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A “Moment” of reflection for Hamid & Ahmed Wali Karzai

by Paul Fitzgerald & Elizabeth Gould

“The Diem Moment” for Karzai Brothers?

And so the notorious Ahmed Wali Karzai (A.W.K) is dead, killed by a (formerly) trusted bodyguard who had worked closely with U.S. Special forces and the C.I.A. The assassination of a C.I.A. strategic asset, alleged Kandahar drug boss and tribal “fixer” for his half brother Afghan president Hamid Karzai raises a lot of questions, not to mention issues, about the nature as well as the future of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the Taliban issued a statement claiming credit for the killing as retribution for his role in “Cooperating with the Americans, Canadians and Britons… for spreading the net of intelligence of the Western invaders and boosting their sway in south-west Afghanistan.” They also claimed he continued to receive “high salary from CIA.”

As it was elsewhere in Afghanistan, America’s approach to Kandahar after 2001 was always counterintuitive. Putting hated warlords back in charge to fill the leadership vacuum left by fleeing Taliban was expedient but self-defeating. But U.S. reliance on this unorthodox strategy for success has remained consistently curious for the Taliban-stronghold. During a trip to Kabul in the fall of 2002 we were told that Pakistani ISI were crossing the Durand line (the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) to openly recruit Afghans for al Qaeda/Taliban cells in the villages of the province. No one we spoke to could explain such a lapse in U.S. intelligence, considering that at the time, (prior to the Iraq invasion) the U.S. had all the resources necessary to deal with such a flagrant cross-border operation.

In the ensuing years, Ahmed Wali Karzai filled in for the U.S. absence by running Kandahar province as a Karzai family protectorate. With C.I.A. backing A.W.K. built his power base up from nothing and in 2005 was elected to Kandahar’s provincial council. With local officials and tribal elders in his pocket, he was a sure bet to take over the governor’s office. In 2008, A.W.K. ran afoul of his C.I.A. beneficiaries and was subjected to an intense effort by senior US military officials to remove him prior to the “surge” of U.S. forces. That effort failed, but the acrimony and distrust of Ahmed Wali’s methods and alliances remained.

As a linchpin in General Petraeus’s 2009 “surge” strategy for victory over the Taliban, A.W.K. symbolized the dysfunctional symbiosis stretching between the Presidential Palace, the American Command and the U.S. Embassy. His sudden absence now leaves either a strategic vacuum in U.S. plans or a long awaited opportunity – just as the promised U.S. draw down begins and Petraeus ends his Afghan tour to become the Director of Central Intelligence.

In September of 2010, former Chief of the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations, Dr. Charles Cogan invoked the ghost of Vietnam when he posted a blog asking whether the United States wasn’t approaching “the Diem Moment” in relation to Hamid Karzai and his powerful brothers. Vietnamese president Diem and his brother Nhu were perceived as having become anti-American and were making passes at France and even the enemy in Hanoi. Cogan suggested that the time was fast approaching for Mr. Karzai and his family members to be offered safe passage out of Afghanistan before the worst befell them.

But as Dr. Cogan should know, A.W.K’s assassination smacks of another event in Afghan history far more appropriate to this moment than allusions to Vietnam, and it’s that moment which we’ll call the “Hafizullah Amin moment” that better provides the clues to the strange death of Ahmed Wali Karzai.

Hafizullah Amin was the U.S. educated, pseudo-Marxist Afghan-nationalist-strongman overthrown by the Soviets that December 1979, after playing out his role in a tragicomic farce to lure the Soviets into their own Vietnam. It was well known at the time that Amin had a longstanding relationship with the C.I.A. and was cutting a deal (brokered by Pakistan) with his fellow Ghilzai Pashtun, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. U.S. ambassador Adolph Dubs had been carefully trying to work Amin away from Soviet influence but was so worried about his provocative behavior Dubs had gone to his own C.I.A. station chief and demanded to know if Amin was a C.I.A. agent. In February of 1979, Dubs ran into the deeper agenda already underway when he was kidnapped by a band of Tajik Maoists and assassinated when Amin ordered an attack on the room where he was being held hostage.

In the months leading up to the Soviet invasion, Amin tried to twist out of the knot by filling Kabul’s ministries with his closest relatives, arresting scores of old friends and agreeing to accept the Durand line as the permanent border with Pakistan, but his time in the saddle had run out. Amin had become hated by his own people and a disposable nuisance to all concerned, both American and Soviet. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast Forward to 2011 as a panicked President Hamid Karzai surrounds himself with relatives, anti-US advisors and religious fanatics drawn once again from the ranks of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hesb-i Islami, as he fends off hostile attacks and conspiracies from a dozen directions meant to bring him down.

With his power-broker-brother gone and his access to Kandahar’s complex patronage system cut off, Hamid Karzai has been dealt a severe blow. The death of Ahmed Wali Karzai closes off a major option for his half brother Hamid at a crucial moment when Washington has shifted into phase two of its ten year program for Central Asia and with the Durand line once again the focus of the U.S. war. Next up comes the large military bases that the U.S. wants to occupy beyond 2014 and a status of forces agreement. This is something which Karzai cannot afford to allow for fear of alienating Afghanistan’s population and his regional neighbors and at the same time cannot refuse and continue to accept protection as an American client. Karzai is desperate to find allies to save him, but time is short. Should he get the nod from strongman Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s backers in Iran and Pakistan to merge his dwindling political forces with those of the Hesb-i Islami he may get a reprieve, but without his man in Kandahar, Ahmed Wali to do his dirty work, Hamid Karzai’s “Hafizullah Amin moment” may be right around the corner.

Copyright © 2011 Gould & Fitzgerald All rights reserved

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