The Washington Post has an important article on U.S. strategy in Kandahar, although it buries the biggest news in the middle of the story. Reporter Joshua Partlow begins by describing American attempts to bolster the power of Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa, a largely powerless former academic who spent more than a decade in exile in Canada. It is only in the middle of the story that Partlow notes that U.S. officials have given up on removing Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the provincial council and brother of Afghanistan’s president.
AWK, as U.S. officials describe him in internal deliberations, is the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan’s most important province, and he is rumored to be involved in corruption and drug dealing. Although the charges are widely believed, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have never been able to find any real substantiation. That, combined with AWK’s close relationship with his brother the president, have made him almost impossible to remove. Partlow notes:
Afghan officials and their NATO allies also have failed to confront the network of mafia-like bosses in Kandahar. In fact, NATO forces rely heavily on them, particularly Ahmed Wali Karzai, who benefits from U.S. government contracts and provides intelligence and security for logistics convoys.
Instead of pushing for his removal, U.S. officials want to consult with him more regularly, partly in a bid to limit his power. … In a series of recent meetings, American civilian and military officials told Karzai not to meddle in the work of the Afghan police, interfere with government appointments or rig the upcoming parliamentary elections. Without issuing specific threats, they made clear that, as one senior official put it, “it’s going to be painful” for him if he crosses these red lines.
The question is whether attempts to limit AWK’s power will succeed — and even if they do succeed, whether that will be enough to convince most people in Afghanistan, and indeed in the world, that U.S. forces are making real political progress in the south. Whatever the underlying facts, AWK has become a symbol of the corruption and brutality that too often characterize the government in Afghanistan. The very venality of government officials has been the biggest recruiting tool of the Taliban. It will be very hard for U.S. forces to convince anyone that conditions have truly improved in Kandahar — where a major military offensive is planned for the near future — if AWK remains in power. In fact, such an outcome may very well look to the average Afghan as an indication that U.S. forces are intent on bolstering the power of a corrupt clique associated with the Karzai brothers.
There is little doubt that U.S. and other NATO forces can win a military victory in Kandahar. But do they have a political strategy to match their military might? I am dubious. At the very least a lot more groundwork needs to be laid in the realm of strategic communications to convince the world that the coalition can win a meaningful victory in Kandahar without removing AWK from power.