Afghan-American scholar Jawied Nawabi once quipped the only attribute that distinguishes Afghan president Hamid Karzai from the Taliban is beard length -- a sentiment shared by Naseem Pashtoon Sharifi who fled Kandahar to avoid being assassinated for daring to threaten the Karzai family's commercial concerns. That "our man in Kabul" heads a criminal state is anything but breaking news, yet what remains a mystery to people like Sharifi is America's continual support for the brothers Karzai and their warlord network, as the U.S. neglects promoting respectable Afghans whose power isn't derived from drugs, guns and money.
During a recent visit to the D.C. area I met up with Sharifi at an Afghan restaurant (where we split a pesto pizza, go figure), just days after I read his life story in a Toronto Star article published in December. It featured a Kandahar police "hit squad" trying to run him down in a car chase that reads like a scene from a Ludlum novel -- an attempt on his life that came at the behest of the president's half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK), often referred to by American officials as the "Kingpin of Kandahar."
By that point, one of Karzai's other siblings had already squeezed Sharifi out of Afghanistan's lucrative billboard market -- all because Sharifi refused to engage in crony capitalism. A situation, by the way, made all the more repugnant by the fact Sharifi is a distant Karzai cousin.
Amidst all the threats to his life and financial well-being, Sharifi has somehow managed to keep afloat his controversial weekly Kandahar newspaper called Surgar. This is quite a feat not only because Sharifi operates the publication from the U.S. but because it regularly exposes the Afghan government's predatory ways.
The Toronto Star corroborated Sharifi's allegations, which are also consistent with the characterizations of U.S. diplomats in WikiLeaks cables, describing the family's position in Kandahar as a "semi-modern aristocracy" directed by "unrivaled strongman" AWK.
The U.S. has known for years about AWK's reputation as extortionist and drug-trafficker extraordinaire. According to a 2008 New York Times piece, officials from the White House, State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan said they believed Wali Karzai was deeply involved in the $4 billion Afghan heroin trade.
The Times of London reported last year that a senior coalition figure calculated that the "Karzai cartel" was making a billion dollars a year from the NATO occupation through lucrative contracts and sub-contracting spin-offs in convoy protection, construction, fuel, food and security.
Sharifi said AWK is willing to eliminate the competition within any of these areas of interest. I myself have had conversations with Pashtun tribesmen that have accused AWK of making political opponents "disappear." Tim McGirk from Time wrote in March of 2010 that Alokozai tribesmen suspected AWK's militia of killing several tribal elders that had publicly opposed him.
However, the reason AWK has been "untouchable" became obvious when the New York Times reported in 2009 that AWK was on the CIA payroll for at least eight years. Former CIA officer Robert Baer pointed out how the U.S. is committing the same sins in Afghanistan as it did in another unpopular war: "If it sounds a lot like Vietnam when Vietnam started to really come apart, it is -- President Diem's grotesquely corrupt brother was a CIA source and a noxious agent of influence."
Sharifi struck me as having a calm disposition, occasionally flashing a warm and authentic smile, yet grew somber as we delved into the plight of his homeland. His eyes seemed filled with angst when expressing his disappointment about how NATO squandered an entire decade propping up maligned actors at the expense of the common man, as U.S. policy enabled the warlord syndicate to prosper.
Sharifi was adamant the insurgency is being driven by government avarice and economic hardship more than any belief in the Taliban's twisted religious ideology. The uprising largely consists of Afghans that have been humiliated, have had their rights trampled upon and/or have grown weary of witnessing the coalition pour countless billions into a patronage system that only benefits the top 1% of society while the remainder of the population wallows in abject poverty.
Sharifi's eyes did burn with pride, however, when he talked about the strength of his fellow Pashtuns. Their culture has been poisoned over the past 10 years and the tribal system weakened, yet he believes the tribal structure is still in place and functional. But who knows how long it can stay intact after three decades of erosion before the damage inflicted becomes irreversible?
Quite a few Afghans, Sharifi included, have suggested less corruption existed under the pre-9/11 Taliban regime and, even today, the Taliban's shadow government is much more effective than what is being advertised as governance coming out of Kabul. And it's fair to wonder if the Karzai administration and its proxies have as much Afghan blood on their hands as the Taliban.
Of course, this leads to the same old argument over choosing the lesser of two evils -- Karzai or the Taliban. Which is more preferable, a U.S. puppet regime or a Pakistani one?
Hopefully, these aren't the only two options the Afghans have left. The truth is, after 30 years of war as the result of foreign intervention, Afghanistan is in desperate need of an indigenous solution because the U.S.-led coalition is only exacerbating the chaos and violence. As Richard Holbrooke once said, "Our presence is the corrupting force." Hence, it's time for the Western elite and its graft-ridden puppet to step aside and well past the time for the good people of Afghanistan to take a stand.