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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.

The critics say they have little doubt that Karzai is involved in the opium trade, and some estimate that he receives millions of dollars a year in illicit income. The widespread perception in Afghanistan is that Karzai is complicit in the kind of industrial-strength corruption that has left Afghan people furious with their government.

Karzai, who is married and has four children, was born in Kandahar City and moved to the United States in 1982, where he lived in Maryland and Virginia before moving to Chicago to run an Afghan restaurant.

Called "agha mama," or "father uncle," by his guards, Karzai now lives in a relatively modest house with a marble facade on a barricaded street manned by police in downtown Kandahar City. On a typical day, supplicants by the dozens file upstairs to where he sits, barefoot, in a carpeted room ringed with tan couches and hung with rose-print drapes.

One recent morning, he greeted 73 people in two hours. Some knelt before him. Some kissed his hand. One handed him a note that he read and then tore into shreds.

The first meeting was with two women from Zabul province who wanted his blessing to run for parliament. He agreed, with a condition. "Please do not mention my name," he said. "There are many people who want my support."

One group of villagers came to ask for a police checkpoint, followed by another group that requested their checkpoint be removed. Nine tribal elders needed his approval for the guest list of an important assembly. A young truck driver begged for a job recommendation -- "if you'll just sign this letter" -- while an old man pleaded for his son's release from American custody.

"Is he in the Taliban?" Karzai asked, thumbing yellow prayer beads in his left hand.

"Yes," the old man said.

"I cannot do anything now," Karzai said. "Come on Saturday and we will talk."

In these meetings, Karzai made an effort to refer those seeking help to others -- to the governor, the police chief, the intelligence service. But he was not always successful. "You're the only real man in the government," one man told him. "You have the power. I'll always keep coming to you."

Fingers pointed at him

This month, Karzai shut down the 15-member provincial council in a fit of pique after the Afghan army accused him of seizing government land. He's also widely thought to control the selection of district leaders and police chiefs in the province. An outgoing U.S. battalion commander, Lt. Col. Reik Andersen, said he believed that Karzai helped oust a district governor, Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, because the governor took a stand against corruption.

Karzai lumps all these allegations into what he sees as a smear campaign by his family's political enemies. After nine years of accusations, he said wearily, he's detected a pattern. Whatever the issue of the day -- drug trafficking, corruption, private security companies, NATO contracts -- the finger is pointed at him. He reads all his press clippings.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "It's all our Afghan internal problem, internal politics.'' Karzai looked at his watch. It was noon. He stood up, hurried out of the room and slipped into the back seat of a white armored Land Cruiser. Two Kalashnikovs rested by his side. After several assassination attempts, he does not like to make appointments or telegraph his movements.

Three minutes later, his four-truck convoy pulled up at Mandigak palace, where the provincial council holds its meetings. The attorney general agreed to lead an investigation into the land confiscation issue. This satisfied Karzai, who was convinced the inquiry would clear his name.

"In front of the media, I want to say that if I have ever confiscated one handful of land, I am ready to be brought to justice," Karzai said, addressing the television cameras. "The authorities should treat me like an ordinary Afghan."

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