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Will Afghanistan return to an era of warlord rule after NATO leaves?

Though NATO-led efforts have focused on democracy in Afghanistan, US forces still rely on Afghan strongmen to wield local influence. But power built on personalities are vulnerable to collapse.

By Correspondent / August 8, 2011

Hamid Karzai (second from l.) receives condolences from then-US Army Gen. David Petraeus (c.) at a funeral for his late half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, one of the country’s most powerful strongmen.

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

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Kandahar City, Afghanistan

In his sprawling office in Kandahar’s gubernatorial palace, Tooryali Wesa spends much of his day behind an imposing hand-carved wooden desk. Stately chairs and couches line the wood-paneled walls, topped with the type of high-vaulted ceiling found in a cathedral or classically designed mosque. The room is a virtual shrine to governance and an apparent testament to the power of the political office.

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But in Afghanistan, things are rarely what they seem.

For years, Kandaharis have made it no secret that, while they respect Mr. Wesa, his position is largely symbolic. To get things done, they turn to the region’s power brokers and warlords.

“The biggest challenge has been power brokers,” says Wesa, reflecting on his time as governor. “They had only guns before, but recently in addition to guns they have money. They run most of the businesses, they are awarded contracts from [various international sources], and they are feeding the insurgency.”

The possibility that power brokers and warlords in Afghanistan might be what keeps the country from unraveling has had analysts concerned, but the recent assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, one of the most powerful strongmen in Afghanistan, and the ensuing struggle in Kandahar for power, has brought the issue into sharp focus as the US begins to draw down forces.

The struggle to replace Ahmad Wali, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, highlights a key question at the heart of Afghanistan’s future: After 10 years of the US-led war, who can realistically control the country, warlords and strongmen or the government?

Though much of the international effort here has focused on strengthening democratic institutions, foreign forces have often had to lean on strongmen. As a result, a new generation of warlords has risen to power, fueled by US money.

Many warlords in Afghanistan occupy government posts, but their reach extends well beyond their appointed role. Ahmad Wali, for example, was officially head of the Kandahar Provincial Council. Power brokers, like him, run parallel governments that often undercut the role of government. And most of the men powerful enough to claim these roles come with a litany of criminal allegations against them.

“The whole mission of the international community has always been to invest in individuals and not in a structure or in a system,” says Rangina Hamidi, a political activist in Kandahar. “When you depend on individuals, things will go on well as long as they’re alive. And once they’re gone ... then the whole structure falls.”

In Kandahar, there has been increasing talk that Kabul will appoint a new personality to replace Wesa who will likely set the tone for which direction the government is headed.

Until recently, two of the most likely contenders represented warlord-government divide. On one side, Gul Agha Sherzai is the classic old school mujahideen fighter-turned-power broker. On the other, there was Ghulam Haider Hamidi, an accountant who had lived in Virginia for nearly two decades and was widely seen as one of the nation’s most honest brokers until he was killed by a suicide bomber on July 27.

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