U.S. push to sideline Karzai brother meets resistance

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. efforts to sideline Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother met resistance on Tuesday from provincial officials who warned of chaos in the Taliban’s birthplace if he is pushed out.

Support voiced for Ahmad Wali Karzai during a visit by the top U.S. military officer shows one of the dilemmas Washington faces when it launches a major offensive in the city in coming months, intended as a decisive chapter in the eight-year-old war.

As head of Kandahar’s provincial council, Ahmad Wali Karzai wields considerable power in the south, but he has been accused of amassing a vast fortune from the drugs trade, intimidating rivals and having links to the CIA, charges he strongly denies.

U.S. officials say he plays a polarising role, complicating their efforts to win over the population and supplant the Taliban by bringing improvements to the way the province is governed. Yet they also say they probably can’t force him out.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Kandahar on Tuesday to press for steps to stem corruption and improve governance in the city.

“All of us, the international community and I think many, many Afghan leaders, agree that corruption must be addressed,” Mullen told dozens of local leaders around a dining table at the governor’s mansion in Kandahar.

Mullen never named the president’s brother in his talk. But during the session, at least one tribal leader voiced public support for Ahmad Wali Karzai, and criticised Washington for disparaging him.

The provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, later told reporters Washington was making a big mistake by branding Ahmad Wali Karzai a “challenge” to efforts to secure the city.

“He’s the guy who will keep Kandahar stable. If he’s not here on the scene, you don’t want to see what’s going to happen. He keeps the balance here,” the governor said.

Asked about allegations of corruption, he added: “That’s not true... These are all the words coming from some opponents.”

U.S. officials say they are watching Ahmad Wali Karzai’s activities closely.

They even went so far as to warn him at least once that he could be placed on a target list -- the Joint Prioritized Engagement List -- if he were found to be providing arms or assistance to insurgents, a senior U.S. military official said.

Nevertheless, the official added: “We’re not going in that direction.”

Another military official said the focus was on moderating Ahmad Wali Karzai’s role in Kandahar rather than removing him outright because of doubts about what would happen.

“You can’t go and simply remove these guys because who are you going to have replace them? Do we think we understand the tribal structures and all sufficiently that we can pick the next guy?” the second senior U.S. military official said. “We’re certainly going to ... bring in uncertainty.”

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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