Monday, July 18, 2011

The Afghan enforcer

SENIOR American and Nato officers in Afghanistan have wanted Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai gone - set aside, retired, out of the country or worse - for many years now. His killing by a close family associate recently may have granted their wishes. But what now follows the death of the most powerful political broker in southern Afghanistan may be much worse than he ever was.

Afghanistan just got more dangerous, unpredictable with death of President Karzai's half-brother
By Ahmed Rashid

In fact, Afghanistan just got more dangerous and unpredictable.

After Mr Hamid Karzai became President in 2002, his half-brother Ahmed Wali virtually ran the southern provinces for him. However much Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai was loved or loathed, his death leaves a huge political vacuum for the Americans and President Karzai at a critical moment for three efforts - the war against the Taleban, the start of the drawing down of American forces, and American efforts to talk to the Taleban and forge a peace agreement.

Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai was involved in all three. He had forged tribal alliances to defend his half-brother's presidency and extend the central government's rule outside Kabul. He openly helped American and British forces with strategic advice and knowledge of the tribes, and ran a clandestine Afghan special operations team for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And, as early as 2007, he was the first prominent Afghan leader to start talks with the Taleban in a bid to end the war.

Of course, he was far better known in other, less savoury contexts. He was accused of being a drug smuggler or at least a protector of drug cartels - which he denied - and he was involved in the business rackets that the millions of dollars in American military spending brought to the south, in activities that included building bases, other construction projects, transportation of military goods and property speculation. You could not do business in the south without his knowing about it.

He was ruthless with the tribes who did not support the President; for example, he cut them out of the aid largesse that poured into the south once US Marines arrived in force in 2009. His tribal politics often led his rivals to join the Taleban. He was a wheeler-dealer in the classic Afghan mold. But if he was a rogue, he was a lovable rogue who charmed you - one way of doing political business in Afghanistan.

Yet the corruption, controversy and tribal rivalries that always surrounded him did not endear him to American and British commanders when they arrived in the south; they had yet to learn how Afghans wield power. You got the feeling that many of these officers washed their hands after shaking Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai's, not fully appreciating that this was Afghanistan, not West Point or Sandhurst.

I got to know Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai before Sept 11, 2001, when he lived in exile from Taleban-controlled Afghanistan in Quetta, Pakistan, with his half-brother Hamid Karzai. He was the practical operator while Mr Hamid Karzai was the ethereal dreamer. After 9/11, when Mr Hamid Karzai became the first Pashtun tribal leader to enter Afghanistan (on a motorcycle) to take on the Taleban, it was the ever-practical Ahmed Wali Karzai who provided him with cash to buy food, guns and a pair of binoculars.

For the rest of the war from Quetta, Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai ran a clandestine network of Afghans in the city of Kandahar who, over satellite phones, called in the location of Taleban commanders so that the Americans could target them with cruise missiles. It was a nerve-racking job, and he lost many good friends to the Taleban.

At that time he was quiet, unassuming, removed from the news media or controversy. I spoke to him often because he would tell me when his brother's satellite phone was free so I could ring Mr Hamid Karzai and ask how the war was going.

He came into his own immediately after the fighting of 2001 ended, when his half-brother gave him the task of securing Kandahar - the Karzai family heartland - and the southern Pashtuns. By then the Taleban, who had never surrendered, had disappeared into Pakistan, as rival Pashtun warlords sponsored by the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence fought to control Kandahar.

When Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai slipped into Kandahar, nobody took him seriously. But he soon made his presence felt. He was elected head of the provincial council of Kandahar province, a lowly job compared with that of provincial governor. But because of his connections in Kabul, and with American support, he soon made his word law in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan. He made many enemies, and fewer friends.

The motive of his killer, a family friend and one-time bodyguard of another brother of President Karzai, is still unclear. But what seems certain is that nobody can entirely replace Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai in holding the south together as he did.

President Karzai is likely to install another of his brothers in the south to oversee the tribal politics and reassure his supporters. But there is a fear now of even greater fragmentation there. Governors, tribal chiefs, transporters and contractors in the four provinces will fight over the political and financial spoils. They will start to cut their own deals with neighbouring Pakistan, the Taleban and power brokers in Kabul.

Now the fear is that despite the military surge and the successes of American forces, uncertainty has once again returned to the south.

The writer, a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore, is the author of Taliban and Descent Into Chaos.