KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai is weighing approval of an expansive new business deal that could give his controversial half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, increased influence over the lucrative security business that protects supply convoys for U.S.-led forces in southern Afghanistan.
As American strategists prepare military and political moves to extend government control in Kandahar this summer, President Karzai has before him a plan that would give a key ally of his half-brother the power to run the newly created Kandahar Security Company.
If approved quickly, the deal could allow the firm to obtain millions of dollars in contracts this summer as the U.S. military sends thousands of additional troops into southern Afghanistan.
Top Afghan officials say they're backing the deal as a way to gain control over rival security firms that have sometimes engaged in violent clashes over multi-million-dollar contracts.
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Karzai's critics view the security consolidation as a covert effort to solidify Ahmed Wali Karzai's already-unrivaled hold on power in Kandahar. His grip on the city is widely seen as a major obstacle to establishing good local governance, a critical requirement for the success of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency operation.
"The concern seems to me to be that he may be creating a security force which responds to him and subverts the formal institutions and formal security forces of the Afghan state," said Carl Forsberg, a research analyst and Afghan specialist at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
During the past eight years, Afghan security companies have established themselves as formidable rivals for their Western competitors. There are about 50 registered security firms — Afghan and international — in the country.
The pending proposal from the Afghan Interior Ministry calls for consolidation of about two-dozen small, lightly regulated security companies under the command of a Kandahar-based security mogul known simply as Ruhullah.
Ruhullah told McClatchy the deal would allow him to create a 2,500-person security firm to provide protection for NATO supply convoys in southern Afghanistan. This would make his firm by far the biggest of its kind in Afghanistan.
Although the Interior Ministry said the proposal would allow the new Kandahar Security Company to hire only 500 people immediately, it would still put Ruhullah in charge of a significant armed force in Kandahar.
Some analysts worry that Ahmed Wali Karzai could use the new force to thwart any attempt during the U.S.-backed drive in Kandahar to supplant him and the network of relatives and tribal leaders with whom he's allied.
"If we're actually trying to build strong, unified security services, this is not good that we have this consolidation of private security companies that, by appearances, is much more powerful than the government forces," said Forsberg, who recently published a well-received report on Kandahar power brokers.
Ahmed Wali Karzai played down any power he might have over the new security firm. Karzai told McClatchy that he'd play no direct role in running the business, but would help the company drum up business.
"I will play my role and use my influence to organize them," said Karzai, who's the head of the Kandahar provincial council. "These people need some support."
Despite misgivings among some Western officials, the U.S.-led coalition has decided to work with Ahmed Wali Karzai instead of trying to sideline the Kandahar kingpin, who's been accused of profiting off the drug trade, pushing illegal real estate deals and taking a piece of the security company business.
Kandahar security companies already are facing scrutiny from congressional investigators looking into whether U.S. money for the war is being used to prop up destabilizing militia leaders or pay Taliban insurgents for not attacking NATO supply convoys.
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., who heads the House National Security Oversight Subcommittee, said that convoluted contracts and subcontracts make it difficult to determine who is getting money to protect NATO convoys.
"The subcommittee is investigating allegations of warlordism and extortion along the coalition supply chain in Afghanistan," Tierney said in a statement about Kandahar. "It is clear the U.S. Department of Defense lacks sufficient visibility into the operations of its trucking contractors and private security subcontractors."
Along with the drug trade, security contracts are one of the most profitable businesses in southern Afghanistan. The top security firms have close links to the country's top politicians. Cousins of President Karzai run Watan Risk Management, where Ruhullah built his power base.
In an interview last week at his Kandahar compound, Ruhullah said he got his start in security after the U.S. invasion in 2001, when he started providing protection for CNN and CBS crews covering the conflict.
"I am the one who laid the foundation for security firms in southern Afghanistan," Ruhullah said.
Since then, security specialists say Ruhullah established a powerful security network that now controls long stretches of the convoy supply routes in southern Afghanistan.
Afghan and American government officials said that Ahmed Wali Karzai personally lobbied U.S. policymakers and top Afghan officials to approve the deal.
The close ties between the Ahmed Wali Karzai and Ruhullah were evident one recent morning when McClatchy reporters went to discuss the issue with both men in back-to-back interviews.
After meeting Ruhullah at his dusty compound on the outskirts of Kandahar, McClatchy reporters drove to the city center to interview Ahmed Wali Karzai at his heavily fortified home. When the second interview was over, Ruhullah was waiting to meet Ahmed Wali Karzai.
Abdul Manan Farahi, head of the Interior Ministry's counterterrorism department that regulates private security companies, challenged the perception that the new company would become part of Ahmed Wali Karzai's political empire. He said the plan calls for a new leader to take control every six months and includes a diverse collection of security contractors from different tribes that consider Karzai a rival.
Some security contractors affected by the deal portrayed the consolidation as an offer they couldn't refuse.
"The main profits will go to a few people," said one Kandahar security contractor who asked that his identity be kept secret out of fear of retaliation from Ahmed Wali Karzai. "Anyone who has good relations with Ahmed Wali will get the good contracts."
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