What We Lost with Ahmed Wali Karzai

by Joshua Foust on 7/15/2011 · 11 comments

Yesterday, I wrote for The Atlantic:

At the same time, Ahmed Wali was charismatic, devastatingly charming in person, and skilled at doling out money, resources, access, and favors to make a huge number of Kandaharis either dependent or grateful. In some ways, Ahmed Wali’s method of rule was Afghan politics — reliant on personality, favors, patronage, occasional acts of intimidation or violence, lots of shady business deals to secure a personal fortune. But it was also antithetical to the rule of law, sustainable governance, and even long-term security.

Despite the appointment of Shah Wali Karzai, there is a brewing contest over who will control Kandahar moving forward. Not only the Sherzai family, but a constellation of second-order gangsters, thugs, and strongmen will be vying to secure what’s left of Ahmed Wali’s business and political empire. For the last five years, the International Community, rather than trying to put into place the fundamentals for a government based on the rule of law( actual laws that literate people can read, a functioning police force that isn’t just a lightly armed backup for the Army, bureaucrats, services, taxation, land registries, functioning courts, and so on), they chose instead to rely on Ahmed Wali to get things done on their artificially short, politically expedient time frames. And for a while, it worked.

I’m sure you guys have a lot to say about this.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


DD July 16, 2011 at 1:14 am

Nah, I pretty much agree. Traditional Afghan politics? Check. Power vacuum? Check. Failure of US to develop effective long term strategy leading to over-reliance on AWK? Check.

I guess the question is, what will the TB do? My guess is capitalize on the confusion, and attempt to prevent someone from consolidating that much power in Kandahar again.

Jakob July 16, 2011 at 4:16 am

At least in Europe people don’t know what we lost with him – all writing on his demise was circling around ‘the NYT said he was a bad guy’. Kind of “He is down south, us germans and french don’t have to bother what happens there”.

Aikins at Harper’s has a good piece on him (written just pre-mortem though): http://harpers.org/archive/2011/06/hbc-90008134

on an issue further east, the summer trecks from over the border (comments with that shamshattoo article are closed already unfortunately) – I would be interested what registan readers have to say on that: http://tinyurl.com/65larlf

Faisal July 16, 2011 at 8:45 am

And incomes transition. Why do I feel most of us Civilians will be evaced out by the end of the year?

Steve Magribi July 16, 2011 at 3:30 pm

AWK was really a figment of our imagination. He was, is now and will be forever the creation of the post Taliban power vacuum created by out of his depth Rumsfeld and villians like Khalizad.

When you have no clue of whom to put into your power vacuum you create some one. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes you need to experiment before you find that perfect puppet to pull your strings on their behalf.

That AWK was the brother of President Karzai was truly incidental. If there was no AWK we would have created one. In fact, in each and every case, be it, Sherzai or Dostum, or Ismail Khan, or Fahim or Hazrat Ali or “General” Raziq we are dealing with the simplistic overlay of “these are our guys.” ‘

It does not matter if “our guys” are the right guys or anything like that. Hit or miss never really matters, give us enough time and we will figure it out, or so the theory goes. This can backfire of course be it Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, or Egypt post Mubarak, Pakistan, soon, but these “exceptions” make the rule. Of course. Besides, Crocker can figure this out….like Iraq.

In Afghanistan, our batting average is terrible. We have almost to a T picked the wrong guy in each and every place. It is hard to find a worse performance in the history of counter insugency, country building or saving the world from terrorists; whichever goal we are trying to maintain in this War, this week. President Diem was a Saint compared to what we have picked up here..

In the case of AWK, he was neither skilled nor competent nor any of the above in the post mortem. He was hated, and hated even by his own tribal members. He caused more disruption in the Province than any figure in the past two hundred years, and that is saying a lot. He was the epitome of incompetence, cruelty and lack of focus. He did not understand what he was doing or where. (The myth is already overpowering the truth. Give it a few years and he will become the “tragic and misunderstood” little brother of Hamid Karzai. )

But we did not care. We still do not. He could speak English and knew all about Chicago and Washington DC. He was loyal to Hamid and should have fit the bill for us. He was a source without information, a landlord and supplier of “security” and trucking. Perfect qualifications to run a city or province as the case may be. Rahm Emanuel can only hope to do so well in Chicago, qualifications being similiar.

From these “business” interests came the money and guns to manipulate elections in the Provincial Council. AWK had the strength backed by his own death squads US or otherwise to subdue, cower and force even his enemies to the unfortunate FACT that AWK was going to be there at least until the Americans left or decades even. He was our next Noriega or Duvalier.

Like Noriega, he had his detractors. “Drug Dealer” was the epithet hurled when it was perceived that AWK was not playing ball with the new team and the main proponent of the full time “Phoenix” program.”

General McChrystal particularly took a dislike to AWK within two weeks of arriving in country. McChrystal was led by “experts” like Sarah Chayes, who thought that making soap was the solution to the drug problem, and was totally clear on everything after six years in country and long home leaves to promote her spin on Afghanistan, the Karzai’s and everyone she had decided was not up to standard in a messianic quest for perfection in the center of Hell itself.

Poor Kandahar, what did they do to ever deserve experts like this?

The epithets and curses dimmed mightily with the departure of McChrystal and AWK was to be left in peace for a while at least. P4 had bigger things to aspire too, and getting tricky with AWK was not in the plan. “Drug Dealer” evolved once again to “our guy” in the wink of an eyelash and shredding of documents at night in Kabul .

For the past four years AWK was basically confined to his home until the Surge and the influx of clear, build hold (or is that clear, clear, clear and hold) that came from massive resettlement and destroyed villages.

The “new and improved” AWK had recently found a niche in the management of his very own circus, and achieved final control of all the mechanisms of power in the Province. But power in the Province is really still down to the Highway, Dand and the confines of the Police Headquarters in Kandahar city or a string of guarded mansions on the Airbase side of town. We only control those places we occupy with a Company of Soldiers. But, with General Raziq riding shot gun the Taliban are on the run, or so they said last week before we “lost” AWK. Some experts say this could be “game changer.” Wishful thinking I would suggest.

The game plan was to make AWK the next Governor and pray a la Jeb Bush that he might somehow build enough support to continue the Karzai power base in some fantasy brought on by long nights of “smoking” with the cousins on Kandahar’s long summer nights.

I sat in on several of these, I even heard “President” mentioned once or twice. AWK always asked if you wanted Whiskey or Vodka, Russian Vodka was the best, Irish Whiskey too.

It was insults and jokes on those long nights which resulted in his death not the Taliban. A simple feud killed AWK and nothing else. He would have never understood it anyway, he was more American than Afghan anyway after all those years in exile. He did not understand Afghans and they knew why.

In another world he could have run a great GMC dealership in Deerfield Wisconsin. Respect, understanding of the Mujahadeen and simple compassion were missing in this story. He had never learned from his Father what it took to manage Kandahar, which is really the heartland, not of the Taliban but of all Pashtuns wherever they live.

And indeed for this reason, Kandahar is the real victim here.

After six years of the Taliban, and ten of ISAF-tribal structure has been so destroyed by the “mafiaization” of Kandahar via billions of lost Aid money and the main depot for drugs at Kandahar International Airfield. Helmand and Kandahar have been stripped of anything resembling the social political or economic structure that existed prior to the Taliban era.

What remains is almost beyond definition. But this mess is what we are calling “success” in the wake of pullout and/or default, whichever comes first. AWK is only partly to blame for this “success.”

The next AWK? Not really a big issue. The Province is a shambles now, in the lines of Medellin during the 1980s or Tijuana/Ciudad Juarez of today. Whomever is left after the next thirty thousand of deaths via assassination, drone or gang fights will proudly stand in to be the next AWK and pray the position lasts long enough to somehow buy a nice place in Loughton Essex or Sydney by the Sea.

This and there is supposed to be an Insurgency between Islamic insurgents and the GoIA in Kabul going on?

Kandahar with or without AWK is as big a mess as anything or any place the USA has ever been involved. Quiet will not return for at least a decade and a half to that small part of Central Asia and it is to a large part our own fault. All the soap in the world will not clean up this mess anytime soon. The RIP should be for Kandahar and not AWK, sadly.

Don Bacon July 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Thank you for that.
Americans should be able to relate to such a politician.
-really a figment of our imagination.
-When you have no clue of whom to put into your power vacuum you create some one.
-he was neither skilled nor competent
-He could speak English and knew all about Chicago and Washington DC.
-General McChrystal particularly took a dislike to [him]

Steve Magribi July 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Don…you truly are good at deciphering hidden meanings…desired or not..Good JOB…!! Excellent…mind reading and concept identification and sequencing are fantastic skills….THANKS…

Steve C July 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Thanks for the honesty Steve. Rare and valuable.

Toryalay Shirzay July 17, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Good riddance!!! mother fucker

John July 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Everything else aside, Hamid Karzai did just lose his younger brother. Though AWK certainly carried more than his fair share of sins, I’m not exactly celebrating that he’s gone

Osman July 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

i dont mourn the death of awk because i think he is a good man, but because he is another death in the long line of deaths because of this war. his death is no more important than reading some 2 paragraph press release about taliban fighters being bombed by nato in a rural part of the country.

his death is only important in that he was a power broker. they are replaced by time and a little conflict. he ruled by money/fear, the taliban ruled by justice/fear. there will be no peace until there is some cohesion of the 2 principals.

Grant July 19, 2011 at 10:35 am

“In Afghanistan, our batting average is terrible. We have almost to a T picked the wrong guy in each and every place.” Pretty much sums it up hahahah

Previous post:

Next post: