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.

By , Correspondent

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.

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.

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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

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."

Top prosecutor: 'Sometimes I ignore the rules.'

With such oligarchs asserting themselves, the provincial attorney general admits that he routinely drops cases under pressure from powerful figures. “In Kandahar, every criminal has a supporter, and the supporter wants him released from custody,” says Mohammad Ismael Zia.

“There are many warlords in Kandahar City,” he continues. “If I don’t accept their demands they can make many problems for me. They could kill me or remove me from this job. So sometimes I ignore the rules.”

He points to a stack of papers on his desk – requests from parliamentarians and provincial council members. If Mr. Zia’s help is not forthcoming, he says he is threatened “by telephone and night letters.” None of his superiors, he says, have agreed to provide him with secure accommodation or guards to help him resist the intimidation.

Also complicit in corruption are the police. Tales of kidnappings, bribery, blackmail, even murder by officers are commonplace, with many residents saying they are the No. 1 fear. One police commander is particularly infamous. In one story he threw a man in jail for refusing to hand over his dog. In another, he imprisoned two teenagers brought to him by coalition forces after their family failed to pay the ransom he demanded.

“The worst people, the addicts, the thieves, the drunkards are in the police,” says Haji Abdul Karim, a tribal elder. “The best way for bad men to make money is to join the police.”

Police in Kandahar deny the allegations.

'Corruption, bribery, extortion' turn people to the Taliban

The corruption and abuse are alienating people who wouldn’t naturally align themselves with fundamental Islam.

For example, says Mr. Karim, a local Taliban commander known as Dr. Qwagha, joined the insurgency after he was abused by the police. “The police came and beat him very badly, and he became an enemy of the government.”

“Many people who suffered police brutality are with the Taliban now,” he says.

Haji Mohammad Zahir, a Kandahari who moved to the city to find a job, says: “Who’s in the Taliban? Normal people. Not ideologues. I am, he is, my cousin, my brother – because of the government’s corruption, bribes, and extortion.”

Contrasting the poor reputations of government officials, Mr. Zahir praises a local Taliban commander, Kaka Abdul Khaliq, who operates in the village of Pashmul 25 miles west. “He’s a very good man” who “treats his villagers well because he knows their ways,” he says.

'Too hard to exclude' some powerbrokers – NATO

NATO officials and Western diplomats are mindful that sidelining “malign actors” – a NATO euphemism for the Kandahar mafia – shoring up government institutions, and reforming the police will matter more to the Kandahar campaign than any gun battles will.

NATO has lobbied President Karzai unsuccessfully for the removal of Ahmed Wali Karzai from his post, leaking details of his alleged business activities to the press. But in reality, NATO may have to try to coopt him and other powerbrokers in an effort to mend Kandahar’s political fabric.

“In some cases it’s too hard to exclude them altogether,” says Sedwill.

According to one Western diplomat, the hope is that the oligarchs will realize, “If the Americans aren’t here, I’m dead,” and that this will provide leverage.

The strategy has risks. Across Kandahar, residents rightly or wrongly see the West as complicit in the rise of the mafia. Both they and NATO officials believe Western largesse may have helped strengthened them. It was similar weariness of corruption and brigandry that 16 years ago helped sweep the Taliban to power.

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