KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Ahmed Wali Karzai, leader of the Popalzai tribe and the most powerful man in Kandahar, settles down in his chambers for another round of grievance hearing, dispute settling, and political strategizing.
Gazed down upon by a photo of his assassinated father and bathed in the aura of his half brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Wali Karzai’s avid eyes flit over the tribal chieftains and petitioners around him as he dispenses with the business of the day.
Increasingly, the business of the day in Kandahar and the business of Ahmed Wali Karzai are indistinguishable. To his supporters, that’s all to the good – a supporter of the United States effort with his hand on the tribal political levers in a province and city that’s the key to defeating the Taliban.
But to others, Mr. Karzai is building a traditional patronage network – with his family at the top of the heap – that is encouraging corruption, creating tribal divisions, and shifting support to the Taliban from the NATO-backed government of his brother.
Kandahar, awash in drug money and contractor profits and where Taliban assassinations occur almost daily, is currently the focus of a US military buildup. Karzai – or AWK in the language of the blossoming diplomatic cables and military intelligence dossiers on his activities – is the man in the middle.
He’s been accused of having business ties to the heroin traders and warlords that have proliferated across the south since NATO ousted the Taliban in 2001. Almost everyone – local journalists, businessmen, political rivals – alleges he’s amassed a fortune, though Kandaharis, when pressed for details, often respond with the Pashtun phrase, “My mouth is full of water.”
‘I’m like a spice’
AWK denies all the charges against him, and says he’s simply a tribal leader and politician whose power comes from a famous and respected name among the Pashtun tribes of the south. He says his critics are trying to weaken President Karzai, with family ties and his influence proving an easy target. “I’m like a spice,” he says. “To make the dish more delicious, you add a little Ahmed Wali.”
Whatever the source, a few days spent with him demonstrates his local power. A Kandahar without AWK could be as problematic, or more so, than one with him.
It’s a point that a US officer in Kabul – who thinks NATO should hold its nose and deal with him – makes: “We think there’s some dirt on him. But everyone’s got dirt on him. And we know that he’s working with us to deal with the Taliban.”
Karzai the problem solver?
At his sprawling guesthouse where he entertains requests and complaints for five hours on most days (and twice a week at the provincial council he chairs), Karzai is running a cross between Tammany Hall and the tribal jirgas that Afghanistan’s Pashtuns have used to order their affairs for centuries.
First in his line of supplicants is a former mujahideen commander who led troops in the 1980s war against the Soviets. His son is running for parliament, and he’s seeking Karzai’s blessing. Support granted. Karzai urges the young politician to “listen to the people.”
Next is a delegation warning that a dispute between the Achakzai and Barakzai tribes could get violent. After taking advice from a circle of advisers, he tells the men to “bring the leaders of the tribe here and I’ll solve it.” They shuffle out.
A wheat farmer comes in charging that another man harvested his land. A provincial employee complains he was falsely accused of corruption. A delegation of tribal elders comes in with a World War I Luger pistol as a gift. A stooped old man requests that his jailed son be transferred to a prison closer to home.
AWK helps them all, leaning forward in his chair, asking questions in staccato bursts. It feels as if a page should shout “Next!” after he’s done with each issue.
The unemployed son of a tribal leader is promised a job at the election office; a letter is dispatched to a friendly businessman asking him to give $1,300 to a farmer whose wheat was burned by a US illumination flare; a tribal leader whose brother’s house was surrounded by the Taliban two days earlier is consulted with.
Fortunately the brother had gotten through to Karzai on the phone. Afghan forces raced to the compound. “A few years ago, that probably wouldn’t have happened. He’d be dead,” says one of Karzai’s aides.
On it goes amid the clacking of prayer beads and the cracking of nuts. Finally it’s time for lunch, with heaping plates of lamb meatballs, stewed okra, chicken, and rice eaten sprawled on Afghan carpets.
Karzai’s influence explained
Karzai explains his influence as a matter of tradition in a region where tribal ties remain strong. “It’s not like we popped up like mushrooms when Hamid Karzai became president. My father was the head of the Popalzai, for all of Kandahar. Everyone respects him. It’s a family thing,” he says.
Well, not everybody. Karzai has survived two Taliban assassination attempts and travels with gunmen. He straps on a pistol when he leaves the house for the provincial council.
There, a man convinces him that his father was wrongly detained by the police on charges of selling arms to the Taliban. One phone call and the elderly father enters the chamber about half an hour later to thank him (Karzai says later that the police “were about to release him anyway”).
More ominous allegations of release have surfaced. Dad Mohammed Khan, a former intelligence chief in neighboring Helmand Province, the center of Afghan opium production, told a McClatchy reporter earlier this year that an associate of Karzai had ordered him to release a Taliban commander linked to the drug trade. Mr. Khan died soon after in a roadside bombing blamed on the Taliban.
Allegations brushed aside
Karzai brushes aside allegations that he receives a cut of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on guarding the trucks that deliver food, fuel, and ammunition to NATO forces. “I haven’t received one penny from the international contracts here. If someone can find I’ve made one, then I’ll admit to everything.”
His critics disagree. A member of parliament in Kabul, who asked not to be named, charges that AWK has steered contracts to the Popalzai and that officials who stand in his way are removed. “Contracts and jobs all flow through him. From a tribal point of view, he’s a big problem. People that get cut out could be turning to the Taliban,” he says.
Karl Forsberg at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington wrote in an April report: “Ahmed Wali Karzai’s influence over Kandahar is the central obstacle to any of [NATO’s] governance objectives…. Wali Karzai’s behavior and waning popularity among local populations promote instability and provide space for the Taliban to exist.”
One of the largest security contractors in Afghanistan, the Asia Security Group, is run by another brother, Hashmat Karzai. The family link is one reason some believe Karzai profits from the business, though he says he has limited dealings with his brother and doesn’t receive any money from his operation.
US officials have also privately said Karzai is on the CIA’s payroll. “I haven’t signed a paper saying I’m working with anyone,” Karzai says. “But yes, I fought against Al Qaeda with the US in 2001, yes I work with USAID. I talk to the military and I help every American that comes to me.”
He says he’s in the “front of the fight against the Taliban” and that it’s natural that he works with US Special Forces and others.
“When the international forces came, they needed us to show them the way. The understanding they have now mostly came from us,” he says. “I’m living in the region, I know the people. When it comes to getting things done, we’re the ones to come to.”