After assuming the leadership of Afghanistan's interim government, Karzai confronted problems of the most basic sort—repairing roads to allow trade to resume, rebuilding schools and medical clinics, and installing basic utilities such as telecommunications, reliable electricity, and safe water. He struck a conciliatory tone by issuing pardons for over 300 Taliban members who agreed to surrender their weapons. Karzai also faced the need to build a new police force and military defense, and a system for collection of taxes and other revenues to begin to build self-sufficiency.
Karzai's stated top priority was the restoration of peace and security by bringing the conflicting factions of the country together. The UN delegation charged with creating the interim government put forward the names of 30 potential government ministers, representing the key factions still holding power within the country. Representatives of the Northern Alliance (made up primarily of Uzbeks and Tajiks), the group that assumed control of the capital, Kabul, when the Taliban collapsed, were named to three powerful ministries—interior, defense, and foreign affairs. To reflect the UN's position that any new Afghan government must guarantee women's rights, two women were among those recommended for ministerial positions. At the loya jirga held in June 2002, 160 seats were guaranteed to women, a representation of 11%.
Since becoming president of the Transitional Authority, Karzai has devoted the majority of his time trying to heal ethnic divisions, reining in the powerful warlords, arranging for the security of the country, and surviving assassination attempts. Karzai is guarded by U.S. Special Forces, who are backed up by international peacekeepers. The Afghan police are undertrained and the national army had, as of January 2003, only begun to take shape. Karzai also found it necessary to negotiate with his defense minister, Mohammed Fahim, whose ministry is dominated by ethnic Tajiks loyal to him. The goal—to create a unified, well-trained army of 250,000 with all men ages 22 to 24 fulfilling two years of military service—was little more than a plan on paper as of early 2003.
Fahim, a former mujahidin leader, estimated that 20% of the men serving in the Afghan military as of 2003 were former Taliban fighters. Sizable weapons stocks had yet to be handed over to the national army. International observers are wary that, unless Karzai's government can wield complete control over the military, Taliban and al-Qaeda factions could channel arms to fighters in and outside Afghanistan. In addition, the military must address the dangerous problem of the millions of land mines remaining in the country; it will likely require 12 years and US $500 million to clear the vast, mountainous terrain.
In September 2002, Karzai announced a nationwide campaign to eliminate the production of poppies (used to produce opium and heroin), one of Afghanistan's major crops. The country is the main source of opium and heroin sold in Europe. Karzai stated: "The drug destroys our agriculture; it destroys our crops; it destroys our good family life. Worst of all, it goes hand and hand with terrorism. It funds terrorism in Afghanistan and the rest of the world."
In November 2002, four Kabul University students were killed during protests demanding food and electricity. Karzai fasted in response and called the students' families to console them. "Just the basics is all they wanted," he said.
Although as of January 2003 Karzai had yet to travel to most areas of his own country to see the problems firsthand, he was attempting to improve the quality of life of Afghans and to make the government more representative, which will give his administration more credibility.