Thousands of U.S. and Afghan forces head to southern Afghanistan in the coming weeks for a military operation in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
The operation is intended to confront Taliban influence in the area, but one of the most difficult parts of the mission will be how to tackle Kandahar's corrupt power structure.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, says this summer's main military effort is about more than U.S. troops going after the Taliban. "This effort is being led by the Afghans and will focus on the complex political and governance aspects of Kandahar," McChrystal told Pentagon reporters last week.
That is a roundabout way of saying that leaders in Kandahar are part of the problem.
A Corrupt Kandahar City Government
Defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution just returned from Afghanistan and says the U.S. is now seen as "propping up a corrupt Kandahar city government."
"We're essentially seen as helping a couple of families and their companies and their tribes," O'Hanlon says. "And that marginalizes and disenfranchises other tribes, which wind up supporting the Taliban."
Afghans view America's allies in Kandahar as undermining efforts to improve governance, which is considered perhaps the most important goal in defeating an insurgency. But those appointed and elected officials in Kandahar are working at cross purposes: They are using their positions to enrich themselves and expand their power.
Last month, Carl Forsberg released a report on Kandahar politics for the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. He says that the major power in Kandahar is "concentrated in the hands of people who use official positions far outside the legal bounds of what their position really is."
Forsberg names Ahmed Wali Karzai at the top of the list. He is the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and also chairman of Kandahar's provincial council, which is the top legislative body in the province.
Ahmed Wali Karzai also runs his own security company, which employs armed guards that have been contracted to U.S. and NATO forces. He rents property to the U.S. military. And he has reportedly provided intelligence to the CIA.
He has also been accused of using his influence to help drug traffickers, intimidate political opponents and stuff ballot boxes in last fall's presidential election. U.S. officials tell NPR that Ahmed Wali Karzai has profited by using his position to seize public and even private land for development.
Ahmed Wali Karzai has denied any wrongdoing. In an interview last week with the TV network Al-Jazeera, he pledged to help the U.S. in the upcoming Kandahar operation. "I am trying to help the people and help the government," he said. "So probably there are some mistakes in the past. These things are clear now. We are trying to help each other."
How To Deal With Ahmed Wali Karzai
But Forsberg says the problem is that Washington is helping Ahmed Wali Karzai too much. Forsberg recommends that the U.S. cancel its contracts with him. And he says the U.S. should disband his armed security groups, including one known as the Kandahar Strike Force.
"So you don't have provincial council chairmen essentially running military networks," Forsberg says.
During a recent Pentagon press conference, McChrystal was asked how Ahmed Wali Karzai's military networks will be used in the upcoming Kandahar operation.
"I'm not going to discuss any of the specific forces like that," McChrystal said. "But I think all of that will reflect President Karzai's intent to move things under government control."
But it's that government control, especially in Kandahar, that has been a key problem.
O'Hanlon says he was most troubled on his Afghanistan trip by this fact: U.S. and NATO officials are still struggling with how to treat Ahmed Wali Karzai -- just before the planned Kandahar operation -- a mission that some officials are calling the defining moment of the nine-year war.
"I heard some people almost throwing up their arms with the view that there didn't seem much we could do about it -- and we depend on this guy," O'Hanlon says. "Others thought we had to be more aggressive, not in eliminating him or his contracts or his companies, but in spreading around the wealth."
If the wealth is dispersed, it would break up Ahmed Wali Karzai's stranglehold on contracts and influence. A senior military official tells NPR there have been several meetings with the president's brother, where American officials have made it clear that they expect Ahmed Wali Karzai to be part of the solution.