The U.S. spent years considering the arrest of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghanistan’s president and the most powerful – and allegedly corrupt -- man in southern Afghanistan. Karzai’s sudden assassination Tuesday will finally answer the question of whether the troubled American-led war effort is better or worse off without him.
All of the complexities of the Afghan war have long been embodied in Ahmad Wali Karzai, a fluent English-speaker who once ran a restaurant in Chicago. Formally the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, he served as the region’s de facto ruler, sitting atop a web of legal and illegal businesses collectively worth billions of dollars. American officials believed that Karzai was corrupt and tied to the country’s lucrative drug trade, but decided they had no choice but to continue working with him because of his influence in Kandahar. The Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, paid Karzai to recruit and oversee a paramilitary strike force there.
Ahmad Wali Karzai was also the source of bitter and ongoing tensions between the U.S. and the government of President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader was a steadfast supporter of his half-brother, who helped him maintain the political support of many of Kandahar’s most powerful tribal leaders. Hamid Karzai publicly derided the Western criticism of his half-brother as part of an ongoing American-led plot to discredit his government and attack his family. He flatly refused to countenance any form of legal action against his half-brother despite repeated U.S. pleas, fueling the ongoing deterioration in Washington’s relationship with Kabul.
In the short term, Karzai’s murder – allegedly at the hands of a trusted confidant with secret loyalties to the Taliban -- could spur a significant change in the overall U.S. war effort. His assassination will almost certainly set off a scramble among the regional power brokers in Kandahar to seize control of his business empire and political machine. If that scramble turns violent, it could force the U.S. to reevaluate its plan to redeploy U.S. forces out of southern Afghanistan as part of a renewed focus on the country’s volatile east.
“Arresting him would have been much better because it would have been example of Afghan law finally being employed against a powerful man,” said Joshua Foust, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency who now works as a fellow at the American Security Project. “Instead there’s just a sudden power vacuum at the top of the province, and there will be lots of lower-level thugs fighting for control of a very large pie.”
Foust noted that the U.S. has routinely turned key regions of Afghanistan over to autocrats such as Ahmad Wali Karzai but has rarely taken steps to moderate their power or replace them with more legitimate rulers. “Relying on rule through strongmen only gets you so far,” he said.
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who frequently writes about the Afghan war, argued in a blog posting that Karzai’s death could pose even bigger challenges for his half-brother. “President Karzai’s own hand in Kandahar has been much weakened, and he has lost a key asset in his struggle against the Taliban for control of that key western Pashtun province,” Cole wrote.
Ahmad Wali Karzai’s extensive control of Kandahar was detailed in an array of diplomatic cables leaked by the anti-privacy group WikiLeaks. In a December 2009 cable, for instance, State Department officials in Kabul referred to Karzai as the “kingpin of Kandahar,” and said he “dominates access to economic resources, patronage and protection.”
“Much of the real business of running Kandahar takes place out of public sight, where AWK operates, parallel to formal government structures, through a network of political clans that use state institutions to protect and enable licit and illicit enterprises,” the cable stated, referring to Karzai by his initials. “At its core, this clan network has a caste-like division of labor.”
The cables make clear that U.S. officials spent years struggling to decide whether to take action against Karzai, who then-American Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry bluntly described in an October 2009 cable as “widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”
The internal debate reached a head in February 2010, when an interagency working group known as the “Nexus–Corruption Leadership Board” held a meeting at the fortified U.S. Embassy in Kabul to talk about the Afghan government’s failings. According to a leaked cable, the working group -- chaired by State Department official Earl Wayne and Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, then the top military-intelligence official in Afghanistan – met to consider “possible courses of action (‘COAs’) that U.S. military and embassy personnel may employ against criminal and corrupt Afghan officials in an effort to change their behavior.”
The cable specifically identified Karzai as one of the “prominent Afghan malign actors in southern Afghanistan” who should face “potential law enforcement actions.”
In the end, the U.S. never moved to arrest Karzai or formally charge him with any criminal wrongdoing. His death removes a powerful and potentially malignant figure from Afghanistan’s political landscape. But it may not do much to reshape the nation's corrupt and violent political culture. The man whom many U.S. officials expect to succeed Karzai, a U.S.-backed general named Abdul Raziq, had also been tabbed in a leaked State Department cable as a corrupt “malign actor.”
This article appears in the July 12, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.