Ahmed Wali Karzai Was Symbol of Afghan War's Complexity

The half-brother of President Hamid Karzai seemed to embody many of the war's contradictions



In late 2009, when the New York Times first reported that the CIA had for years been working with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and a major player in the heroin trade, Major General Michael T. Flynn, the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, told the newspaper, "If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves," he said. "The only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone." Flynn's comment underscored one of the war's many challenges: the military, which has led the international mission in Afghanistan since 2001, and the CIA, which had spearheaded U.S. interests in Afghanistan from the 1979 Soviet invasion through September 11, 2001, often work at cross purposes and toward different goals.

Today's killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai, reportedly by a close business associate, is a reminder of the complicated web of loyalties, interests, and contradictions that the U.S. has attempted to navigate for nearly a decade. Ahmed Wali Karzai was a politician working within the system and a criminal working against it; he ran militias on behalf of the CIA and funded drug networks that were the stated enemy of the U.S. military; he worked with trucking contractors that sold services to NATO and that funded anti-NATO warlords; he was a close ally of the U.S. and a tremendous drag on its mission to win over the Afghan people.

Even in death, he is a contradiction. His killing, as the half brother of the nation's president, is both major news for the Afghan war and barely news at all; in March, President Karzai's cousin was killed by a U.S. night raid, a tragedy for the family that had little appreciable affect on an already sour Obama-Karzai relationship.

Ahmed Wali Karzai was exactly the kind of local "big man" -- he was a major player in the southern province of Kandahar, which has seen heavy fighting and a big U.S. push -- whom the U.S. mission both relied on and worked against. His cooperation and help was crucial in arranging day-to-day political deals; guys like Ahmed Wali, quite simply, can get things done in a way that we can't. But the things that make men like Ahmed Wali useful in the particular also make them burdensome in general. His power, inextricably linked with his corruption, came from a self-interested, unaccountable Afghan political system that enrages many Afghans and leaves them feeling disconnected from their government. He was part of a system that fueled the war, and he helped us navigate that system while simultaneously worsening it.

Whatever the meaning of Ahmed Wali Karzai's death for the Afghan war, his killing, like so much in the final ten years of his life, underscores the challenge that the U.S. has faced in the Afghan political system, which we rely upon in the short-term but which, in the long term, is a major hurdle in our effort toward peace and stability. Despite many efforts, we have not succeeded in unknotting this contradiction. It's little wonder, then, that President Obama appears bent on extricating the U.S. from a conflict that we have been unable to untangle, much less win.