The looming withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops by 2014 from the still-unresolved war, along with Hamid Karzai's coming exit, is causing anxiety among the Afghan elite who have been among the war's biggest beneficiaries, enriching themselves from U.S. military contracts, insider business deals with foreign companies, government corruption and narcotics trafficking.
WASHINGTON — With the end in sight for Hamid Karzai’s days in office as Afghanistan’s president, members of his family are trying to protect their status, weighing how to hold onto power while secretly fighting among themselves for control of the fortune they have amassed in the last decade.
One brother, Qayum Karzai, is mulling a run for the presidency when his brother steps down in 2014.
Other brothers have been battling over the crown jewel in the family empire — the largest private residential development in Afghanistan. The conflict over the project, known as Aino Mena, has provoked accusations of theft and extortion, even reports of an assassination plot.
“It’s family,” Qayum Karzai said. “They get upset, and over time they get over it. I hope they get over it.”
One Karzai brother is also said to have imprisoned a longtime Karzai aide in an effort to make him disclose the whereabouts of money and assets that relatives suspect were hidden by Ahmed Wali Karzai, another of Hamid Karzai’s brothers and the political boss of southern Afghanistan, who was assassinated last year. He was often accused of benefiting from the Afghan opium trade and an array of corrupt deals, though he denied such claims.
The looming withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops by 2014 from the still-unresolved war, along with Hamid Karzai’s coming exit, is causing anxiety among the Afghan elite who have been among the war’s biggest beneficiaries, enriching themselves from U.S. military contracts, insider business deals with foreign companies, government corruption and narcotics trafficking.
“If you are one of the Afghan oligarchs, where you put your money and where you live is an open question now,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank. “That means you are thinking about moving your money and finding a backup option about where to live.”
The president’s family — many of whom are U.S. citizens who returned to Afghanistan after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban in 2001 and brought Karzai to power — are among those who have prospered the most, by the accounts of many Afghan businessmen and government insiders.
Several political observers in Kabul said any candidacy by Qayum Karzai, a longtime Maryland resident who has served in the Afghan Parliament, would be a longshot because of the nation’s fatigue with Hamid Karzai and widespread resentment over the corruption that has tainted his government.
Even some of the Karzai family’s own business partners are among the critics.
“We have an illegitimate and irresponsible government because of Karzai and his family,” said Abdullah Nadi, an Afghan-American developer from Virginia who is a partner in the Aino Mena housing development, but who is trying to get out of the venture.
While exploiting their opportunities in Afghanistan, the extended Karzai family has for years simmered with tensions, jealousies, business rivalries, blood feuds and even accusations of murder.
With the often-fractious family, it can be difficult to discern the truth, but everyone agrees the conflict over control of its empire can be traced back to the death last July of Ahmed Wali Karzai, who had risen from working as a waiter in Chicago to become one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan, serving as the chairman of the Kandahar Provincial Council.
His assassination, by an Afghan thought to be a loyal supporter, left a power vacuum in Kandahar — and in the Karzai family. Hamid Karzai appointed another brother, Shah Wali Karzai, to take on their slain brother’s role as head of the Populzai, the Karzai’s family tribe.
No one expected much from him. Quiet and reserved, he was largely overshadowed by Ahmed Wali Karzai, and even lived in his more powerful brother’s compound in Kandahar.
But Shah Wali Karzai has been transformed in the past year. In addition to his role as tribal chief, he serves as project manager of Aino Mena, the sprawling residential development on the outskirts of Kandahar being developed by AFCO, a corporation owned by another brother, Mahmoud Karzai, and his four partners.
They have built 3,000 homes, with plans for 14,700. The developers are building on 10,000 acres, land Afghan military officials have claimed was illegally seized from the Ministry of Defense.
New chief emboldened
Emboldened after Ahmed Wali Karzai’s death, Shah Wali Karzai appeared no longer satisfied to serve just as an employee at Aino Mena. At some point in the past few months, he created his own corporation in Kandahar, then secretly moved all of the cash from the housing development’s bank accounts to those of his new business.
According to several AFCO partners, Shah Wali Karzai had transferred about $55 million. “He simply opened another company, and put the money in that company,” Mahmoud Karzai said.
Nadi, one of the partners in Aino Mena, accused Shah Wali Karzai of forging his signature on documents to make it appear as if he had approved the creation of Shah Wali Karzai’s company as the new corporate parent of Aino Mena. “I had no clue what the hell was going on,” Nadi said.
When Mahmoud Karzai discovered what his brother had done, he demanded that Shah Wali return the money. But he refused, and instead insisted that he be made a partner in Aino Mena. The two sides settled into a bitter stalemate.
Mahmoud Karzai said he and his partners have filed complaints with the Afghan attorney general, accusing Shah Wali Karzai of stealing their money and using extortion to gain a partnership stake in Aino Mena. The attorney general has refused to move against Shah Wali Karzai, apparently unwilling to get involved in what he sees as a family battle.
Murder plot discovered
In the midst of the conflict, Afghan security officials uncovered a plot to kill Mahmoud Karzai. About two months ago, the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan domestic intelligence agency, identified at least three Afghans, including two former employees of the Aino Mena development, who had been involved in a plot to kill Mahmoud Karzai and possibly others.
One man was arrested and later released. The two former Aino Mena employees implicated in the plot had both been fired by Mahmoud Karzai.
Afghan security officials have not accused Shah Wali Karzai of any involvement in the scheme. He denies any involvement in it.
Family members said Shah Wali Karzai had also been trying to unlock the secrets of his dead brother’s fortune.
After Ahmed Wali Karzai was killed, his most trusted aide, Zamarai — like many Afghans, he uses only one name — moved to Dubai.
Reports of his lavish lifestyle there fed suspicions within the family that Zamarai had access to riches hidden by Ahmed Wali Karzai, perhaps through accounts and properties placed in Zamarai’s name.
Zamarai is being held at Sarposa Prison in Kandahar, where he is guarded by Shah Wali Karzai’s security personnel rather than the regular prison guards, according to several people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the Karzai family.
He has not been charged with any crime.
When asked through Gerald Posner, a family lawyer, about Zamarai, Shah Wali Karzai declined to comment.