Eighteen years ago, as manager of a family-run Afghan restaurant on North Halsted Street in the Chicago's Wrigleyville district, Ahmed Wali Karzai spent his days serving aushak (leek dumplings) and lamb dwopiaza, tenderloin sauteed with yellow split-peas and onions.
New York Times, Oct.28, 2009: "Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials." (Photo: Banaras Khan/AFP)
Today, the chubby 49-year-old half-brother of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, is the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan. The "King of Kandahar" has built up a shadowy political and commercial empire that touches virtually every institution and individual of influence.
With ties to his brother's government and links to local warlords and drug kingpins, Ahmed Karzai has become patron and a powerbroker on a grand scale.
He is said to get a cut of most legal and illegal business transactions in Kandahar province, and has extensive interests in real estate, communications, security and transportation.
He has been accused of using his influence to help drug traffickers, to intimidate political opponents and to stuff ballot boxes for his brother in last fall's presidential election.
Earlier this month, a report prepared by top Afghan Army officials in Kandahar accused Ahmed Karzai of using his influence to help associates illegally seize over 3,900 hectares (9,700 acres) of government-owned land in and around Kandahar.
The defence ministry report identified 16 major properties that have been purloined, including one tract that is now occupied by 290 shops and four hotels that were built and later sold by one of Ahmed Karzai's relatives.
Although he denies it, The New York Times insists Ahmed Karzai has been on the Central Intelligence Agency's payroll for eight years, as both an informant and go-between, while U.S. special forces in Kandahar province rely on him to rent their main bases.
The family-run Asia Security Group has links to more than 10,000 members of private militias and a private paramilitary unit, the Kandahar Strike Force, that has helped the CIA and U.S. special forces hunt down suspected Taliban cells in Kandahar.
Another family-run business, Watan Risk Management, is a major supplier of guards for NATO convoys that move from Pakistan to Afghanistan and from Kabul to Kandahar, as well as providing security for the $50-million Dhala dam, Canada's flagship irrigation project in Kandahar.
Other Karzai family businesses include one of Afghanistan's largest banks, its biggest cement factory, an investment company, coal mining operations and an "exclusive sales agreement" with Toyota.
"In Kabul, as in Kandahar, state-building and family interests have become confused, such that they are equated with one another, in ways that sometimes parallel the monarchical political order of the old regime, in which the strength of the state relied on the strength of the Shah [king], his family and its personal allies," said Carl Forsberg, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who recently completed a study on politics and power in the province.
It's a criticism even Ahmed Karzai acknowledges, while he claims innocence and relative insignificance.
"I'm only a tribal elder," he recently told Time magazine. "It's my job to help people who come knocking on my door. That's all."
Later, in another interview with Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press, he conceded, "This is a country ruled by kings. The king's brothers, cousins, sons are all powerful. This is Afghanistan. It will change but it will not change overnight."
For years, U.S. and NATO officials have privately accused Ahmed Karzai of administering a corrupt regime that protects narcotics traffickers and reaps huge profits by facilitating opium shipments through southern Afghanistan.
Ahmed Karzai's only official post is chairman of the Kandahar provincial council, a rather insignificant position that nevertheless leaves him close to the centre of power.
Last August, a report by the U.S. Senate committee on foreign relations named Ahmed Karzai as an example of the corruption allegations that constantly dog the Afghan government.
The report said Afghanistan's drug problem exploded in 2001, when the U.S. military enlisted warlords with drug links to help topple the Taliban, "laying the groundwork for the corrupt nexus between drugs and authority that pervades the power structure today."
Whenever any foreign governments urge Afghanistan to stamp out corruption and build an effective government, they begin their argument with reference to Ahmed Karzai, who, says Steve Coll, a New Yorker magazine columnist and former journalist in Afghanistan, is "the most visible, intractable symbol of the corruption and the corporate self-interest of the Karzai government in southern Afghanistan."
At least two U.S. ambassadors have privately pleaded with President Karzai to, at a minimum, remove his half-brother from Kandahar, possibly by giving him an ambassadorial posting.
But the brothers say all allegations of corruption and drug-dealing are politically motivated attacks by their enemies and there is no proof.
But the perception Ahmed Karzai fronts a clique of oligarchs and warlords who exploit Afghanistan for their own interests has raised fears among U.S. officials he could ultimately derail their counterinsurgency plans in Kandahar.
"The only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone," Major General Michael Flynn, director of intelligence for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, told reporters last fall.
Originally published on the National Post on May 28, 2010.