea should be in a pot," he insisted and then he turned to the issues that fired him most - ridding Afghanistan of its latest foreign invaders, the Arabs of Osama Bin Laden.

Unlikely commander

Soon after, he left for his tribal heartland, the Pashtun belt in southern Afghanistan, often living on bread and green tea, no doubt served from a big metal pot - an unlikely commander with his slight frame, his shy bearing and urbane airs.

Throughout this war I've often said I'd love to have a crystal ball, for hints of how and when this might end.

And indeed fate has played out in ways many didn't expect.

Kabul residents in a local graveyard
Kabul has been drained by two decades of war
But in these months, I've looked back too. To when I lived here in Kabul, a decade ago, a place already drained by war.

Now Afghans have suffered through another decade and more.

One Afghan friend urged me - you must visit Azem. I searched my memory, unable to remember him.

And I found him, not where he once stood, in charge of the front desk of the Intercontinental hotel, in a dark suit, cleanly shaven, with a tie. But in a cold dark office behind the kitchen, demoted by Taleban managers.

I fought back tears. How could I have forgotten his crooked smile and twinkling eyes?

Now they beamed from a bearded face rough and lined with the misery of his years.

Like many Afghans, his story seemed written in his face - a house burnt to the ground by rockets, a job lost, a family to feed.

Even discussing it was too much to bear. We grasped something simple - the missing tie.

He was still wearing the traditional clothing decreed by the Taleban.

I'll wear a tie soon again, he vowed, but the Taleban put us back not 10 years but 2,000.

Afghans like Azem don't care who's in charge now, as long as they bring peace.

And for the next six months at least, they'll have Hamid Karzai - in politics, as in tea, he'll have to work very hard to get it right.

The BBC doesn't need to tell him that.

The BBC's Lyse Doucet
"It was one of those moments when a journalist comes to a sudden halt"
See also:

02 Nov 01 | South Asia
Karzai: King's powerful Pashtun ally
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan powerbrokers: Who's who
06 Dec 01 | South Asia
Key Afghan warlords reject Bonn deal
05 Dec 01 | South Asia
Guide to Afghan deal
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