Afghanistan: Anatomy Of A Hit
Dispatches From the Edge
July 23, 2011
The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar July 12
is one of those moments when the long and bloody
Afghanistan war suddenly comes into focus. It is not a
picture one is eager to put up on the wall.
Karzai, a younger half brother (because their father had
multiple wives) of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was the
Kabul government's viceroy in southern Afghanistan. What
his nickname, "the king of Kandahar," translates into is
"warlord." He controlled everything from the movement of
drugs to the placement of car sales agencies. Want to open
a Toyota dealership? See "AWK," as he was also known, and
come with a bucket load of cash.
AWK's power, according to the Financial Times, "lay in a
mafia-style network of oligarchs and loyal elders, funded,
according to U.S. media reports, by heroin trafficking."
He was also on the CIA's payroll. No truck moved through
the south without paying him a tax. No United Nations or
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) projects could
be built without his okay. In case someone didn't get the
message, his Kandahar Strike Force Militia explained it to
them. Next to AWK, Al Capone was a small-time pickpocket.
And he was our guy.
So was Jan Mohammed Khan, assassinated July 17, a key ally
and advisor to the Afghan president, and a man so corrupt
that the Dutch expeditionary forces forced his removal as
the governor of Uruzgan Province in 2006.
The entire U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan--from the initial
2001 invasion to the current withdrawal plan--has relied
on a narrow group of criminal entrepreneurs, the very
people whose unchecked greed set off the 1992-96 Afghan
civil war and led to the victory of the Taliban.
AWK was a member of the Popalzai tribe, which along with
the Alikozai and Barakzai tribes, has run the southern
provinces of Kandahar and Helmand since the early 1990s,
systematically excluding other tribes. According to the
Guardian's Stephen Gray, "The formation of the Taliban
was, in great measure, a revolt of the excluded."
When the Americans invaded, "AWK and the Barakzai
strongman and former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai
not only seized control of NATO purse-strings by acquiring
lucrative contracts, but they also manipulated U.S.
intelligence and Special Forces to gain help with their
predatory and retaliatory agenda," says Gray, harassing
and arresting Taliban members until they fled to Pakistan.
AWK not only poured money into the coffers of the Kabul
government, he insured a second term for his brother by
stuffing ballot boxes in the 2009 election, and he was a
key actor in identifying targets for U.S. night raids. It
is the success of these night raids in killing off Taliban
leaders that has allowed the Obama Administration to claim
a measure of victory in the Afghan war and to lay the
groundwork for a withdrawal of most American troops by
With U.S. polls running heavily against the war--59
percent oppose it--and with more than 200 votes in
Congress for speeding up the withdrawal timetable, the
White House wants the war to be winding down as the U.S.
goes into the 2012 elections
For the Afghan central government and the Obama
administration, then, AWK was probably the most powerful
and important warlord in the country.
As in chess, there are winners and losers when a major
The assassination has dealt a serious blow to the
Americans. The rosy picture of progress painted by the
U.S. Defense and State departments is shot to hell,
literally. The Taliban have demonstrated that all the hype
on "improved security" is about as real as an opium dream.
Even if the assassination was due to a personal quarrel
rather than a Taliban hit, few will believe that is so,
particularly after Khan's assassination just five days
While the Kabul government has appointed another Karzai in
AWK's place, there is almost certainly going to be a
bloody intercine battle among surviving Kandahar power
brokers. A major infight will end up robbing Kabul of much
needed funds and further isolate the government. The only
hope for the Karzai government now is to ramp up talks
with the Taliban while Kabul still has some power and
And that fact puts Pakistan in the driver's seat, because
there will be no talks without Islamabad. The Americans
need these talks as well, so don't pay a lot of attention
to the White House's huffing and puffing over aid.
In any case, the decision to cut some $800 million in aid
to the Pakistani military has been less than a major
success. Pakistan Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told
Express TV that "If Americans refuse to give us money,
then okay...we cannot afford to keep the military out in
the mountains for such a long period."
Pakistan currently has tens of thousands of troops on the
1,500-mile Pakistan-Afghan border, fighting an insurgency
that did not exist until the American invasion drove the
Taliban into the Tribal Areas and the Northwest
Territories. From Pakistan's point of view it is fighting
its own people, and losing up to 3,000 soldiers and
civilians a year, because of Washington's policies in the
One loser is India, even though in the long run peace in
Afghanistan will allow New Delhi to reap the rewards of a
Central Asia gas pipeline. In the short run, however,
Indian diplomacy in the region has badly misfired. India
intervened in Afghanistan-- providing more than a billion
dollars in aid--in order to discomfort Pakistan.
But in 2009 New Delhi withdrew its support for the Karzai
government because India was convinced the Americans were
about to jettison the Afghan President. That never
happened, but Karzai decided that his long-term survival
lay in making peace with the Taliban, which in turn meant
warming up ties with Islamabad.
In the meantime, Pakistan--fearful of India and suspicious
of the U.S.--tightened its ties with China (discomforting
the Indians even more). In fact, in the end, China may be
the big winner. Beijing runs a huge copper mine and seems
to have no trouble getting its ore out of the country,
which suggests there is a deal among China, Pakistan and
the Taliban to keep the roads open. China is also building
a railroad, as well as exploring for iron ore and rare
There are other potential winners here as well. Iran has
traditionally been involved in northern Afghanistan, where
it has roots among the Tajiks, who speak a language
similar to Iran's Farsi. Iran also has close ties to the
Shiite Hazaras and pumps aid into western Afghanistan.
Iran's help will be essential if the Tajiks, Hazaras and
Uzbeks are to join in any peace agreement.
Whatever the final outcome, the U.S./NATO adventure has
been an unmitigated disaster. With Europeans
overwhelmingly opposed to the war, there is a stampede for
the exit by virtually every country but Britain and the
U.S. In the end, Afghanistan may well end up the graveyard
The major losers, of course, are the Afghans. So far this
has been the deadliest year for civilians since 2001. Most
of those deaths come via roadside bombs, but casualties
from NATO air attacks are up. In spite of hundreds of
billions of dollars in aid, Afghanistan is still
grindingly poor and stunningly violent. After almost a
decade of war the words that spring to mind are Macbeth's:
"A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
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