Commentary Magazine


U.S. Must Help Fill the Vacuum in Kandahar

The headlines tell us that Ahmed Wali Karzai, half brother of President Karzai and himself the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, was shot dead by one of his longtime lieutenants. What the articles do not tell us is why. That is an indicator of how murky and often incomprehensible Afghan politics are to outsiders–and how difficult to manipulate.

AWK, as he was known, built up a formidable power base during the past decade not only because of his contacts with the president but also because of his contacts with us. He was given vast sums of money by the CIA to provide gunmen who could be deployed against the Taliban. Unfortunately, those payments swelled AWK’s power base and subsidized a vast, corrupt power structure in Kandahar. Tribes and factions that weren’t favored by AWK wound up defecting to the Taliban. Thus, our support for this powerbroker inadvertently fueled the insurgency.

Yet it was hard to extricate ourselves from this relationship. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, when he was NATO commander, asked his intelligence officers to see if they could compile evidence AWK was guilty of various crimes–a dossier that could then be presented to the president with the demand he remove his half-brother. AWK was widely rumored to be active in drug-dealing, deals with the Taliban, land grabs and other rackets. But not even all the assets of the U.S. government could build a airtight case against him; if AWK was a gangster, he was careful to create layers of cut-outs between himself and the darkest deeds.

The U.S.-led coalition was left in an ambiguous relationship with AWK: not cutting him off entirely but trying to create some distance from him. His death ends that difficult minuet while creating another–U.S. commanders now will have to strive to avoid a gangland-style war for control of Kandahar.

In some ways the easiest way to proceed would be to allow another powerbroker to take over AWK’s role. The obvious candidate is Gul Agha Sherzai, who is still said to control a good deal of economic activity in Kandahar even though he is the governor of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. But this would be a mistake, because Sherzai would create as much resentment as AWK did, thus providing further fuel for the insurgency. The best long-term solution is to foster balance between different tribal, family and business factions, so that each of them gets a fair share of the political spoils and none is aggrieved enough to make common cause with the Taliban.

I can well imagine some readers will be snorting by this point: Why is this our job? Shouldn’t the Afghans be left to figure out their politics for themselves?

The problem is we have a vital stake in the outcome in Afghanistan, the land where 9/11 was hatched, lest we forgot. And it is impossible to stabilize Afghanistan, or any other country, without getting the politics right.

Indeed, political action must be a vital part of any counterinsurgency effort. Some of that politics may occur at the surface, with voting, budgets and the like. But in any political system–even our own–much of the real action takes place behind closed doors in the wheeling and dealing of powerful politicos. So it is in Afghanistan. We cannot dictate deals, but we have a powerful influence because of the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops and the fact that we–and our international partners–provide most of the financing to the Afghan government.

We must use our influence carefully. In the past, too often we threw money around willy-nilly and exacerbated the situation. I hope we have learned something from our past mistakes and have now gathered enough intelligence–and wisdom–to use our power to help fill the vacuum in Kandahar created by AWK’s sudden demise.