A U.S. Stumbling Block in Kandahar: Karzai's Brother

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Humayoun Shiab / EPA / Corbis

Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half brother, right, addresses journalists

General Stanley McChrystal's plan to reconquer the key Afghan city of Kandahar this summer could fail, influential diplomats, Afghan experts and tribal elders are warning, because of deep resentment against the local face of the Afghan government — President Hamid Karzai's troublesome half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai.

McChrystal's plan is to restore NATO control through a steady buildup of forces in and around the city of 500,000, recognizing its symbolic importance to the Taliban. The movement was formed in Kandahar in 1994 and Mullah Omar made the city his seat of power even after the Taliban had taken control of Kabul. More recently, say many locals and foreign observers, the city has been slipping back into the Taliban's grasp because of poor governance by the Western-backed Wali Karzai. In a series of interviews with TIME, Afghan politicians, international analysts, diplomats, military officers and some tribal elders blame much of the chaos in Kandahar on pervasive influence peddling by President Karzai's half brother.

As a former NATO official with years of experience in Kandahar puts it, "You have essentially a criminal enterprise in the guise of government, using us [NATO forces] as its enforcing arm." As a result, says this official, who asked not to be identified, "the people are turning to the Taliban as the only means of protection and outlet for their anger."

In a telephone interview from his Kandahar home, Wali Karzai dismissed the allegations against him, telling TIME, "I'm only a tribal elder. It's my job to help people who come knocking on my door. That's all." But international experts versed in Kandahar's politics say that Wali Karzai has influence stretching way beyond his role as an elder of the Popalzai tribe and chief of the provincial council. His detractors allege that he has the power to settle land disputes; they say he decides who gets plum international development contracts, who stays in jail and which tribes get humanitarian aid. A top international diplomat says one former Kandahar governor complained to him that he couldn't make any appointments inside his own office without a "green light from Ahmed Wali."

Antinarcotics experts in Kabul say that while they have no evidence linking the President's half brother to drug trafficking, he and his relatives have sway over top police officers in Kandahar and Helmand province who are alleged to have ensured the safe passage of drug shipments along the roads to Iran and Pakistan.

International observers and diplomats in Kabul say Wali Karzai retains close ties with units of the U.S. special forces and the CIA in Kandahar. Last October, the New York Times alleged that Wali Karzai had been on the CIA payroll for the past eight years, a charge he denied when speaking to TIME. "I see these people, I talk to them in security meetings, but I have no control," he said. But TIME's sources insist that Wali Karzai in the past has threatened to call down NATO air strikes or arrange night raids by U.S. special forces on tribal elders who defied him. Says a former NATO official: "Most of our intelligence comes directly or indirectly from him. We really didn't see this dynamic because we were so focused on the enemy."

One example of the complexity that McChrystal will face during this summer's offensive can be found in Argandab, a town on the slopes of desert hills outside Kandahar. Over the past two years, several elders from the Alokozai tribe were assassinated one by one. Blame originally fell on the Taliban, but the movement denied responsibility. (When the Taliban assassinates tribal leaders, it's usually to send a message from the movement.) The murdered Alokozai tribesmen had publicly opposed Wali Karzai, and some of their relatives began to suspect that members of his former militia force were behind the killings. Karzai insists that his ties with the tribesmen are friendly. But many of the Alokozai tribesmen have switched loyalties to the Taliban for their own protection. Canadian troops keep a firebase in Argandab, but a recent visitor there says that after nightfall, Taliban fighters now roam the neighborhoods.

NATO insiders in Kabul say McChrystal is aware that Wali Karzai's role could undermine the Kandahar offensive, since NATO's purpose in restoring security is to allow the Afghan authorities to deliver good governance. Still, these sources say, McChrystal believes that the controversial governor's fate must be decided by others. Wali Karzai remains, after all, the President's kin, though relations between the two may no longer be so close. Several years ago, they had a spat in front of tribal elders in the Kabul presidential palace. President Karzai reportedly told his half brother that he had made "a mess" in Kandahar, to which Wali Karzai retorted, "And you've made a mess of things in the entire country," before stalking out of the palace. But until now, the President has insisted he will act against Wali Karzai only if he's shown evidence to substantiate allegations of his half brother's wrongdoing.

Yet Wali Karzai has his backers, primarily in the CIA, since the agency is reliant on his network for intelligence in the city, say diplomats. (The CIA denies that Wali Karzai is working for the agency now or has done so in the past.) His supporters are said to argue that cutting ties with Wali Karzai on the eve of the Kandahar assault could shred their intelligence-gathering capacity.

An international diplomat who deals with the Kandahar tribes says that if Wali Karzai is kept in place, the only way to stave off failure against the insurgency in southern Afghanistan would be to open high-level talks between senior Taliban and President Karzai. But even that is complicated by the President's half brother, says this diplomat, who claims that a Pashtun elder from Quetta, Pakistan, where many of the Taliban leaders are said to be hiding, recently told the President that the insurgents are refusing to talk to Karzai unless he reins in his half brother.