Politics and Power in Kandahar
A strong personality-driven political order is emerging in Afghanistan which undermines ISAF’s goals. This report discusses the historical context of governance structures in Kandahar, the declining influence of tribes, Kandahar’s current powerbrokers, and the rise of the Karzai family.
Kandahar is strategic terrain for the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Karzai family, and a central focus of ISAF’s 2010 counterinsurgency campaign.
Ahmed Wali Karzai’s influence over Kandahar is the central obstacle to any of ISAF’s governance objectives, and a consistent policy for dealing with him must be a central element of any new strategy. Wali Karzai’s behavior and waning popularity among local populations promote instability and provide space for the Taliban to exist.
ISAF has inadvertently strengthened the forces that undermine legitimate government institutions. ISAF must shape the political landscape in Kandahar so that the local government becomes a credible partner.
ISAF must develop a new coherent strategy that is unified in both Kandahar and Kabul and that recognizes the means by which informal power structures co-opt and undermine the development of robust institutions.
A new ISAF strategy must include:
• Unity of effort among coalition actors at the national and provincial levels.
• Comprehensive intelligence on the interests and relationships of local powerbrokers, contracting networks, and on the connections between Kabul and Kandahar.
• Reform of ISAF contracting, to ensure distribution of ISAF funding to a broad range of constituencies, and to ensure that contracts do not create strong military-commercials networks.
• Disarmament and demobilization of private security forces and private militias.
• Building ministerial capacity in Kandahar and Kabul to ensure strong and independent security forces.
While most actors in Kandahar call themselves tribal leaders, few influential actors in Kandahar derive their influence from this position. Control over guns, money, and foreign support have become more important as sources of power.
• Influential actors in Kandahar nevertheless attempt to maintain influence over the tribal system and often organize their networks, militias, and cartels along tribal lines.
The Karzai family is the key to politics in Kandahar. The Karzai family and the Quetta Shura Taliban have emerged as the most powerful forces.
• Since 2001, Ahmed Wali Karzai has gradually built a powerful empire in Kandahar through the support of foreign backers and by bringing under his influence the province's key commercial, military, and contracting networks.
• The Karzai family's leading members, Hamid, Mahmoud, Qayum, and Ahmed Wali, have built significant influence in different spheres, strengthening the family's power as a whole.
• President Hamid Karzai reassigned Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai to Nangahar province in 2005, replacing him with Asadullah Khalid, a family ally. This gave Ahmed Wali Karzai informal control of the province.
Kandahar's political and economic life is dominated by several commercial and military networks.
• Ahmed Wali Karzai is at the center of a number of these networks, and has considerable influence over business life in Kandahar City itself, with significant private security, real estate, and contracting interests.
• His control of private security forces, as well as his influence over contracting firms like Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group allows him to enforce his political will in the city and exert influence over all business transactions.
• Ahmed Wali Karzai has formed alliances with other key strongmen in Kandahar, who control transit routes and run commercial/military networks. These strongmen include Arif Noorzai, Abdul Razak, and Matiullah Khan.
• Family members and allies of Gul Agha Sherzai run a rival commercial network to Ahmed Wali Karzai's.
Ahmed Wali Karzai has used his informal power and his connections to the Afghan state to give him shadow ownership of the government of Kandahar.
• Through the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, the Karzai administration in Kabul controls the appointment of provincial governors and district officials, giving it considerable power over local government.
• Given Ahmed Wali Karzai's influence in Kabul, local government officials understand that challenging Ahmed Wali Karzai's influence would jeopardize their political futures.
• Local powerbrokers have intentionally kept the official police force weak. This allows them to manipulate the police force to their ends and forces ISAF to rely on their private security companies. Because many of these companies are controlled by or allied with Ahmed Wali Karzai, this ensures both revenue and influence.
The local population sees the government as an exclusive oligarchy devoted to its own enrichment and closely tied to the international coalition.
• Anti-government sentiments are exploited and aggravated by the Taliban. Many of the local powerbrokers who are excluded from Wali Karzai’s network see the Taliban insurgency as the only viable means of political opposition.
• The 2009 presidential and provincial council elections demonstrated that Ahmed Wali Karzai’s popular base in Kandahar was narrowing.
Despite limited popular support, Ahmed Wali Karzai’s maintenance of power rests on three interdependent pillars. These are:
• That the international coalition, despite growing frustrations, will continue to give him de facto support where it matters and will not take actions that challenge his fundamental interests.
• That he will continue to receive critical state backing and continue to control the formal government of Kandahar. He assumes that Hamid Karzai will continue to support him and that the government ministries in Kabul will not challenge his influence due to his brother’s political ascendancy.
• That he will maintain the ability to exert power over locals through his use of force and his control over the provincial economy.