KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Over the past month in Kandahar City, Taliban death squads have killed dozens of people in drive-by shootings. Yet many people in this southern Afghan city say the insurgents are the least of their worries.
Far more pernicious, they say, is the murky nexus of warlords and corrupt government officials whose rule some compare to that of mob bosses.
Kandahar City and the surrounding province of the same name are the targets of the next big U.S. and allied offensive against the Taliban and their allies. The area is home to an estimated 800,000 city residents and several hundred thousand more in the surrounding area, and an influential hub of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgency is concentrated.
The city is "the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity in the Pashtun belt," said Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, referring to the south and east of the country where the Pashtun ethnic group mostly resides.
The fear and corruption the corrupt officials and warlords perpetuate, however, undermines the U.S.-led efforts to build a stable government and helps the Taliban win support, said Afghan and NATO officials, private citizens, analysts and local journalists. The trend echoes a pattern from the 1990s, when violence among competing warlords gave rise to the Taliban and their brutal ways of imposing law and order.
The concern was repeated in more than a dozen recent interviews: The biggest problem is not the Taliban; it's the city's gangster oligarchs.
When it comes to Kandahar city politics, "I'm not sure whether I'm watching Godfather Part 2 or Godfather Part 3," says Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian official in Afghanistan. "It's very difficult to untangle, but what's really fueling the insurgency is groups being disenfranchised, feeling oppressed by the institutions of state and criminal syndicates."
The most ubiquitous Kandahar city powerbroker is Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the chairman of the provincial council. Western diplomats have repeatedly linked him to drug traffickers and money laundering, though he denies wrongdoing.
"Like any mafia organization, the guys who really matter are not the ones you have any evidence against," said Sedwill.
Other powerful players here include popular politician and former provincial governor Gul Agha Sherzai, who's now governor of the eastern Nangarhar Province and whom human rights investigators suspect of opium trafficking and human rights abuses. According to the Canada-based Globe and Mail newspaper, Sherzai was removed from his post as Kandahar governor after admitting that he'd received $1 million a week from import duties and the opium trade.
Business rivals and a government official, who asked not to be named for security reasons, accuse his brother, Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, of winning a disproportionate share of construction contracts with NATO at the big Kandahar airfield by monopolizing the market and disenfranchising rivals in less powerful tribes.
In a phone conversation, a spokesman for the Sherzai brothers refused to discuss the allegations.
Provincial council member Haji Moqtar Ahmed declined to name the city's powerbrokers, but said they were well known to locals.
"I won't say the names of these people, but everyone knows who they are," says Mr. Ahmed. "They are the masterminds of business in Kandahar."
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