Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Despite Doubt, Karzai Brother Retains Power

The New York Times

March 30, 2010

Despite Doubt, Karzai Brother Retains Power


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, may maintain links with drug dealers and insurgents, as some American officials and Afghans believe. And he might have played a central role in last summer’s fraudulent presidential election, as Western diplomats charged.

But Mr. Karzai is also the brother of the Afghan president, Hamid. And after debating Ahmed Wali’s future for months — and with a huge military operation in the area looming — Afghan and American officials have decided that the president’s brother will be allowed to stay in place.

Over the last several months, President Karzai has turned down repeated requests by both the American ambassador and the top American commander to move Ahmed Wali Karzai out of Kandahar, American officials here said. Many Western and Afghan officials say he stands in the way of building a just and efficient Afghan government, which they see as essential to dislodging the Taliban and eventually allowing American troops to withdraw.

Senior American officials spent months weighing the allegations against Ahmed Wali Karzai: that he pays off Taliban insurgents, that he launders money, that he seizes land, that he reaps enormous profits by facilitating the shipment of opium through the area. And the officials concluded that the evidence, some compelling, some circumstantial, was not clear enough to persuade the president to move his brother out of town, two NATO officials said.

“My recommendation was, remove him,” a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.”

Instead, American and Afghan officials say they intend to use him to help persuade Taliban fighters to give up. Mr. Karzai has sometimes helped the American government communicate with Taliban insurgents. Recently, he has told American officials that he can help peel Taliban fighters away from the insurgency.

“I absolutely think he can help us with reintegration,” the NATO officer said, referring to the American-backed program to coax fighters away from the insurgency.

The tug of war over President Karzai’s brother offers a vivid example of President Obama’s constraints in prosecuting the war here: While he and other American officials publicly goad Mr. Karzai into cleaning up his government, widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in the world, they appear to have quite limited power in doing much about it.

Any decision about Ahmed Wali Karzai is complicated by his relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, which maintains a large presence in Kandahar. Current and former American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say the agency has paid Ahmed Wali Karzai regularly for many years for performing a variety of services.

In previous interviews, Ahmed Wali Karzai acknowledged that he had helped the American government battle the insurgency. But he has denied ever taking money from the C.I.A. He declined to be interviewed for this article. In previous interviews, he has also steadfastly denied engaging in any illegal activity.

Some have regarded the case as a test of American will to confront President Karzai. “Watch what the Americans do,” said a diplomat in Kabul. “If they let Ahmed Wali stay in power, it means they are not serious about governance.”

The decision to leave Mr. Karzai in place comes as American commanders are preparing a huge military operation in and around the city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home. The operation is seen as the fulcrum of the entire Afghan campaign, whose aim is to break the Taliban’s hold across its heartland of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces.

At the heart of Kandahar sits Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has been a prominent public figure in southern Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

There is little doubt here that few important matters are settled without him. The question debated by some American officials is whether he can also be of use to them.

American officials say he has provided extensive help in battling the insurgency. He helps the C.I.A. operate a paramilitary group, the Kandahar Strike Force, which is used for raids against suspected insurgents.

Ahmed Wali Karzai is also paid for allowing the C.I.A. and American Special Operations troops to rent a large compound outside the city, several American officials said.

He is also one of the area’s biggest entrepreneurs, with business and real estate ventures across southern Afghanistan. “One thing, he is a successful businessman,” the senior NATO official said. “He can create jobs.”

But Western and Afghan officials say the president’s brother is engaged in many activities that buoy the insurgency and undermine the Afghan state. These military and political officials say the evidence, though largely circumstantial, strongly suggests that he enriches himself by helping the illegal trade in poppy and opium.

“If you don’t cooperate, then you don’t do business,” said a Western official in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Karzai pays off insurgents not to attack his properties, the Western official said. And he has been busily engaged in seizing land in Kandahar, particularly land that might be rented to the newly arriving American troops.

“What he is doing is, he finds out where the Americans want to go, then he strong-arms the land department to register the land in companies that he controls,” the official said.

The official said that Ahmed Wali Karzai also laundered ill-gotten money for a host of figures in southern Afghanistan. “For a lot of people, including drug runners,” the Western official said.

Perhaps the most vivid example of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s reach came last August, when his brother sought re-election. According to Western diplomats in Kabul, he cut deals with insurgent groups to refrain from attacking polling stations, and then helped orchestrate a large-scale campaign of forging ballots on his brother’s behalf.

At the time, Ahmed Wali Karzai denied carrying out any electoral fraud.

Finally, he appears to be overseeing several armed groups in the Kandahar area. The gunmen exist outside the government, often posted at checkpoints and in escort convoys. They can be seen roaming the streets of Kandahar — usually toting guns.

Many of the armed groups are led by former commanders in the war against the Soviet Union. “They are all Ahmed Wali’s commanders,” said an Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

In a recent interview, Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister, said that gunmen for as many as 18 “unlicensed private security companies” were roaming the streets of Kandahar, and that Ahmed Wali was helping to bring them under control.

“He has helped us bring these companies together,” Mr. Atmar said.

The Western official said he was worried that deciding to keep Ahmed Wali Karzai might work as a short-term fix in securing Kandahar, but that the Americans might ultimately undermine their own efforts to build a stable government here.

“You’ve seen the polls,” the Western official said. “What’s the number one thing everyone is angry about? It’s not the insurgency, it’s not the drug trade.

“It’s the government,” he said.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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