Karzai's Problem Brother: Drugs, Spies and Controversy

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Marcel Mettelsiefen / Getty Images

Ahmed Wali Karzai, governor of Afghanistan's Kandahar province and brother of President Hamid Karzai, at his house in Kandahar City on Aug. 14, 2009

The claim that Ahmed Wali Karzai has been on the payroll of the CIA for the past eight years, as reported in the New York Times on Tuesday, won't come as a surprise to most Afghans, who have long considered his brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, to be an American puppet. The revamped allegations that Karzai frère is deeply involved in Afghanistan's annual $4 billion drug industry isn't much of a shocker either — on the streets of Kabul and Kandahar, the name Wali has long been synonymous with someone who can get away with a crime because he has friends in the right places. Diplomats, counternarcotics officials and commanders from the International Security Assistance Force, NATO's military wing in Afghanistan, have all privately (and not so privately) expressed frustration with President Karzai for not reining in his brother. In fact, the people most likely to be shocked by the revelations are Americans back at home, who are already wondering why they should be sending more soldiers and money to a country whose leadership has rarely proved an adequate partner.

That the CIA might turn a blind eye to the unsavory extracurricular activities of a local asset isn't exactly new. It's emblematic of the often shady compromises that are conducted on a daily basis around the globe in the name of increased American security. (If you think the U.S. is only talking to "good" guys to get information about al-Qaeda, think again — men with clean hands rarely truck with those without.) But if the Times' charges are true, the revelations that Wali Karzai is a major drug trafficker who has been protected not just by his brother, but also by CIA operatives establish a chain of causality between the efforts of U.S. intelligence to obtain information and influence and drug monies that pay for an insurgency that has taken 53 American lives this month — the highest death toll ever for Americans in Afghanistan. Karzai denied both allegations, telling the Associated Press that the paper's report was "ridiculous."

Because where there are drug-running, there is corruption and cover-ups. If cops can be paid to look the other way when a shipment belonging to major drug lord passes by or if they are too afraid to rat on drug runners with influence, what's to stop well-funded terrorists from getting past a police checkpoint with a load of grenade launchers instead of heroin? Wednesday's brazen suicide raid on an international guesthouse in Kabul that killed six U.N. employees, including one American, and a subsequent rocket-propelled-grenade volley on the capital's only five-star hotel are clear indications that the city's protective perimeter — manned by Afghan security forces — was breached. If the CIA can't uphold law and order in Afghanistan, how can one expect Afghans, who haven't had much experience with either over the past 30 years, to do better?

To be sure, as one of the most powerful men in Kandahar, Wali Karzai would be a valuable asset in a region that has plagued U.S. and international forces for the past eight years. Kandahar is the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban and is still a hotbed of militant activity. Karzai's influence over local tribes, augmented by his brother's place in the presidential palace and his access to security assets, development contracts and U.S. money, would be substantial. As President Barack Obama deliberates signing a new bill that would allow money to be allocated for insurgents who jump the fence and fight on the side of the government, as was done in Iraq's Anbar Awakening, Karzai would be a key point person for mediating between the Taliban and the presidential palace.

Yet the question begs to be asked: If Wali Karzai was in fact so valuable an asset over the past eight years that his drug-running was at best treated with a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, why has Afghanistan's situation steadily deteriorated? The Taliban, dismissed by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 as "out of business, permanently," is back in force. Part of that strength comes from a drug trade that has skyrocketed from 185 metric tons of heroin produced in 2001 to more than 6,000 metric tons this year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. But a larger reason for the Taliban expansion is a widespread and growing frustration with a corrupt, inefficient government. Justice is a fundamental human desire, and if the government fails, or refuses, to deliver the rule of law, Afghans will turn to those who have a better track record — no matter how brutal those people are.

Hamid Karzai, of course, routinely dismisses the accusations against his brother, calling them Western plots to take down his presidency. He told TIME in a 2008 interview that "for the past five years, allegations have been there, but never have they come to me with proof. My brother can easily be accused to put pressure on me ... [He was accused of running drugs] precisely after I refused to allow aerial spraying of poppies." The Times' allegations, coming to light little more than a week before Afghans head to the polls for a runoff vote between Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, will be taken as a sign by the presidential palace that foreigners, once again, are meddling with his aims for a second term.

Senator John Kerry, after spending several days closeted with President Karzai while urging him to accept a runoff, and exhibiting perhaps a touch of Stockholm syndrome, told the Council on Foreign Relations that he has sought information from U.S. intelligence sources about Wali Karzai's alleged drug links, but "nobody has the smoking gun." True, perhaps, but if Americans are tampering with that evidence for short-term gain, there probably won't ever be one. Notorious American gangster Al Capone, it must be remembered, was never successfully charged with smuggling, gun-running or murder. Eventually of course, he was brought to justice — for tax evasion. Unfortunately, there are no such laws in Afghanistan.