Terms of Engagement

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Obama administration needs to make up its mind: Is Ahmed Wali Karzai a menace or an asset?

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.

The AWK problem is, at bottom, a problem of legitimacy. The administration's Afghanistan strategy eschews George W. Bush's thunderous language of democracy promotion in favor of the more modest vocabulary of "capacity-building." But a legitimate government is not simply one that can deliver basic goods (though that matters a lot). Legitimacy means that power is at least minimally accountable, and that people believe they have some kind of voice in their own affairs. Kandaharis complain more bitterly about the rule of powerbrokers than they do about the lack of schools or even security. Civilian and military officials in Kandahar are trying to strengthen the capacity of the provincial government by bringing in more representatives of national ministries and boosting the staff of the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who is widely seen as AWK's creature. But, as the senior official said to me, "We're strengthening the capacity of a government which people see as controlled by AWK."

If legitimacy simply means "capacity," then the U.S. can live with, and work around, even the worst warlords. If it means something more like "trust," then figures like AWK are calamitous. But America's contradictory relationship with him is ruled by a deeper, unresolved tension. From the outset of the war, senior U.S. and NATO commanders have gravitated toward the warlords who can deliver for them no matter what their standing with the Afghan people.

In The Punishment of Virtue, her account of the early years of the war in Kandahar, Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, recounts the increasingly intimate relationship between U.S. military and intelligence officials and Gul Agha Sherzai -- the scion, like AWK, or a powerful local family. Like AWK, Sherzai was deeply implicated in the drug trade, had shadowy relations with the insurgents, and ran roughshod over the concerns of Kandaharis, making him a loathed figure. But he had men and trucks at his command and delivered intelligence the Americans trusted. U.S. officials helped install Sherzai in power instead of former mujahideen commander Mullah Naqib, a far more popular and less brutal figure -- a decision that, Chayes writes, robbed the U.S. of the hope and enthusiasm gained in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

President Karzai transferred Sherzai out of the province in 2005 and replaced him with a family loyalist, thus initiating his brother's rise to power. But he could not exist without the support of coalition forces. AWK has long worked closely with, and perhaps been paid by, the CIA, for whom he helps operate a paramilitary force, according to press reports. Diplomats in Kandahar and Kabul want him out, but intelligence officials appear to be continuing to defend him. What's more, owing to the deep tentacles he has sunk in local government as well as such businesses as transportation, he and his allies are the chief beneficiary of the hundreds of millions of dollars NATO spends in the province, according to a recent study (pdf) by the Institute for the Study of War. In short, AWK, like Sherzai before him, has made himself indispensable for the war-fighting side of the U.S.-led Afghan endeavor, even as he has profoundly undermined the ultimate goal of that effort.

The support both men received was understandable, if mistaken, at a time when  NATO forces were fighting a more conventional war. Now they are not, and yet the looming battle for Kandahar has once again put AWK in the driver's seat. According to one recent account, military officials are hoping to "shape" AWK for their own purposes for the upcoming operation.

U.S. officials have tried publicly remonstrating with President Karzai, to no effect. Having called the American bluff, Karzai appears to be in no mood to make painful concessions. Ergo, Ahmad Wali Karzai has nothing to worry about. (Karzai even noted during his remarks in Washington that as an elected official his brother is protected by the Afghan constitution.)

But if that tension between ostensible allies can't be resolved, the one within the U.S. government can be. U.S. military and civilian leaders must decide what kind of war they are fighting. Whatever benefits intelligence agencies or Special Forces derive from AWK cannot possibly equal the harm he does to larger objectives. The report from the Institute for the Study of War argues that U.S. and NATO forces, civilian and military leaders, and provincial and national-level Afghan figures, must coordinate policy rather than work at cross purposes; that contract funds must be spread around rather than poured into the coffers of AWK and his confederates; and that private militias must be disarmed.

Afghanistan's problems are, at bottom, political. The solutions must be political. That's what it means to fight a counterinsurgency war.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

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