Corrupt leaders trump Taliban in Afghanistan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 11:09 PM

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - When Ghulam Haider Hamidi left a comfortable life as an accountant in Northern Virginia after 30 years to become mayor of his native city in southern Afghanistan, he knew he would be landing in the center of a war that pits a radical Islamist militia against some of the world's most powerful armies.

But Hamidi, a personable and loquacious man of 63, has found himself embroiled in another battle for this strategically vital provincial capital, one less visible than the Taliban insurgency but no less cutthroat.

It is a fight over money and power among competing tribal, political and business leaders who seek to dominate the war economy and establish a permanent grip on the region. They are, in name at least, American allies with no sympathy for the Taliban. But their nasty feud, which involves high-profile relatives of President Hamid Karzai, may be working against the campaign being waged by the U.S. military and its allies.

"The Taliban put their bombs, but more than 50 percent of the violence comes from these corrupt people, the ones who sit with you and smile," said Hamidi, a childhood friend of the Karzai family. Today, he dares not walk openly in a city he has spent nearly four years trying to improve. He has seen two deputy mayors killed in the past 10 months.

Hamidi said his campaign to boost city revenue and public land use has incurred the wrath of illegal market owners whose shops he destroyed, tribal leaders he evicted from government land and entrepreneurs whose city contracts he dropped for not paying their taxes.

But Hamidi's critics say he is part of the problem. Naseem Sharifi, a former Kandahar businessman now living in California, called the mayor "a man with several faces." He added: "He says he is against the warlords, but only those who jeopardize the profits of the bigger warlords. He did not come here to serve the public. He was brought here on a high salary to help all the local business profits go to the Karzais."

Hamidi fled Afghanistan three decades ago after the communist takeover and the Soviet invasion. After a brief stint in Pakistan, he and his wife were accepted as refugees in the United States and moved to Northern Virginia, where they raised seven children.

Hamidi, who had studied finance at Kabul University, found a job as an accountant for a small travel agency in Alexandria, where he worked for more than 20 years. After a decade in Arlington, his family moved to a townhouse in Burke and then to a larger home in Sterling, which they still own.

His daughter Rangina, 31, who went to Wakefield High School and graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, came back to Kandahar five years ago to work on civic and women's projects, and she now runs a program that helps local women sell their handmade embroidery.

"My daughter is the brave one. She came first," Hamidi said, laughing. "I had a good life in Virginia; seven children and 14 grandchildren. None of my relatives wanted me to move back here, but Rangina said, 'Dad, please come. If you die from a car accident in the States or a bomb in Afghanistan, what's the difference? You are needed here.' So I came."

Under scrutiny

Hamidi, in several interviews, dismissed the criticism of his performance in office and seemed surprisingly good-natured about the accusations swirling around him. He spoke with pride about streets he had paved, schools he had built, trees he had saved and tax revenue he had generated in his crusade to beautify and regulate an ancient city of dusty alleys, chaotic markets and confused property records.

"My sons and daughters are begging me to leave, to come back to Virginia," Hamidi said. "But I owe my city, and I like doing this work. I may have made 50 or 100 enemies, but I am making 800,000 people happy."

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