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

Army Pfc. Nicholas Claffey, of Rochester, N.Y., searches an Afghan man during a patrol in the Maiwand district of Kandahar. American officials are adopting a new political strategy for this southern province.
Army Pfc. Nicholas Claffey, of Rochester, N.Y., searches an Afghan man during a patrol in the Maiwand district of Kandahar. American officials are adopting a new political strategy for this southern province. (Associated Press)

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 29, 2010

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.

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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.

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