During his visit to Washington last week, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai allowed that he and U.S. President Barack Obama had discussed the problem posed by his notorious half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and that the issue had been "resolved." This last part is highly unlikely, unless President Karzai meant something like "we agreed to disagree." The "AWK problem," as it is known in Kabul and Kandahar, not only isn't resolved between Washington and Kabul; it isn't even resolved inside the Obama administration.
AWK is widely believed to be paying off the Taliban, skimming money from drug dealers, stealing government land, running private militias, threatening and even murdering his critics. He is a warlord's warlord. But he is also, and perhaps even more ruinously, using his position as head of Kandahar's provincial council to undermine tentative efforts at good governance emanating from Kabul. In late March, to take only one small example, Kandahar held a local jirga to nominate delegates to the national "peace jirga" President Karzai is holding on May 29 in the hopes of promoting reconciliation with the Taliban. The Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs had sent a broad-based list of elders who should be invited to the event. Mysteriously, a new and much-shrunken list appeared 48 hours before the meeting. "We asked around," a senior civilian official in Kandahar told me on my trip there last month, "and found out that it was AWK who made the change." He added, "Jirgas normally go on for days while they reach consensus on an issue. This one consisted of eight set speeches, and then they went to lunch."
The underlying message of the fake jirga, like the underlying message of last year's national election -- which AWK, among many other allies of President Karzai, brazenly rigged -- is that the formal operations of government are a sham, and thus that real power is private and unchecked. The central goal of the counterinsurgency strategy President Obama has adopted last year is to use a combination of military force and civilian assistance to help foster a government sufficiently just and effective that the Afghan people will prefer it to the Taliban. AWK makes a mockery of that goal, which is why a parade of leading figures, including U.S. Amb. Karl Eikenberry, have implored the Afghan leader to rein his brother in -- only to fall back before the president's impossible demand that they furnish documentary proof of misdeeds.
Intriguingly, and encouragingly, the most serious challenge to AWK's power may have come from Afghan authorities: An investigation ordered by Gen. Sher Mohammed Zazai, the army corps commander in Kandahar, recently concluded that Karzai and his allies were engaging in illegal construction on more than 1,000 acres of government land; AWK retaliated by shutting down the provincial council. President Karzai can dismiss American demands to deal with his brother as arrogant meddling; discrediting allegations by his own senior army officers may prove a tougher sell.