He's the consummate symbol of Afghan cronyism — the president's wheeler-dealer half brother and main power broker in the Taliban-ridden south. With the American military facing a showdown with insurgents here, Ahmad Wali Karzai said Wednesday that he's mending fences with the U.S. and its international partners.
The Americans, for their part, are now taking a softer approach in dealing with both President Hamid Karzai and his influential half brother to try to win their support for the coming offensive in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and to build an effective local government to keep the Taliban from returning.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Karzai offered a different vision of good government than one espoused by the U.S. and its partners. He favors relying on traditional tribal councils rather than officials selected in Western-style elections or appointed by the central government.
"We have to go back to the tribal system," said the stocky, gray-bearded Karzai as he relaxed in the upstairs living room of his heavily guarded mansion. "You can't corrupt 50 elders but you can easily corrupt one judge. ... Seventy percent of the problems can be solved by the elders."
NATO has said the Kandahar operation, expected to accelerate this summer, cannot succeed without the support of local leaders and influence peddlers, including Ahmad Wali Karzai. Where once they were openly critical of him, U.S. officials now shy away from speaking publicly against the man known as "AWK," except to acknowledge his influence in Kandahar, the biggest city in the south.
As the offensive approaches, Karzai, chairman of the local provincial council, said he had been meeting frequently with U.S. and NATO representatives to sort out "misunderstandings" between "me and my friends, the Americans."
"We have been having good discussions, trying to work out the negative points," he told the AP without giving details. "There is a lot of misinformation going on about me."
Karzai has long been a lightning rod for criticism of the way his half brother has run the country since the Taliban were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. He was alleged to have used his family connections to line his pockets. He also has been accused of links to the drug mafia — although U.S. officials have acknowledged they have no compelling evidence to back up the allegation.
Nevertheless, Karzai became such a figure of controversy that Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested last year that he should leave Afghanistan for the good of the country — a suggestion Karzai told AP was offensive and smacked of imperialism.
But with the president sticking by his younger half brother, U.S. and NATO officials have concluded they have little choice but to work with Ahmad Wali Karzai if they are to build community support for the operation against the Taliban.
A senior NATO military official, briefing reporters on condition his name and nationality not be published, described Ahmad Wali Karzai as "not the only problem" in Kandahar but someone with whom international representatives must have "a tremendous amount of dialogue" in order to "change his behavior." He did not elaborate.
Without naming Karzai, the official said some businessmen in Kandahar have been linked to corruption — wealthy entrepreneurs who use their government connections to control access to public jobs, favoring their own friends and tribes.
During the interview, Karzai denied any impropriety, saying he doesn't even own property in Kandahar city, a claim corroborated by Kandahar Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi.
In the past, Karzai denied published allegations that he has been on the CIA payroll for years and insisted Wednesday that he has never used his influence to win lucrative contracts for U.S.-funded projects.
"I swear on the head of my four children I have not taken one dollar from the Americans" in the nearly nine years they have been in Afghanistan, he said. "Since 2003 these things have been said about me and every time I ask for proof no one gives me any."
Karzai acknowledged that his family connection is more important in the Afghan power equation than his chairmanship of the Kandahar provincial council.
"Everyone wants to see me because I am the president's brother," he said. "I have dinner with him. They know I meet him. I can talk to him about things over dinner."
Karzai maintained that what the West sees as wheeling and dealing reflects deeply entrenched traditions among the ethnic Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, the community that produced most of the insurgents. He said Pashtun tradition requires him to meet anyone who comes knocking at his door, regardless of character and social status.
"I am even called upon to divide up family wealth," Karzai said. "Another family that we knew when we lived in Quetta came from Pakistan and wanted 2 million rupees. They said they needed the money and because I am the president's brother and because they knew me, I should give them the money. I didn't, but these are our traditions."
He said the U.S. and its international partners want to move Afghanistan into the 21st century but "we are in the 18th century."
"You want us to achieve in eight years what you achieved in 100 years," he said.
Karzai argued that the U.S. military's rotation system, which limits most assignments to one year, deprives the Americans of a genuine understanding of Afghan society.
"If the general who was here in 2002 was still here today, there would be a better understanding of Afghanistan," he said.
Karzai also said the president's administration had lost the propaganda war to the Taliban in the south.
"Our public relations is very weak. The government doesn't get credit for what it does. How many roads are paved and clinics built and schools?" he asked. "It is a tremendous achievement."
(This version CORRECTS SUBS 13th graf to correct that Karzai does not rent living quarters from Kandahar mayor.)