Family of Afghan leader watches from Maryland

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WASHINGTON — Abdul and Shareefa Karzai's Gaithersburg, Md., town house is modest, despite its richly patterned rugs. It is the home of people who still own a marble house in Kabul.

The Karzais are an old and noble Afghan family, but they now straddle two worlds, scattered by the Soviet invasion two decades ago. Many are in suburban Maryland, working in government jobs, running restaurants.

As Hamid Karzai prepares to take control of Afghanistan's interim executive council, his uncle Abdul and brothers watch from afar as the clan's saga continues to unfold.

"We have the same beard," Abdul said, laughing. "The same face."

Far from Central Asia, the Maryland Karzais remain connected to their culture.

At 63, Abdul Karzai works with Afghan and Middle Eastern refugees for Montgomery County, near Washington, D.C. Shareefa works in a fabric shop, cooks wonderful meals and serves them with an ancient grace.

She serves a bowl of fruit in a way that reminds the guest that fruit is a treasure. With it she offers a cup of green tea, the same variety they drink in those chimerical mountains. Hamid may be drinking it right now.

He has been here. On many feast days, Karzais from across the country and around the world gather in the Gaithersburg town house, amid memories of kings and family warlords, and talk of the future.

There is also the Columbia, Md., home of Hamid's brother Qayum, who owns a Baltimore restaurant and has been a resident of Maryland since college.

Another of Hamid's brothers, Mahmood Karzai, owns restaurants in San Francisco and Boston and settled in the Maryland suburbs, as did another brother, Abdul Ahmad Karzai, an engineer.

They stay in touch by phone with relatives in Pakistan, and these days with the mercurial Hamid, by satellite phone.

The Karzai clan consists of seven brothers and one sister — Abdul Ahmad, 52, of Laurel, Md., an engineer at the University of Maryland; Qayum, 51, of Glenwood, Md., who owns an Afghan restaurant and a Spanish restaurant in Baltimore; Mahmood, who owns two Afghan restaurants in Boston and San Francisco and a Mexican restaurant in Boston; Hamid, 44; Shah Wali, 42, an engineer in Pakistan; Ahmad Wali, 40, of Pakistan, who works closely with Hamid; sister Faozia Royan, 49, of Malden, Mass.; and Abdul Wali, 37, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

The father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was the speaker of the Afghan assembly during the latter years of King Zahir Shah's reign, which ended in 1973. The father was jailed for two years after the Soviet invasion in 1979, then fled the country.

The Karzai clan was traumatized two years ago when he was gunned down in Pakistan. He and Hamid were early leaders of the anti-Taliban resistance movement, family members said.

The Karzais, part of the Populzai clan and the larger Pashtun ethnic group, helped run Afghanistan for 300 years, until Zahir Shah was deposed.

The Maryland Karzais have been poring over the news, following Hamid's stealthy progress through the mountains of south-central Afghanistan, noting his efforts in the overthrow of the Taliban. They wrung their hands over his escape from the enemy.

Even Wednesday, amid the excitement about his expected leadership role as head of a new, broad-based government, there was a flurry of fear within his family. A bomb from a U.S. B-52 accidentally had fallen amid his forces and U.S. special forces fighting outside Kandahar.

The worries sent calls ricocheting around the world. Abdul's son Mateen, living in California, reached Hamid on the battlefield and called Abdul to say: "Hamid is OK. He was close by. But he is OK." His face was only scratched.

The Karzais have experienced years of anguish leading to this strange moment of unsteady triumph for Hamid, the quiet one.

He was a dreamer and a thinker who, instead of playing soccer as a child, stayed in his room. In those days, Mateen said, "I wouldn't have imagined in a million years Hamid would be in a battlefield and we would be out of Afghanistan."

Mateen, 39, remembers growing up with Hamid and his brothers in beautiful homes in Kabul. Those were the days when King Zahir Shah was in power and Afghanistan was a more modern country.

To Abdul Karzai, it is clear that his quiet nephew is taking on a very dangerous job.

"Hamid has a good chance if he keeps the balance of all the tribes in the next six months," he said. "If he does not control the country, it will be destroyed. There will be killing, torture. It will not be easy."

The goal is to return to the traditional form of coalition government under which their family flourished — one with a loya jirga, a grand council with representatives from every tribe and ethnic group.

It is a goal that has fallen to Hamid. He was born in Karz, a village outside Kandahar. When he finished school, the Soviets had taken over. For years, he lived with his family in exile in Quetta.

After the Soviets pulled out in 1989, Hamid became a deputy foreign minister. But as different factions began to battle and the United States withdrew support, the country sank into chaos.

Then came the Taliban. Hamid supported them for a while, but he became alienated by the movement's hard-line policies and social conservatism. When the Taliban offered to appoint him U.N. ambassador, he rejected the job.

Abdul Karzai, a leader in Maryland's Afghan community of about 5,000 people, has been anguished about the bombing of Afghanistan.

He has hoped for a diplomatic solution and longed to sit down and talk with the Taliban himself, Afghan to Afghan. Now maybe Hamid is fulfilling that dream.

Information from Newsday is included in this report.