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Threatening Karzai’s Brother, Planning a Kandahar Operation in the Dark

The Washington Post has a great story that looks at the opening phases of the forthcoming U.S.-NATO-Afghan push to take the regions surrounding Kandahar city away from the Taliban, an operation expected to be militarily underway by June. But as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said earlier this month, an operation with a fundamentally political objective — restore and strengthen Afghan governance over the city – really begins with a political build-up to win the support or acquiescence of local leadership. That’s already underway. And one of its main features is to go after Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, alleged CIA asset, drug trafficker/asset, militia quasi-commander and local elected official.

A rough sketch of the plan from the Post’s description goes as follows: Spend the next several months convening local shuras in and around Kandahar in order to build local allies for the June invasion; Convince locals in and around Kandahar, as well as President Karzai, to get Ahmed Wali Karzai to leave. Some of these efforts are more diplomatic than others.

One senior U.S. military official described a personal visit he said he made two weeks ago to [Ahmed Wali] Karzai in Kandahar to threaten him with arrest or worse. “I told him, ‘I’m going to be watching every step you take. If I catch you meeting an insurgent, I’m going to put you on the JPEL,’ ” the Joint Prioritized Engagement List, reserved for the most wanted insurgents. “That means,” the official said he told Karzai, “that I can capture or kill you.”

It would be surprising if Ahmed Wali Karzai leaves Kandahar after being threatened, or if Hamid Karzai, already embittered by what he considers unreasonable U.S. demands on his performance, sacrificed his brother to a U.S. political/military objective. “We’d rather not have him,” the military official who threatened Ahmed Wali Karzai told the Post, “but there’s nothing we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency.” To say the least, Ahmed Wali Karzai’s status is likely to be the subject of tension between McChrystal’s command and the CIA.

The certainty with which McChrystal’s command reportedly believes Ahmed Wali Karzai is a problem contrasts with its admitted lack ignorance of Kandahar.

As they constructed the operational timeline for the Kandahar offensive, officials said, they undertook a “deep dive” into the collected intelligence on the area and concluded that “it’s amazing what we don’t know,” a senior military official said. “Our knowledge of the enemy is pretty darn good.” But the key to success, he said, “is understanding the tribal nature of what’s going on in Kandahar, and we’re not there yet.”

On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a command admit that it doesn’t know everything about an area of operations, a frequent and very American occurrence that usually requires the forthrightness of lieutenants and captains for expression. On the other hand, that ignorance is probably a greater obstacle to a successful campaign than Ahmed Wali Karzai. How will U.S. and NATO forces know whom — and what institutions — to trust?

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