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The other, powerful Karzai boss in Afghanistan

To many Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of Afghan president, is the key to taming the Taliban in the critical city of Kandahar. But to others he's a highly controversial figure.

By Staff writer / July 14, 2010

Ahmed Wali Karzai (c.) talked on the phone as he sat with supporters celebrating the reelection victory of his brother President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar this past November.

Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images/File

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Kandahar, Afghanistan

Ahmed Wali Karzai, leader of the Popalzai tribe and the most powerful man in Kandahar, settles down in his chambers for another round of grievance hearing, dispute settling, and political strategizing.

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Gazed down upon by a photo of his assassinated father and bathed in the aura of his half brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Wali Karzai's avid eyes flit over the tribal chieftains and petitioners around him as he dispenses the business of the day.

Increasingly, the business of the day in Kandahar and the business of Ahmed Wali Karzai are indistinguishable. To his supporters, that's all to the good – a supporter of the United States effort with his hand on the tribal political levers in a province and city that's the key to defeating the Taliban.

Encouraging corruption?

But to others, Mr. Karzai is building a traditional patronage network – with his family at the top of the heap – that is encouraging corruption, creating tribal divisions, and shifting support to the Taliban from the NATO-backed government of his brother.

Kandahar, awash in drug money and contractor profits, where Taliban assassinations occur almost daily, is currently the focus of a US military buildup. Karzai – or AWK in the language of the blossoming diplomatic cables and military intelligence dossiers on his activities – is the man in the middle.

He's been accused of having business ties to the heroin traders and warlords that have proliferated across the south since NATO ousted the Taliban in 2001. Almost everyone – local journalists, businessmen, political rivals – alleges he's amassed a fortune, though Kandaharis, when pressed for details, often respond with the Pashtun phrase, "My mouth is full of water."

'I'm like a spice'

AWK denies all the charges against him, and says he's simply a tribal leader and politician whose power comes from a famous and respected name among the Pashtun tribes of the south. He says his critics are trying to weaken President Karzai, with family ties and his influence proving an easy target. "I'm like a spice," he says. "To make the dish more delicious, you add a little Ahmed Wali."

Whatever the source, a few days spent with him demonstrates his local power. A Kandahar without AWK could be as problematic, or more so, than one with him.

It's a point that a US officer in Kabul – who thinks NATO should hold its nose and deal with him – makes: "We think there's some dirt on him. But everyone's got dirt on him. And we know that he's working with us to deal with the Taliban."

Karzai the problem solver?

Ahmed Wali Karzai has been accused of having business ties to heroin traders and warlords across southern Afghanistan. Some expert watchers say that he stands in the way of NATO's objectives here; others claim he's a key to defeating the Taliban in the critical region of Kandahar.

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