Ahmed Wali Karzai, an ally and obstacle to the U.S. military in Afghanistan

Failed U.S. attempts to find evidence against the half brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and fear of a power vacuum has shaped the American strategy heading into the summer's military push in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 13, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- On March 8, at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal presided over a classified briefing that some military officials hoped would lead to the ouster of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghanistan's president and the most powerful figure in southern Afghanistan.

But what has emerged instead appears to have left Karzai stronger than ever. A summertime U.S. military offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar has now been delayed, in what American officials said was an acknowledgment of opposition among local officials, without singling out Karzai by name.

The fact that the younger Karzai continues to hold sway in Kandahar says much about how difficult it has been for the American military to assert its will in Afghanistan. The 48-year-old powerbroker is regarded by some U.S. intelligence officials as indispensable, but he has long been viewed with mistrust by American military officers, who describe him as an obstacle in their efforts to fight corruption and bolster the rule of law.

The briefing given to McChrystal in March was intended by American officers to be a "cards on the table moment,'' according to a senior NATO official. It outlined a dossier of intelligence information that the critics of Ahmed Wali Karzai hoped might ultimately persuade Hamid Karzai, the president, to remove his brother from power.

Instead, NATO and American officials say the presentation was so unpersuasive that McChrystal directed his subordinates to "stop saying bad stuff about AWK" and instead to work with him.

With the offensive delayed until at least September, American officials say there is time for Ahmed Wali Karzai to prove more supportive. "I believe he wants to be on the right side of history,'' said Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, a top U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan. "We want to help him be constructive, not destructive.''

Some NATO officials say the best they can hope for is that Karzai, who heads a provincial council, will stand aside and let Kandahar's governor, Tooryalai Wesa, become a bigger player in the province's bare-knuckled politics. But some American officials say it is naive to think that Ahmed Wali Karzai will loosen his grip on Kandahar, where Afghan police commanders live in fear of crossing him. Of the 900 new policemen headed to the city this summer, Karzai recently claimed 250 of them for the provincial council, and 110 of these as personal bodyguards, a senior U.S. official said.

Karzai certainly has influence. He wields his power in cellphone calls and endless meetings with everyone from cabinet ministers to American generals to peasants. Since he returned to Afghanistan in 1992, after 10 years in the United States, he has demonstrated an ability to get results where others in the Afghan government fail.

"I know how to talk to the people," Karzai said humbly. "I know how to deal with these tribes. I know what their needs are. I know how to address their needs. This is the skill I have learned."

Power and perception

Ahmed Wali Karzai has long been a source of friction within the U.S. government. He has long-standing ties to the CIA and has reportedly been paid by the agency for providing security forces and safe houses in and around Kandahar.

"He's a key tribal leader," a U.S. official said earlier this year. "If you take out Karzai, you don't have good governance, you have no governance. He's done very good things for the United States. He's effective."

Karzai's critics within the American military acknowledge that there is little conclusive evidence against the powerbroker, as the weakness of the March briefing demonstrated. The fact that Karzai remains in power means that anything related to him is politically sensitive, and U.S. officials would speak about him only on the condition of anonymity.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company