Afghan War Lord to Become Country’s Next VP
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has surrounded himself with checkered figures who could bring him votes: warlords suspected of war crimes, corruption and trafficking in the country’s lucrative poppy crop. But none is as influential as Marshal Fahim, his running mate, whose trajectory in and out of power, and American favor, says much about the struggle the United States has had in dealing with corruption in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly told Mr. Karzai that running with Marshal Fahim would damage his standing with the United States and other countries, according to one senior administration official.
The problem of how to grapple with Marshal Fahim adds to the complexity of managing an uneasy relationship with Mr. Karzai. Partial election results show Mr. Karzai leading other contenders, but allegations of fraud threaten to add to the credibility problems facing a second Karzai-led government.
If Fahim did take office, the administration official said, the United States would probably consider imposing sanctions like refusing to issue him a travel visa — something it does with other foreign officials suspected of corruption — though the official cautioned that the subject had not come up in internal deliberations.
The United States could take harsher steps, like going after the marshal’s finances, but this would be a remarkable move, given the deep American involvement in Afghanistan and the importance of its relationship with the Karzai government, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
He is not the only Afghan official forcing such a tricky calculation. This summer President Obama called for an investigation of a warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is accused of involvement in the killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners of war early in the conflict. That demand fell on deaf ears: Mr. Karzai recently allowed General Dostum to return from exile, reinstating him to his government position. The general, in turn, has endorsed Mr. Karzai and campaigned for him.
The Afghan ambassador to the United States,Said Tayeb Jawad, said allegations of Marshal Fahim’s involvement in drugs were “politically motivated.”
As for the Obama administration’s opposition to his selection as vice president, Mr. Jawad said he was chosen for “the role he could play in national unity in Afghanistan, not for his ability to make foreign trips.”
The Bush administration had felt it had no choice but to rely on the warlords, many of them corrupt and brutal, who wielded power before and during the Karzai era.
In 2001, when United States forces swept into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, Marshal Fahim, then a general, was a crucial ally as the military commander of the Northern Alliance.
He worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency and was rewarded with millions of dollars in cash, according to current and former United States officials. After Mr. Karzai became head of Afghanistan’s transitional government, General Fahim was named defense minister.
In early 2002, at a Rose Garden ceremony with Mr. Karzai, then a darling of the White House, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would help create and train a new Afghan Army. That meant sending millions of dollars in aid to General Fahim and his ministry.
But by 2002, C.I.A. intelligence reports flowing into the Bush administration included evidence that Marshal Fahim was involved in Afghanistan’s lucrative drug trade, according to officials discussing the reports and the internal debate for the first time.
He had a history of narcotics trafficking before the invasion, the C.I.A. reports showed. But what was most alarming in the reports were allegations that he was still involved after regaining power and becoming defense minister. He now had a Soviet-made cargo plane at his disposal that was making flights north to transport heroin through Russia, returning laden with cash, the reports said, according to American officials who read them. Aides in the Defense Ministry were also said to be involved.
The reports stunned some United States officials, and ignited a high-level, secret scramble.
Hillary Mann Leverett, then director for Afghanistan at the National Security Council, recalled a secure videoconference discussion where the State Department warned it might be illegal to provide military assistance through Marshal Fahim.
“They pointed out that if Fahim was involved in narcotics trafficking, then there is a problem because there is a U.S. law that would prohibit military aid provided to a known narcotics trafficker,” Ms. Leverett said.
Alarmed, National Security Council officials took the matter to Stephen J. Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser. Another round of meetings followed, with Mr. Hadley ordering that the delicate debate be kept to a small number of senior administration officials, including Mr. Hadley and John E. McLaughlin, then C.I.A. deputy director, according to Ms. Leverett.
Meanwhile, the allegations of drug dealing by the top Afghan defense official were also raising concerns at the new American Embassy in Kabul, where officials say they considered whether they could meet with Marshal Fahim or provide him with funds.
Some United States officials in Washington and Kabul argued that there was no smoking gun proving his involvement in narcotics trafficking, and thus no need to break off contact with him. And eventually, the Bush administration hit on what officials thought was a solution: American military trainers would be directed to deal only with subordinates to Marshal Fahim, and not Marshal Fahim himself.
That would at least give the Bush administration the appearance of complying with the law.
But as it turns out, both Afghan and American officials now say that Marshal Fahim continued to meet routinely with top American officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, then the American officer in charge of the military assistance to the new Afghan Army.
General Eikenberry, now the American ambassador to Afghanistan, said in an e-mail message earlier this year that at the time he was unaware of the debate at the White House and that he was never barred from meeting with Marshal Fahim.
In hindsight, several current and former administration officials say they have come to believe the decision to turn a blind eye to the warlords and drug traffickers who took advantage of the power vacuum in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks was one of the fundamental strategic mistakes of the Afghan war. It sent a signal to the Afghan people that the most corrupt warlords had the backing of the United States, that the Karzai government had no real power or credibility and that the drug economy was the path to power in the country.
By late 2003, officials said, the Bush administration began to realize its mistake, and initiated what officials called its “warlord strategy” to try to ease key warlords out of power. Marshal Fahim remained defense minister until 2004 and was briefly Mr. Karzai’s running mate as vice president in elections that year, but Mr. Karzai then dropped him.
Marshal Fahim remains a powerful figure among Tajiks, the ethnic group in north Afghanistan, and Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun from the south, calculated that an alliance with the general would help him increase his support in northern Afghanistan.
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