KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — While President Barack Obama works this week to repair his battered relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, anger over his administration's decision to embrace the Afghan leader's half-brother threatens to undermine the U.S. campaign to purge the Taliban from southern Afghanistan's largest city.
Ahmed Wali Karzai is arguably Kandahar's most polarizing figure. As southern Afghanistan's most feared kingpin, the president's half-brother and a member of the influential Pashtun Popolzai tribe, he's amassed unparalleled power.
"I hold the key to five provinces," Karzai said in an interview with McClatchy this week while taking a break from meeting with a stream of Kandahar leaders waiting to confer with him.
"I am the top person, and I deliver," Karzai said. "I am the most successful person here."
Disenchanted Afghans, however, see in America's embrace of Ahmed Wali Karzai a disturbing sign that the Obama administration isn't serious about rooting out political corruption, building a responsive government and creating a respected police force in Kandahar.
Shoring up Ahmed Wali Karzai's grip on power, a growing number of Afghans are warning the United States, will only undermine the effort to establish a trustworthy and respected Afghan government.
"If Ahmed Wali was not there, I can tell you that the situation would improve," said Shekiba Hashimi, a female lawmaker from Kandahar who's running for re-election in Kabul this year. She said she'd changed her home base out of concerns that the president's brother will rig the ballots, as he was accused of doing last year when Hamid Karzai won a fraud-tainted presidential election.
Persistent allegations that Ahmed Wali Karzai has built a regional empire by working with major drug dealers, overseeing a feared militia, seizing land to build lucrative developments and intimidating political opponents have shaken but not eliminated international support for him.
"If they send one million soldiers to Kandahar and Ahmed Wali is still here, it will not improve the security situation," said a retired teacher in Kandahar who, like most Afghans interviewed about the president's half-brother, agreed to talk only if their identities were kept secret so Karzai couldn't try to punish his critics.
In many ways, the debate about Ahmed Wali Karzai mirrors the one about his older brother.
Some Western strategists see the pair as unpredictable partners, but both men hold powerful public offices; Ahmed Wali Karzai serves as head of Kandahar's provincial council, a post he said he could retain with ease.
"I can be away for the next five years and, when there is an election, I will just call and say: Here, I am elected — and they will vote for me," Karzai said. "This is how it is. It's a tribal system."
President Karzai has steadfastly defended his brother and challenged Western leaders to back up allegations that Ahmed Wali Karzai is a crook.
That's something American officials said they've been unable to do, and so after a protracted debate, American military leaders concluded that trying to sideline Ahmed Wali Karzai could backfire.
"I think it's in our best interest to figure out how to harness that leadership potential that he has," said Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, the director of NATO operations in southern Afghanistan.
"I think that's a lot simpler and more productive for us than to continue to try and find the smoking gun," Hodges said. "People have talked about it for years. Nobody has turned up anything. I'm not so naive to say he's not involved in anything, but, without that, the president is right to say, 'Come up with evidence or quit bad-mouthing my brother.' "
To drive home the importance of gaining Ahmed Wali Karzai's cooperation, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David Petraeus, met with the Kandahar leader during a visit to Afghanistan two weeks ago.
Ahmed Wali Karzai has gone out of his way in recent weeks to deliver a cooperative message to the international community. He describes himself as the "Nancy Pelosi of Kandahar," a crucial dealmaker capable of working with allies and rivals to stabilize Afghanistan.
One Western official who worked in Kandahar said the risks of ousting Ahmed Wali were too great.
"The notion that we could somehow or another come out successfully from an attempt to remove him from power is a recipe for failure," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the dilemma. "That will cause an irrevocable break with his brother with unknown consequences."
Tooryalai Wesa, the Western-educated Kandahar governor who's viewed by many as a weak, ineffective leader, reinforced American support for Ahmed Wali Karzai.
"He's the one keeping Kandahar in balance," said Wesa. "If you don't have him in the system here, you don't want to see what would happen."
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