U.S. seeks to prop up Kandahar governor, sideline troublesome power brokers

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A09

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- The governor of Kandahar, Tooryalai Wesa, is an outsider with little sway in the province's politics, a mild-mannered academic who spent more than a decade in Canada and is considered by many Afghans to be ineffectual.

Below him in rank but far more powerful in reality is provincial council chief Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half brother of the president who has amassed a business empire fed by foreign aid and, many allege, the opium trade.

It is a power balance that U.S. officials are trying to upend.

In the hope of pushing power brokers such as Karzai to the sidelines, American officials are trying to infuse Wesa and his government with more clout and credibility. They see better governance as a central part of a U.S.-led effort that has brought thousands of troops to the region for a summer offensive against the Taliban.

But the government headed by Wesa has severe problems of its own. It remains understaffed, is viewed by many as corrupt and does not reflect the province's tribal mix. Karzai and other allegedly corrupt political bosses who dominate Kandahar show no sign of giving way.

"Wesa is a weak governor," said Rahmatullah Raufi, a former general and Kandahar governor. "If Ahmed Wali Karzai wants him to die, he will die. If he says, 'Live,' he'll live."

U.S. planning for a new political strategy in Kandahar began last summer and evolved out of a need to find a new way to deal with Karzai. The goal, said one official involved in the planning, was to figure out how to "shape the relationship without turning it into a completely unworkable confrontation."

Obstacles to reform

To bolster Wesa's beleaguered office, U.S. officials plan to hire about two dozen Afghan staff members, to be split with the mayor. American helicopters ferry Wesa to meetings, where U.S. officials take notes on his progress. They hope that Wesa's attempts at grass-roots organizing, combined with an infusion of funds into the province, can earn some support from a skeptical public.

To achieve reform, Wesa wants to build from the bottom up, making local tribal councils more inclusive by bringing in representatives from a wider range of villages. He expects that these councils will bring marginalized tribes back into the political fold and, at the same time, create local structures that can resolve grievances and more equitably hand out development money.

"Rather than an anti-power-broker campaign, it's a pro-government campaign," said Ben Rowswell, Canada's senior civilian representative in Kandahar.

The obstacles to reform are daunting. A series of assassinations has targeted government employees and supporters. The latest high-level casualty was Kandahar's deputy mayor, Azizullah Yarmal, who was fatally shot last week as he prayed in a mosque.

Although the insurgency is still viewed negatively by a majority of Afghans, polling late last year in Kandahar showed troubling trends: rising support for the Taliban, declining confidence in the Afghan government and growing dissatisfaction with foreign troops.

Part of the problem, according to Wesa and others, is the exclusion of key Pashtun tribes from positions of power. President Hamid Karzai's Popalzai tribe, part of the Zirak branch of the Durrani tribes, has come to dominate politics in Kandahar. Other major tribes, such as the Ghilzai, whose most famous son is Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, have lost influence. Two-thirds of the provincial government positions are held by Zirak Durranis, and an even greater proportion of district leaders and police chiefs -- 26 of 34 -- hail from these tribes, according to U.S. military officials. None of the top officials at the district level is a Ghilzai.

Afghan officials and their NATO allies also have failed to confront the network of mafia-like bosses in Kandahar. In fact, NATO forces rely heavily on them, particularly Ahmed Wali Karzai, who benefits from U.S. government contracts and provides intelligence and security for logistics convoys.

Instead of pushing for his removal, U.S. officials want to consult with him more regularly, partly in a bid to limit his power. Although the CIA has worked with him for years on a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission, U.S. officials said they need to broaden their relationship with him and have regular meetings with him on Kandahar's political issues.

In a series of recent meetings, American civilian and military officials told Karzai not to meddle in the work of the Afghan police, interfere with government appointments or rig the upcoming parliamentary elections. Without issuing specific threats, they made clear that, as one senior official put it, "it's going to be painful" for him if he crosses these red lines.

U.S. military officials are also reviewing how much money gets funneled to him through contracts and whether this can be reduced or spread among others.

Ahmed Wali Karzai's role

Confronting Ahmed Wali Karzai is no easy task. During his four-month tenure as Kandahar's governor in 2008, Raufi repeatedly clashed with Karzai. Raufi tried to convene a more inclusive tribal council as a way to pursue peace. But he said Karzai saw this as a threat and scuttled the effort.

Karzai demanded that all provincial legislation be signed by him as well as the governor, something Raufi opposed. Whatever the issue -- be it police appointments, court cases or reconstruction programs -- Karzai was involved, Raufi said. Before long, Raufi lost his job.

"He's like a chicken. Wherever he sees seeds, he tries to peck at them," Raufi said. "With the existence of Ahmed Wali Karzai, it's not possible to develop Kandahar."

Karzai could not be reached for comment. He has repeatedly denied any involvement in illegal activities.

Karzai has told U.S. officials that he will support the military offensive in Kandahar. "He knows this surge is coming. . . . He knows his freedom of movement is not going to be as good as it was," one U.S. official said. "His response has been, 'Tell me what you want me to do.' "

When Wesa took over in December 2008, he had little experience with bare-knuckle politics. He was an agriculture professor who had spent 13 years in Vancouver. When he returned to Kandahar, where he founded the local university, he had difficulty recognizing the place.

"I've lived in Kandahar during the good days. Now I have to go through the bad ones," he said.

In front of crowds, Wesa often appears placid. But he has become adamant about building local councils into relevant organizations, demanding that representatives from each village attend weekly meetings or risk losing aid money.

At these meetings, Wesa and his lieutenants have heard complaints about relatives killed and captured by U.S. troops. They have heard demands for new schools, clinics, irrigation systems and, above all, safety. As Wesa concluded his council meeting in Arghandab last week, a rocket slammed a hill looming over the conference hall, raising a cloud of dust and smoke.

At another meeting in Panjwai district, Wesa asked whether one representative from each village would show up in two weeks. The crowd murmured in noncommittal tones. It was unclear how convincing this cleanshaven Canadian transplant was to the bearded and turbaned men in a Taliban stronghold.

"Everybody's so silent," Wesa observed. "It's like you are Buddhas."

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