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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.

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At his sprawling guesthouse where he entertains requests and complaints for five hours on most days (and twice a week at the provincial council he chairs), Karzai is running a cross between Tammany Hall and the tribal jirgas that Afghanistan's Pashtuns have used to order their affairs for centuries.

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First in his line of supplicants is a former mujahideen commander who led troops in the 1980s war against the Soviets. His son is running for parliament, and he's seeking Karzai's blessing. Support granted. Karzai urges the young politician to "listen to the people."

Next is a delegation warning that a dispute between the Achakzai and Barakzai tribes could get violent. After taking advice from a circle of advisers, he tells the men to "bring the leaders of the tribe here and I'll solve it." They shuffle out.

A wheat farmer comes in charging that another man harvested his land. A provincial employee complains he was falsely accused of corruption. A delegation of tribal elders comes in with a World War I Luger pistol as a gift. A stooped old man requests that his jailed son be transferred to a prison closer to home.

AWK helps them all, leaning forward in his chair, asking questions in staccato bursts. It feels as if a page should shout "Next!" after each issue has been dealt with.

The unemployed son of a tribal leader is promised a job at the election office; a letter is dispatched to a friendly businessman asking him to give $1,300 to a farmer whose wheat was burned by a US illumination flare; a tribal leader whose brother's house was surrounded by the Taliban two days earlier is consulted.

Fortunately the brother had gotten through to Karzai on the phone. Afghan forces raced to the compound. "A few years ago, that probably wouldn't have happened. He'd be dead," says one of Karzai's aides.

On it goes amid the clacking of prayer beads and the cracking of nuts. Finally it's time for lunch, with heaping plates of lamb meatballs, stewed okra, chicken, and rice eaten sprawled on Afghan carpets.

Karzai's influence explained

Ahmed Wali Karzai explains his influence as a matter of tradition in a region where tribal ties remain strong. "It's not like we popped up like mushrooms when Hamid Karzai became president. My father was the head of the Popalzai for all of Kandahar. Everyone respects him. It's a family thing," he says.

Well, not everybody. Karzai has survived two Taliban assassination attempts and travels with gunmen. He straps on a pistol when he leaves the house for the provincial council.

There, a man convinces him that his father was wrongly detained by the police on charges of selling arms to the Taliban. One phone call and the elderly father enters the chamber about half an hour later to thank him (Karzai says later that the police "were about to release him anyway").

More ominous allegations of release have surfaced. Dad Mohammed Khan, a former intelligence chief in neighboring Helmand Province, the center of Afghan opium production, told a McClatchy reporter earlier this year that an associate of Karzai had ordered him to release a Taliban commander linked to the drug trade. Mr. Khan died soon after in a roadside bombing blamed on the Taliban.

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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