Ahmed Wali Karzai’s life and death sum up perfectly the Afghan trap in which America is caught.
When I interviewed him in his Kandahar home on a May morning, after being ushered in by armed guards, there was already a queue waiting to see him. His cellphone never stopped ringing, nor did his fingers ever stop moving his worry beads, as he sat, legs crossed and feet bare, on one of the plush couches that lined his receiving room. After all, he was the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai and the godfather of southern Afghanistan.
He was also a fluent English-speaker who had lived for years in Chicago, a corrupt wheeler-dealer whom U.S. officials believed was profiting from the drug trade and hurting our efforts to weaken the Taliban. For a while, U.S. diplomats and military brass tried to devise a way to remove AWK, as he was known; during this past year they gave up trying. In part, this was because of his brother’s unyielding support, but it was also because he could make things happen. He had the power to maneuver Afghan’s opaque tribal politics in a way that the Americans needed and never mastered. (Maybe that’s why the CIA had him on the payroll for years.)
His murder by a close associate (perhaps sent by the Taliban) reminds us that security gains in Kandahar haven’t prevented assassinations of top officials. Karzai was the head of the provincial council, but he actually ran Kandahar. The provincial governor and city mayor are expatriate Afghans and Karzai family friends; they served at his pleasure and will likely depart soon now that he’s gone. His most likely replacement — who will probably assume the job of governor — is another corrupt warlord.
And yet, when I recall our conversation in May — and wonder whether he was shot in the room where we met — I realize he said things that deserve our attention. No doubt he told lies, and he was infuriating in his refusal to take blame for his actions. But AWK knew things that Americans must grasp if we want to leave Afghanistan any better off than before we came.
Let me get to the infuriating part first, which was so in-your-face that it was grimly amusing. Of course, he totally denied any connection with drugs or thievery, either by him or his family.
I asked about a notorious Kandahar building project called Ay Nomina, with huge mansions built on government land sold cheaply to his brother Mahmoud and partners. AWK said he was building a house there, and that “Ay Nomina is one of the best projects in Afghanistan. No society in the world is equal. That is why communism failed and why capitalism is going good.” Of course it is also why so many Kandaharis despise the Kabul government headed by his brother.
But AWK added, in a relevant aside: “The American presence here has nothing to do with my brother. You didn’t come here to fight a war against corruption, nor will you leave because of corruption.
“Corruption happens everywhere. Don’t blame Afghans for small things. We can only fight corruption once we have security.”
And then he reached the theme that erased his bored expression and animated his face. “You came to destroy terrorism and now you want to leave,” he spat out. But if America wants to leave, he went on, “you should stop Pakistan. Otherwise when you leave, the Taliban will return.”
It became clear that for AWK, the only issue that mattered was Pakistan. If Pakistan didn’t stop providing a safe haven for Taliban, just across the border from Kandahar, then “all of the progress of the past 10 years will disappear. What would you do if Mexico brought enemies to a border town, trained them, and sent them across? When is Pakistan going to stop?”
AWK also poured scorn on the idea of talks with the Taliban, a goal the Obama administration is seeking, and one publicly embraced by President Karzai. “If anyone believes the Taliban is separate from al-Qaida, they are stupid,” he said.
He argued such talks can only work from a position of strength, if the United States keeps bases in Afghanistan for some time yet: “If they decide to leave in a rush, Afghanistan will become a battleground,” with India and Russia arming opponents of the Taliban.
“Pashtuns don’t want the Taliban,” he insisted, referring to Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, to which the Taliban belong. “We have our own systems, our own mullahs. The Taliban don’t fit. We’ve never had a Mullah president (such as Taliban leader Mullah Omar) in all our history.
“The Taliban are an ISI (Pakistani intelligence) movement,” he railed, used as a proxy in Pakistan’s war against India. “Tell Gen. (David) Petraeus, that clearing Afghanistan (of Taliban) means stopping Pakistan.”
However self-serving were AWK’s arguments on corruption, his plea on Pakistan had the ring of truth. But I fear U.S. officials have no better ideas of how to separate Pakistan from its Taliban proxies than they did of how to remove Ahmed Wali Karzai (or how to replace him). The AWK “problem” is now history, but the Pakistan problem lives on.