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

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 13, 2010; A01

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.

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."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company