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Nick Mills of COM helps Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai pen his first book

Letter from Kabul: an inside history of the fall and rise of Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, delivers BU’s main Commencement speech on May 22, 2005 at Nickerson Field. Photo by Albert L’Etiole

Nick Mills knew that Hamid Karzai had the makings of a major leader when they first met in 1987. Karzai, the son of the head of the powerful Popalzai tribe, was a key player in the Afghan resistance. Mills, a COM associate professor of journalism, was in Pakistan to teach news-gathering techniques to Afghan refugees in a program launched by BU during the violent Soviet occupation of the country.

But little did Mills realize that the 30-year-old would one day become president of Afghanistan—or that he himself would be working on a book project with Karzai (Hon.’05) nearly 20 years later.

Mills, who worked for the Afghan Media Project, sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, in the late 1980s, spent five months in Afghanistan last semester helping Karzai write Letter from Kabul, to be published in August by John Wiley and Sons.

In 1987 Mills and two COM colleagues went to Peshawar, Pakistan, to recruit Afghans for objectively documenting the war with the Soviet Union and its impact on their fellow citizens. Karzai, then director of information for the Afghan National Liberation Front, “was the guy to deal with” to find refugees willing to be trained in print journalism, photojournalism, and documentary filming. “He was pretty young, but even then he was starting to become a charismatic individual,” says Mills. “He was bright and quite focused.”

After the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989, Mills wanted to go into the country and further develop the Afghan Media Project, but factional fighting between warlords threw Afghanistan into chaos. “Until recently I had last seen Karzai in 1988, the year I left Pakistan,” he says. “We had high hopes for the project, but everything in Afghanistan went to hell in a handbasket.”

From 1992 to 1994, Karzai served as deputy foreign minister in the postwar Afghan government, but when fighting intensified in Kabul, the capital, he moved to Kandahar and worked to end the civil war. He later turned against the Taliban, which had taken over the government in the late 1990s and, he believes, assassinated his father in 1999. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Karzai worked with the United States to overthrow the Taliban.

Mills and Karzai reunited in the summer of 2004, when Mills was working as a trainer and advisor in the press office of the interim Afghan government. “I found him very effective as a representative of Afghanistan,” says Mills. “He’s educated, urbane, and plainspoken, and he has made ordinary people in all parts of the country feel that they are part of the ‘new Afghanistan’ and their opinions matter to the president.” That fall Karzai defeated 22 opponents in Afghanistan’s first ever presidential election.

In February 2005, Joseph Mercurio, BU’s executive vice president, talked to Mills about the situation in Afghanistan and floated the idea of inviting Karzai to be the main Commencement speaker in 2005. Mills thought it wouldn’t get beyond the wishful-thinking stage, but Aram Chobanian, then president of BU, urged him to pursue the plan. Mills successfully used his connections to persuade Karzai to come to BU during his trip to the United States.

The idea for the book came from Boston literary agent Helen Rees, who persuaded Mills to pitch the idea to Karzai while he was at Commencement. The president of Afghanistan, she reasoned, would be the perfect person to write a book about the country’s history since the Soviet invasion—especially because of his significant role in the Afghan resistance.

At Commencement, Mills gave Karzai a two-page book proposal. Several weeks went by before Karzai’s chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, told Mills in a phone call, “The president likes the book idea,” recalls Mills. He had his answer. “So I made plans to go to Kabul.”

After working with Karzai at his office and in his home on the palace grounds for five months, Mills came back with a manuscript. Letter from Kabul is a message to the world from President Karzai on behalf of his country and his people. “We put in a couple pages of historical background for context,” Mills says, “but it’s mostly a personal account of the history of Afghanistan for the last 40 years. Karzai explains what went wrong in the country—how it became a failed state and what needs to be done to keep the situation from happening again.”

Mills describes the project as “a great adventure with a fascinating man. At times I had to pinch myself and say, ‘Here I am sitting here with Hamid Karzai, watching TV, eating dinner, and doing an interview.’ And I’m not surprised that there is already a ton of media interest in the book. I think it will do well.”