By Syed Nazakat in Kandahar
In Afghanistan, he is called the king of Kandahar, and often as the “second president”. Ahmad Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is one of the most controversial tribal leaders and politicians in Afghanistan.
To his supporters Wali, 51, is a courageous man, a defender of Pashtun rights. For critics, he is a warlord and drug lord, mired in corruption, and who runs a private militia. Americans say he runs a million-dollar narcotics trade. NATO officials say a major offensive in Kandahar is pointless as long as he is in power.
Yet, the US, like other NATO countries, seeks his help to win over tribal leaders. He has been reportedly on the payroll of the CIA for services including help in forming an Afghan paramilitary force that would operate at the CIA’s direction. He is also accused of secretly funding the Taliban but he has survived nine suicide attacks. Indian diplomats believe he is a valuable person in a Taliban-ridden southern Afghanistan. Wali said that he would use his contacts to convince lower level Taliban gunmen to return to normal life in exchange for amnesty.
When THE WEEK went to interview him at his heavily guarded mansion in Kandahar, he was surrounded by more than two dozen tribal leaders and relatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan in his living room upstairs. Stocky, and sporting a grey beard, he gave me a friendly wave and said that he would be with me shortly. He had just returned from Dubai, where his son had surgery the previous day.
Wali represents the dominant Popalzai tribe in Afghanistan. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was gunned down outside his home in Quetta, Pakistan, by the Taliban in 1999. The Popalzai had then defied the Taliban by bringing his body across the border to Afghanistan.
Wali is the sixth of eight siblings. Five of them, including his only sister, are in the US. While President Karzai is protected by US commandos, Wali, who is the head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, relies on Afghan security guards. Excerpts from an interview:
Q. People call you the king of Kandahar.
A. With the grace of God, people love me. I am powerful and my power is the people. I hold the tribes. I hold the Pashtun tribe, which is a very important constituency for the Taliban. The government should rely on traditional tribal councils rather than officials selected in western-style elections.
Q. We heard you hold court in your home, dole out favours, punish critics and reward friends.
A. Pashtun tradition requires us to meet anyone who comes knocking at your door, regardless of his character and social status. As a tribal head, you have to listen their problem and give them advice and justice. This is how things work in Afghanistan.
Q.You have been involved in controversies and accused of being a drug lord.
A. It is only politics of some people. They are after me to pressure my brother, President Karzai. Whenever something goes wrong in Afghanistan, they go after me. There is not a single allegation which has been proven. I’m not a drug dealer. I never was and I never will be. The western media wants to sell stories, and that is why they base their reports on rumours.
Q. You are said to be on the CIA payroll.
A. It is all nonsense. It is part of a vicious propaganda against me. I’ve not taken one dollar from the Americans.
Q. Are you in touch with the Taliban?
A. Not at all. I had nine suicide attacks against me. I’m on the hit list of the Taliban. Our fight against the Taliban started long before 9/11. My father was killed by the Taliban in 1999. How can I be in touch with them?
Q. Didn’t you develop contacts with one of the senior-most Taliban leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar?
A. Yes, at the personal level I tried to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban. I developed contacts with Mullah Baradar [also from the Popalzai tribe]. He is the Taliban’s top military leader and second only to Mullah Omar. But he was arrested by Pakistani officials on February 8, 2010. That closed the door for talks.
Q. It is said Pakistan was not happy with the Afghan government directly approaching the Taliban. They want all channels of talks to go through Pakistan.
A. You know my situation. I’m the brother of the president. I cannot criticise any country openly.
Q. Do you fear the return of the Taliban?
A. We have defeated the Taliban. They were very strong here some years ago. In 2006, Taliban leaders would meet in the governor’s house, right outside my house, and congratulate each other for their success against the foreign troops. Today, there is no Taliban base in Kandahar. What they have is guerrilla warfare. They do random attacks, target-killings, and suicide and IED attacks. If the Pashtun people are with us, the Taliban will never regain power in Kandahar. And if Kandahar stabilises, the whole country will stabilise.
Q. The Taliban has local support here and in many other parts of Afghanistan.
A. The people are sick and tired of the Taliban. Whenever the Taliban enters an area, people who can afford move out from that place. Only the poor don’t move out.
Q. Why have the Afghan Army and NATO troops not been able to hold on to provinces where they defeated the Taliban?
A. The Taliban are not fighting. They are running around. They are carrying out random attacks. We cleared many areas of the Taliban. They are avoiding direct fight and are using more and more IEDs against the troops. In Argandab [province in Kandahar] alone, they had placed 5,000 IEDs. Yet we defeated them.
Q. You had gained control of Argandab and, as was the case with many other provinces, lost it to the Taliban in 2008.
A. In 2008, we had no Afghan Army and no police. Today things are different. We have our own strong army and police force.
Q.The Taliban seems to have more staying power than the Afghan Army and NATO troops.
A. They are well trained and armed, and have safe bases outside Afghanistan.
Q. You mean in Pakistan?
A. I don’t want to name countries. But there are people today from all over the world who are fighting in Afghanistan. Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and also some American and British people who have joined al Qaeda and are fighting against NATO. We are fighting the war of the world.
Q. The US wants to leave Afghanistan by 2014. Can you defend the country against the Taliban without NATO support?
A. America is like our backbone. They have to stay. Even if they are inside the bases. They have to remain here even after 2014 for our security and defence. The Taliban is not going to regain power. But they will keep fighting till they have support outside Afghanistan.
(Feb 22, 2011, THE WEEK)