With the end in sight for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s days in office, members of his family are trying to protect their status, weighing how to hold on to power while secretly fighting among themselves for control of the fortune they have amassed in the past decade.
One brother, Qayum Karzai, is mulling a run for the presidency when Hamid Karzai 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 Hamid 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 brother 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 US 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 US 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,” RAND Corp analyst Seth Jones said. “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 US citizens who returned to Afghanistan after a US-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 long shot because of the nation’s fatigue with Hamid Karzai and widespread resentment over the rampant 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 [Hamid] 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 that the conflict over control of its empire can be traced back to the death in July last year 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.