December 10, 2009

Altering Hamid Karzai's Trajectory

If Hamid Karzai actually changes his behavior and distances himself from the myriad of corrupt officials in Afghanistan - a long shot as it is - his progress is likely to be one step forward, two steps back.

Will that be fast enough for President Obama, whose urge to withdraw is surpassed only by his desire to create the perception of victory?

You might have already heard this story. Last July, the newly-formed Major Crimes Taskforce raided a drug-smuggling ring operated by a police colonel, known only as Commander S. A press conference was planned to celebrate what Western officials called a “textbook” mission for taking “a top scalp”

Instead “howls of protest” emitted from the Presidential Palace. A furious President Karzai called a similarly furious Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, intelligence sources told The Times, who in turn summoned the task force chiefs for an explanation.

You see, Commander S has a big boss.

“He was part of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s network,” said a senior government official involved in the case. “The President was very angry when he was arrested. Ahmed Wali was also very unhappy.”

The end result is one no American official will enjoy. As is often the case, Commander S's trial ratted out a number of higher-ups - two serving ministers and three former ministers. Attorney-General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko said, “The President only has to grant his approval, then the trials can proceed.”

But the aftermath has led to a political review before each operation or trial, and Aloko made clear that the go ahead is tenuous. Perhaps an sign of things to come, Karzai had pardoned five convicted drug smugglers shortly before Commander S’s arrest.

One of them was related to his campaign manager.

As for Commander S, he too is waiting out his court, hoping for a presidential pardon, and believes he’ll end up back at his post in Spin Boldak, a notorious smuggling center (analysis on Spin Boldak coming soon).

This event, while in the past, is still fresh enough to consider it a reliable indicator of Karzai's intentions. But the present offers plenty of evidence, meaning the future probably will too.

Abdul Ahad Sahebi, mayor of Kabul, was found guilty by the Supreme Court just three days ago for awarding a contract without competition. Sahebi was fined 16,000$ and sentenced to four years in prison. Yet he was visibly back in Kabul on Wednesday, holding his second press conference in two days to explain, “I don't accept the court's decision."

"There is a conspiracy against me... I am mayor. I am continuing my job.”

A riled Afghanistan’s attorney general’s office sent letters to Kabul administrators and Karzai officials ordering that Sahebi is no longer the mayor.

"The court made a decision,” said Mohammad Qasim Halimi, chief of administration for the Afghan Supreme Court. “The court decision was legal. Why is he released? Why is he having press conferences? I don't know, but again I say, the court decision was legal."

Answers at this time are scarce, but we do have a response to his release. Mohammad Yaseen Usmani, head official of the High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption, told a news conference on the other side of Kabul that the mayor's release "did not violate any law."

Let’s get real. American officials have told President Karzai that they want his half-brother sidelined within six months. Impossible, CIA payroll or not.

"I am powerful because I am the President’s brother,” Ahmed Wali said several weeks ago amid the furor of anti-corruption. “This is a country ruled by kings. The king’s brothers, cousins, sons, are all powerful. This is Afghanistan. It will change, but it will not change overnight.”

Until Afghanistan does, President Obama has thin hopes of molding Hamid Karzai into the tip of his counterinsurgency spear.

“Karzai can’t get rid of these people,” said a government official. “He can’t even deal with corruption in his own office. All the corrupt officials, the drug traffickers and the warlords supported Karzai’s election campaign. These people control him.”

Any step forward will meet this wall.

Going backwards isn’t an option for America, so President Obama is going to have to find a way around. A good analogy might be a deadly meteor headed for Earth. Blowing it apart would only cause further complications. NASA's plan would have satellites or space ships gradually push the meteor off its gravitational collision course.

The question is, do they have enough time? Karzai is already drifting towards no.

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