- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2011

KANDAHAR CITY, AFGHANISTAN

When Kandahar godfather Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK) met a mafia shyster’s ending on July 12, hardly a prayer was whispered before thoughts of the proverbial “power vacuum” seized the international media, the International Security Assistance Force and Kandahars themselves.

When the time for intercession came two days later, the people were praying - “may AWK go to heaven,” one Kandahari mawkishly told me. A “turban bomber” validated their fears with a suicide attack that narrowly missed Karzai’s relatives. The subsequent assassination of President Hamid Karzai’s warlord-cum-adviser Jan Mohammad Khan, from neighboring Uruzgan province, left no doubt that the Popalzai family patronage network is up for replacement.

Kandahars know how the script ends: A trusted guard killed Persian emperor Nadir Shah in 1747, opening the door for the father of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah, to start a new dynasty in Kandahar. More recently, the Kandahar police chief was killed by his guards in April, enabling a young, charismatic police commander, Gen. Abdul Raziq, to inaugurate a two-month era of relative calm (albeit a trade-off for opium-smuggling lenience).

No wonder that after Ahmed Wali Karzai’s assassination by trusted guard Sardar Mohammad, a family friend who commanded 200 men himself, Gen. Raziq acted quickly to reel in the city’s giddy minds. By afternoon, Sardar’s body hung by a rope from the roof of a city-center police station.

With the U.S. troop drawdown begun this month, most observers view the loss of in the south - a region declared won as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) shifts to the east - as a strategic setback. It has the feel of a metaphorical prison break that mirrors the literal prison break of nearly 500 Taliban in Kandahar City in May. Canada’s combat forces abandoned bases in nearby Panjwaii district earlier this month, for example, having declared the Afghan mission complete, much to the dismay of local leaders. And as Gen. Raziq sets his sights on the city, a recent botched high-profile police raid on a downtown Taliban safe house seems vindication for the late puppet master.

Yet if it is still a counterinsurgency that ISAF espouses, then the removal of one of Afghanistan’s most corrupt and feared warlords offers a much-needed clean slate. It is a fallacy to say most Taliban are driven by grievances rather than ideology. No jobs program can transform people who idolize turban bombers. But the active sympathies of the “auxiliaries” and the drifting loyalties of the “mass base,” to use the terms of departed ISAF Gen. David H. Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual, are highly reactive to government predations.

Gen. Petraeus made fighting corruption a priority during his 12-month command, but deeply entrenched patronage networks, such as that of Ahmed Wali Karzai, prevented substantial changes from gaining momentum. Security in provinces such as the late Jan Mohammad Khan’s Uruzgan goes to the highest bidder and is allocated by ISAF’s designated gun rulers, whether it be his powerful nephew, Matiullah Khan, or teenage henchmen of the provincial pseudo-police force: “I am a servant of Afghanistan,” one of them said, describing his official job title to me.

Furthermore, as Afghan government officials fret over higher and higher offices of oversight, personal accountability is harder to pin down than the $10 million in cash leaving Kabul International Airport every day. Last month, Afghanistan’s attorney general blamed “external” actors for protecting corrupt Afghans from prosecution. Still, Afghan self-righteousness is unmerited: Last week, the special inspector general reported that U.S. efforts to train Afghanistan’s shady central bank in transparency met fierce resistance, culminating in the expulsion of U.S. Treasury advisers in May.

All of this bodes well for the Taliban: A U.N. survey earlier this year found that 48 percent of Afghans in the south - where the police count on AWK’s ISAF-proof network for goodies and pardons - have a favorable opinion of the police (slightly above the 40 percent favorable rating of the Taliban).

This makes sense. The Twitter-friendly Taliban are doing the jobs Americans won’t do: targeting the corrupt power brokers. In counterinsurgency, it’s telling whom the people blame when insurgents kill civilians. A successful progression would be from “blame ISAF” to “blame the insurgents” to “blame the government - it can do better.” But in Kandahar, the hush suggests a collective, “Can you blame them?”

Yet as the so-called power vacuum shows, the jury is still out. Thus, it is startling that, presented with an opportunity to defeat the Taliban’s vigilante appeal by holding gun rulers accountable and rewarding transparency, aninternational consensus has emerged that now is the opportunity for peace talks. Last month, President Karzai confirmed that the United States is in negotiations with the Taliban, whom he has called “brothers.” The U.N., for its part, recently removed 14 “former” Taliban members from its blacklist in hopes of incentivizing talks.

But the opportunity for talks is a mirage. In the city of Kandahar last week, telecom providers dutifully disabled service precisely because of the Taliban’s desire that no one talk. In neighboring Zabul province, providers have pleaded with the Taliban for a four-hour morning window of service. Doctors at Zabul’s largest hospital recently have begun negotiating their hours as well.

ISAF’s opportunity now is to turn AWK’s passing into a symbolic turning point in the power politics of the world’s most corrupt country. Being perceived to side with the Afghans who are still searching for a decent Taliban alternative is essential for holding the hard-fought gains of the departing troops. Even Kandahars are puzzled over who will fill the vacuum, but they ought to be assured: Warlords need not apply.

Patrick Knapp is a U.S. Army officer who has been working in a civilian capacity as a field officer for an aid program in Kandahar, Afghanistan, since January.