For Afghan first nephews, US passports are ticket out of chaos

The assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s half-brother, has dealt a huge blow to transition plans and is likely to lead to major power struggles across the country’s south as rival clans fight to fill the power vacuum created by his death.

What may effectively become a civil war could undermine the security gains made against the Taleban in the region they view as their power base, and create opportunities for the insurgency to reassert itself amid the coming chaos.

While the Taleban were quick to claim responsibility, Ahmad Karzai’s enemies were legion. Rumours range from a simple personal dispute to revenge for the killings of rival tribal leaders. He was close to the United States, and widely regarded as a font of corruption.

His funeral will present a massive security headache and a natural target for a Taleban attack.

My closest contact with Ahmad Karzai came after one of the many accusations he faced of drug running. Amid threats to call in his “New York lawyers” — surely a status symbol for any Afghan warlord — he invited me to Kandahar so he could use an interview to rebut the latest allegations.

Ahmad Karzai’s compound in central Kandahar was the region’s seat of power, abuzz with activity as tribal elders, politicians, Afghan and international military leaders, Western diplomats, and ordinary people revolved through to pay tribute and seek advise. The prospect of meeting the King of Kandahar, as he was known, was tantalising.

To make the most of what was to be a fleeting visit, I contacted his American-born nephews, who had moved from California to Kandahar to set up their own security firm a couple of doors down from Uncle Ahmad’s place. They were eager to please and excited at the prospect of being written about, offering transport, security, access.

This was in the middle of 2010, as the US military surge was concentrating on Kandahar and its surrounds and Taleban murders of people associated with the civilian government, the foreign military, overseas aid groups, and their families, had become daily events. Contacts in the city advised against going, saying all foreigners had left, local journalists were too afraid to go outdoors, and many had sent their families out of the city.

With the assurance of young Zak and his brother, and the implicit protection of their uncle, I was willing to take the risk. A great story looked a sure thing.

The night before I was set to leave Kabul, where I was bureau chief for the French news agency AFP, on an early morning flight to Kandahar, a call came from Ahmad Karzai’s office. I was politely told the interview was cancelled because he had some pressing business to attend to outside the city. He offered to reschedule but no date was mentioned.
I’d still go to Kandahar, I thought; the nephews will make a superb yarn — a couple of California boys living it large under the wing of the most powerful man in the Afghan south, at the heart of the war zone. I’d heard about their parties, their lifestyle, their cars, their jewelry. How could I not go?

That bubble was burst within minutes of the call from Ahmad Karzai’s office, with a text from nephew Zak saying it was all off. Sorry. No explanation. No subsequent calls were answered. Nothing was ever rescheduled.

I have met other members of the Karzai clan, always eager to declare their membership of Afghanistan’s first family, often a propos of nothing. For the nephews who came to Kandahar to seek fun and fortune, the only advantage they may now have is the American passports that can take them out of the line of fire that is about to erupt.