In Afghanistan war, government corruption bigger threat than Taliban
Warlords and government corruption may destabilize the country even more than the Taliban, say Afghan and NATO officials. The city of Kandahar reflects this central problem of the Afghanistan war.
Over the past month in Kandahar City, Taliban death squads have killed dozens of people in drive-by shootings. Yet many living in this southern Afghan city say the insurgents are the least of their worries. Far more pernicious is the murky nexus of warlords and corrupt government officials whose rule some compare to mob bosses.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, the fear and corruption they perpetuate undermine efforts to build a stable government and help the Taliban win support among locals, say 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 is the gangster oligarchs looming over the city.
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, referring to the popular movie series about an American mafia family. “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.”
Kandahar City serves as a microcosm for Afghanistan, with its weak, corrupt government and resurgent class of powerbrokers, derided locally as warlords. It is also a strategic area that NATO is trying to win back, 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. US-led foreign forces are gearing up for a massive summer campaign in the surrounding province, which is also called Kandahar.
The city is “the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity in the Pashtun belt,” says US Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, referring to the south and east of the country where the Pashtun ethnic group mostly resides.
Powerbrokers in politics, business
The most ubiquitous of Kandahar city’s powerbrokers is Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother of President Hamid Karzai and 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,” says Mr. Sedwill.
Other powerful players here include the popular politician and former provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, who is 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 had received $1 million a week from import duties and the opium trade.
His brother, Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, is accused by business rivals and a government official, who asked not to be named for security reasons, of having won a disproportionate number of construction contracts with NATO at Kandahar airfield by monopolizing the market and disenfranchising rivals in less powerful tribes