Kandahar ‘king’ poses dilemma for US

Beyond the guards and concrete barriers protecting Ahmed Wali Karzai’s villa stands a more telling symbol of his power: dozens of slightly scuffed scandals placed in pairs on his marble doorstep.

Across the threshold, a crowd of turbaned supplicants bustle barefoot or wait cross-legged in an antechamber for their turn to climb the stairs for an audience with the “The King of Kandahar”. Having emerged as the pre-eminent powerbroker in southern Afghanistan in the past five years, the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai now embodies one of the most urgent foreign policy dilemmas for the US.

To his critics, Mr Karzai the chairman of the provincial legislative council, is the don of a “shadow government” of narco-traffickers, gun-runners and militia bosses exploiting a murky nexus of crony capitalism, tribal intrigue and espionage to hijack the Afghan state.

Yet Washington is counting on Mr Karzai to back a push by Nato this summer to beat the Taliban on its home turf by persuading Kandaharis that a new era of responsive government has dawned.

Anxious to overcome his shady reputation in the eyes of some US officials, Mr Karzai has cast himself in the role of a tribal chieftain poised to use the aristocratic aura of the Karzai dynasty to rally ethnic Pashtuns behind the plan.

“My father was the head of this province, my grandfather was head of this province,” he told the Financial Times. “I learnt from my father how to deal with the tribes, how to earn their respect. I would like to use that power to support the international community’s effort.”

US Soldier

A US soldier pauses during an operation in Afghanistan. Some observers say that an
exit strategy can be aided by Ahmed Wali Karzai’s new political order – Reuters.

Kandahar has been the pivot of Afghan conflicts for centuries but today’s contest is between competing visions of the future.

The west’s exit strategy from Afghanistan hinges on building formal government institutions and professional security forces to undercut the Taliban and allow 140,000 foreign troops to leave.

To some observers, Mr Karzai’s feif in Kandahar embodies the emergence of a new, personality-driven political order in which the Karzai family occupies centre-stage.

Disaffected Kandahari politicians and elders say resentment of Mr Karzai is the biggest factor driving the growth of the insurgency and that it will be difficult to nurture loyalty for the Afghan state while he remains in the city.

Mr Karzai’s opponents, senior US officials and independent analysts believe he has exploited his chairmanship of the provincial council to favour his family’s Popalzai clan, alienating other Pashtun groups such as the Ghilzai, Alokozai and Alizai.

They say a clique of oligarchs and local warlords profiting from US contracts to protect Nato supply convoys has tightened his grip on the city and its hinterland.

“If the offensive goes on while Ahmed Wali Karzai is still there, it will fail,” said Malalai Ishaq Zai, an MP from Kandahar. “There is a very big risk that he will take advantage of it to widen his influence.”

Mr Karzai bristles at such remarks, saying reports of illicit activities are planted by his enemies. He says his only brushes with the law were two speeding tickets in the US.

“All the pies that my fingers are in – can you show me a single pie? Is this a cherry pie, or apple pie or banana pie?” he said. “People accuse Her Majesty’s family in Britain. I see the tabloids – these are the tabloids of Kandahar.”

Mr Karzai describes himself as an heir to a legacy of service personified by his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, a prominent figure during the rule of Zahir Shah, the former king, in the 1960s. Subsequent decades of upheaval dispersed the Karzai clan and scattered its sons. Mr Karzai opened an Afghan restaurant in Chicago in 1986, before spending what he calls the happiest years of his life in the US.

He says his bonds with Hamid Karzai deepened when he moved to the Pakistani city of Quetta in 1992 and supported the future president’s political struggle in spite of threats that culminated in the assassination of their father seven years later.

“I am the closest one to him because I stayed with him,” Mr Karzai says.

This blood loyalty helps Mr Karzai survive western pressure for his removal. Nato officials hope to persuade Mr Karzai to allow technocrats to introduce a more transparent system for running Kandahar – one they acknowledge will threaten his patronage machine.

“What happens if three, four or six months from now, Ahmed Wali doesn’t change? We haven’t had that conversation,” says a US official. “How are we going to hold this gentleman’s feet to the fire?”