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Ahmed Wali Karzai and the CIA: America's conundrum in Afghanistan

A new report links the CIA with Ahmed Wali Karzai, a influential Afghan reputed to be a drug lord. The CIA has long fought wars through such men, but does that work?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2009

This undated file photo shows Ahmad Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking during a meeting with elders in Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan.



A report in Wednesday's New York Times alleging that the CIA is secretly paying Ahmed Wali Karzai, a man reputed to be one of Afghanistan's biggest drug barons, throws into sharp relief the most crucial question the administration now faces in Afghanistan:

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Should America continue its policy of working with warlords and disreputable power-brokers in an attempt to use their influence to advance US interests? Or should it instead focus on protecting the Afghan people – in many cases from the very warlords the US has supported in the past?

The answer is not as simple as such a bald statement might suggest, and it is precisely this question, in its many forms, that President Obama is now considering.

Scenario A: Karzai is the bad guy

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, wants Mr. Obama to send at least 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan to carry out a classic counterinsurgency. This strategy is centered on protecting the Afghan people and giving them the security needed to rebuild local economies and – in the long run – create stability. That stability would give Afghanistan the will and the capacity to repel Al Qaeda, says McChrystal.

But if this is America's goal, making secret deals with men like Mr. Karzai, the Afghan president's brother, could be more than counterproductive. It could be disastrous. The Times quoted Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan, on what it means:

"If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves."

In short, the counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan is predicated on America being "the good guy" from the Afghan perspective. This is "winning hearts and minds." If the Afghan population believes the Americans are truly looking out for their best interests, some will be more likely to lay down their weapons, others will be more likely to give intelligence on militants, others may take up arms against militants themselves – as some did in Iraq.

This is the chain reaction a successful counterinsurgency must create. But if the US is backing – or is even perceived as backing – drug barons who flout justice and breed corruption and violence, the military will never win the trust of Afghans.

A blog on the Center for a New American Security notes: "You can be darn sure that if we think that AWK [Ahmed Wali Karzai] is the CIA's guy, the Afghans most certainly believe that to be the case."