The Canadian Forces in Afghanistan have been left exposed at a critical point of their mission, but not due to a lack of public support " it’s the Harper govern- ment that’s absent without leave. While the Forces can point to significant, if painful, gains in flashpoints such as Panjwai and Zhari districts, as well as Kandahar City, the Prime Minister and his team can boast of not a single clear policy gain, especially not where diplomatic intervention is needed most: pressuring the Taliban leadership in their safe havens in Pakistan, and rehabilitating the Karzai regime in Kabul.

The Harper government continues to acquiesce to the Bush administration’s results-barren command of an aid and security mission that is international in name only. Washington’s blunders have compromised a force whose success is crucial to Canada’s hopes for an eventual end to its combat obligations: the Afghan National Army, or ANA.

At issue is a web of political influence, backed by enor- mous sums of US military and humanitarian aid dollars, extending from the White House through an array of gov- ernment officials, neoconservative outriders and avaricious Afghan-American businessmen. Afghans and foreign observers who’ve witnessed the web’s growth describe it as a network of aggressive political adventurers, hungry for influence and lucrative development contracts.

”œThese people have hijacked a weak system,” says a senior member of President Hamid Karzai’s staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ”œPeople here initially welcomed diaspora Afghans with open arms and looked to them for guidance. But that’s changed. It’s clear that too many Afghan-Americans paraded their patriotism only to promote their careers, or to advance ethnic agendas, or just to fill their pockets. On top of that, their scheming has distorted policy in Washington, a lot like Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress at the start of the Iraq war.

”œIt doesn’t matter who Karzai appoints as interior minis- ter or attorney general,” the source continues. ”œThat’s just the visible surface. What really matters is who’s making deals behind the scenes, at the US Embassy or over a cozy meal at the Presidential Palace.” Member of Parliament Ramazan Bashar Dost says: ”œThe United States and other Western coun- tries are not following their own laws. It is obvious to every- one that the contracts go to a minister’s son or brother. You cannot get a contract unless you have connections.”

Across town from Parliament stands an institution that attests to that charge: the Karzai regime’s Ministry of Defence. Ask to meet the minister, Rahim Wardak, and you’ll be referred to a public affairs desk at the American Embassy. Ask to meet the beneficiaries of the Afghan army building boom, and you’ll be invited to leave. But regime insiders will happily recite the names " with Minister Wardak’s son, Hamed, at the top of the list.

For Canada and Canadians, the rais- ing of a capable Afghan army is not only vital to stability in southwest Asia. Until the ANA can stand its own ground, Canada and its NATO partners will be forced to maintain combat forces to hold off the Taliban. Yet suc- cessive Canadian governments have done little to address the failings of the US-financed army project. Incompe- tence, conflict of interest, nepotism and corruption have led to chronic shortfalls in troop training targets. Instead of tackling the problem, US and NATO officials have concealed it by padding statistics.

Since 2001, the Bush administra- tion has committed $12 billion to Afghanistan’s security forces. A 70,000- man army was called for, but only 25,000 soldiers can be proven to exist today. Of these, perhaps 18,000 are combat-ready. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has admitted to Congress that its investigators are probing criminal misconduct related to $6 billion worth of equipment and service contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping track of dollars and troops can’t have been easy, given the proclivity of Washington’s generals to massage the numbers.

By the end of 2003, only 9,000 army recruits had gone through basic training. Half of these promptly desert- ed. At the time, US General Peter Pace brushed criticism aside, claiming that the ANA would have 12,500 men in arms by the summer of 2004. That seemed laughable by the Berlin Conference in April 2004, where the record revealed only 5,721 trained men, with 3,056 recruits in the system. Yet only four months later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the ANA was up to 13,000 troops. In January of 2005, US officials claimed 17,800 Afghan soldiers trained, with 3,400 more in the works. In January of 2007, Major General Robert Durbin declared: ”œCurrently 36,000 strong, the ANA is on its way to an end state of 70,000 combat and combat support soldiers skilled in counterinsurgency operations.”

Which was plainly nonsensical: in February 2007, it was widely agreed that the Afghan National Army numbered at most 22,000 men. Six years on, Hamid Karzai has less than a third of the force he and his allies regard as minimally capable of defending his regime. An Afghan official familiar with problems at the Defence Ministry says: ”œIt remains a token army. It doesn’t reflect the ethnic reality of the country, or even all regions. Finances go to bat- talions said to be 600 men strong, but in reality there’s not a single full-strength battalion in all of Afghanistan. Unfortunately it is still the case that the best Afghan militias are private ones.” Some 2,000 private militias still exist, totalling 120,000 gunmen, according to the joint UN-Afghan dis- armament agency. At least 500 of the groups are controlled by regime insid- ers " ministers, MPs and commanders. Many militias enforce goods smug- gling, land grabs and drug trafficking. None battle the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That job goes to the ”œinternationals,” who have been left by the Bush admin- istration with only one way out of Afghanistan: build up the ANA’s com- bat forces to replace their own.

According to eyewitnesses, one piece of diplomatic theatre from 2005 typifies how global diplomacy has been conducted in Afghanistan since the col- lapse of the Taliban regime. Though the event focused on governance, not the army, the same unilateralist strong-arm- ing that ensued has undermined the program to build up the ANA.

The setting was the resi- dence of Jean Arnaud, the UN’s special representative. Arnaud had invited the heavyweights of Kabul’s for- eign diplomatic corps to debate voting systems for Afghanistan’s first parlia- mentary elections. Among European and Asian embassies, there was unease about the option advocated by the biggest foreign aid donor on the scene, the Bush administration. The single nontransferable vote, or SNTV, would render political parties irrelevant. Because President Karzai had failed to forge his own party, American officials wanted to prevent the emergence of a parliamentary group that might chal- lenge him. But SNTV had a downside: the stifling of parties might well com- press the powder keg of Afghan politics to critical mass.

The discussion was interrupted by a late arrival: Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador. ”œI’ve just spo- ken with President Bush,” Khalilzad announced. ”œHe said that SNTV is the choice. SNTV is going to happen.” Then he turned and walked out.

This was not the first time Khalilzad (known as ”œKing Zal” or ”œthe Viceroy”) had cold-shouldered foreign policy professionals espousing views different from his own. According to an Afghan legal aide who has worked closely with Karzai: ”œFrequently the European ambassadors would be angry with Khalilzad. They knew it didn’t matter what agreements were made at their meetings with ministers. The key decisions were made over private din- ners at the palace, with Khalilzad and his Afghan-American circle from the US Embassy dictating policy. The Europeans said, ”˜Why should we con- tribute to a policy if we have no say in the decision-making process?’”

This discord belies the multilateral intent of the Afghan project: some 70 nations and organizations back the cur- rent aid protocol, the Afghanistan Compact. Militarily, 37 nations con- tribute to the NATO-run International Security and Assistance Force. But one government " the Bush administration " has provided as much financial aid as all others combined. And as people like Zalmay Khalilzad are quick to point out, money not only talks, it shouts out loud for ultimate control.

For an activist envoy who has left gorilla-sized footprints all over Asia for more than two decades, Khalilzad might be assumed to have earned his way by making the right calls at the right times. Instead, his career path reveals two constants: a genius for advancing himself by way of influential connections, and a penchant for policies that sooner or later reveal their author’s knack for blowback.

When Khalilzad served the Reagan administration in the 1980s, he backed anti-Soviet Afghan resistance figures of his own Pashtun ethnicity " despite their extremist views. He favoured fundamentalists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and allied him- self to Pakistan’s campaign against the Afghan nationalist leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik. Today, Hekmatyar is among America’s most- wanted Afghan terrorists. Massoud is revered as a hero who prevented the Taliban from seizing all of Afghanistan, but whose warnings about al-Qaeda went unheeded by the US.

By the time the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, Khalilzad’s geopo- litical aim had not improved. As a director of the Rand Corporation, he lobbied the Clinton administration to recognize the Taliban regime. At the time, he was a paid consultant for the proposed Unocal trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline. In the March 30, 1999 edition of the Washington Post, Khalilzad was quoted as saying: ”œIn the rural areas, what the Taliban is seeking to impose is not very different than what the norm has been.”

Today, Khalilzad’s ”œnorm” is almost as evident as the Taliban’s, as befits a hard-charging neoconservative loyalist. A one-time protégé of Paul Wolfowitz, Khalilzad headed the Bush- Cheney transition team in 2000. Later, he was a counsellor to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Then came a chance to shape post-Taliban Afghanistan, first as President Bush’s special representative and later as ambassador to Kabul. Says a source close to the Presidential Palace: ”œHe encouraged Karzai to rid his govern- ment of Tajiks, and except for a few positions, he has succeeded.”

Khalilzad’s plan was to weaken the Taliban by co-opting the Pashtun tribes that the movement feeds on for recruits and support. Stack Karzai’s rul- ing elite with Pashtuns, the reasoning went, and the Taliban movement would fade away. ”œBut in many cases, Zal’s Pashtuns were the wrong Pashtuns,” says a member of Europe’s diplomatic corps in Kabul. ”œAdvancing ministers on the basis of ethnicity was a mistake.” Figures like Information Minister Khorram and Attorney General Sabet bear that out. Both are unabashed fundamentalists, and long- time aides to the fugitive warlord Hekmatyar. While they were empow- ered, respected Tajiks, notably former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, were pushed aside.

This strategy has borne bitter fruit: the Taliban have stepped up their insurgency, not eased it, and the regime’s ineptitude and corruption have run rampant. ”œThe role of Khalilzad in Afghanistan is like a poison that has no treat- ment,” says MP Ramazan Bashar Dost. ”œAs US ambassa- dor, he was supposed to act according to the goodwill of Americans. But even though he is an American citizen and has studied in America, his way of thinking about Afghanistan is according to old Afghan stan- dards. It’s more about a tribal system than democracy.”

If Khalilzad’s concepts of tribalism reveal one Western ten- dency, it is a passion for promot- ing Afghan-Americans friendly to the Bush White House. In the 1990s, a new generation of dis- placed Afghans, the sons and daughters of diplomats and businessmen " and former guerrilla commanders " took root in their parents’ adopted homeland. It was within this diaspora that Hamed Wardak came of age.

A somewhat chubby, intensely studious young man, Hamed was des- tined to emulate, if not exceed, Zalmay Khalilzad’s gifts for political networking and hyper-drive careerism. Hamed’s father, Rahim Wardak, brought his family to the US from Pakistan. There, in the 1980s, he had garnered a reputation as one of the least accomplished commanders of the American-backed mujahedeen resistance to Soviet occupation forces. By the time of the 1990s civil war, Rahim Wardak had vanished from the Afghan scene.

Bizarrely, his young son, Hamed, would help ignite Rahim Wardak’s unlikely comeback. At Georgetown University, Hamed wrote his senior thesis under the mentorship of Jeane Kirkpatrick, formerly Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, and the god- mother of the neoconservative move- ment. Graduating in 1997, Hamed won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. During this period, he flirted with pro- Taliban sympathies, due to both his ethnic Pashtun fervour and peer pres- sure from young DC-area extremists.

Gradually, however, Hamed came under the influence of Kirkpatrick’s philosophical soulmates, notably Marin Strmecki, a Republican essayist and political facilitator with the Smith Richardson Foundation. Strmecki worked at the Pentagon under Dick Cheney in the first Bush administration, along with Lewis ”œScooter” Libby " and Zalmay Khalilzad. It was during Hamed Wardak’s reappraisal of the world, via these American political heavyweights, that he came into contact with a group of upwardly mobile players on Washington’s Afghan-American scene: the Karzais; specifically, two of the six Karzai boys " Qayum and Mahmood. Unlike their younger brother Hamid, who had spent much of his life in Pakistan, Mahmood and Qayum were accomplished US-based businessmen.

The brothers recognized a bright prospect in the young Rhodes Scholar. In turn, Wardak saw the bene- fits of aligning himself with the Karzais’ dazzling circle of friends. This paid enormous dividends. By the time war drums sounded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, Hamed Wardak had toned down his pro-Taliban sympathies and was on his way to becoming vice-pres- ident of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, founded by Mahmood Karzai. He also nabbed an adviser’s post with Karzai’s first finance minister, Ashraf Ghani. But his real breakthrough was joining a Virginia- based contracting firm, Technologists Inc., founded by Aziz Azimi, a close friend of Qayum Karzai.

Hamed Wardak’s new alliances proved extraordinarily advantageous as George W. Bush launched his ”œwar on terror,” particularly with Khalilzad and Strmecki enjoying direct access to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office.

The melding of the Wardaks’ business and political connections had cata- pulted them into the front ranks of an advancing legion of state-building, doctrine-spouting capitalists. Along with the leading lights of the Afghan- American business community, they returned to their ancestral homeland, which had become a cradle of treasure and influence few Afghans could have dreamed of after the displacement and loss of the Soviet and Taliban eras.

On the policy front, members of Khalilzad’s coterie, notably Marin Strmecki and Martin Hoffman, a former college roommate of Donald Rumsfeld, stepped up their efforts to Pashtunize the Karzai regime. Strmecki had already taken the campaign to the op-ed pages of American newspapers, alleging that the Tajik-led Northern Alliance was plotting against both the Karzai government and former king Zahir Shah. By the time Khalilzad took up his ambassadorship to Kabul in December 2004, Strmecki had been appointed Rumsfeld’s ”œAfghanistan policy co-ordinator.” That same month, Karzai removed his minister of defence, the Northern Alliance’s Mohammed Fahim, a Tajik. Faim’s replacement: Rahim Wardak.

Meanwhile, Khalilzad assembled a team of Afghan-American con- sultants, technocrats and publicists with- in the bunker-like precincts of the US Embassy. This group had direct links with Washington, where they enjoyed an additional back-channel fixer and com- municator, the Karzai regime’s Afghan- American ambassador, Said Jawad. Within Khalilzad’s makeshift provisional authority in Kabul, he championed a cre- ation called the Afghanistan Reconstruction Group. ARG achieved two cherished goals for the administra- tion: putting a select group of loyal American and Afghan-American business hawks in charge of US-funded develop- ment projects; and doing so while completely bypassing the State Department.

ARG reported directly to the Department of Defense, specifically to Rumsfeld’s office. State Department officials bristled at being cut out of deci- sion-making on ARG’s high-cost proj- ects, but could do little other than watch this feverish new phase of the gold rush in Afghan aid. Marin Strmecki joined ARG’s board, while Louis Hughes, a former president of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, took the helm. According to officials close to Karzai’s office, Khalilzad pressed USAID, the government’s main overseas aid agency, to grant contracts to the admin- istration’s approved list of Afghan- Americans. Several USAID officers who resisted Khalilzad were replaced.

The ARG brain trust proudly boast- ed its intent to ”œapply its private-sector experience and expertise” in rebuilding Afghanistan, ”œgiven current US advoca- cy of market economy, citizen self- determination, and democracy.”

In practice, the group was more about self-service than self-determina- tion, according to one former USAID official, who requested transfer from Kabul after several bruising encounters with Khalilzad and his ARG clients. ”œWe had all these people shuttling in from DC, lecturing everyone about their Afghan-American credentials. They used all the buzzwords " democ- racy, helping the Afghan people. But it was more about them monopolizing the flow of information from Kabul to Washington, and landing contracts.”

According to another US official who fought in vain to prevent the shift: ”œThe justification was streamlin- ing, because so many construction projects were for the Afghan military, and they were ultimately the Pentagon’s babies. But there was an immediate loss of transparency and accountability. That’s just how the Department of Defense does business.”

During this period, Hamed War- dak’s firm, Technologists Inc. (TI), bene- fited from several large contracts, some arranged directly with the US Defense Department, others via the Afghan Min- istry of Defence. TI’s website boasts that it was the first Afghan-American firm to be awarded a prime contract by the US government. Its portfolio has been fat- tened by a cornucopia of construction projects, including border crossing sta- tions and the ANA’s Logistics and Com- mand Headquarters, a counter-narcotics ”œcampus” where the US Drug Enforce- ment Agency and its Afghan counter- parts will be based, cellblock renovations to Kabul’s huge Pul-i-Charkhi prison and three industrial parks.

TI’s president, Aziz Azimi, allows that the proj- ects have brought at least $100 million in contracts to his firm. He admits to meet- ing Khalilzad twice in Kabul, but says that his projects were not obtained through ARG. As for Hamed Wardak, he left the company in 2006. Currently, Azizi says, ”œI don’t have any kind of dealings with him.” Regarding past deals: ”œI have not gained any of my contracts from Mr. Wardak’s father, because he was not the minister when I got there [Afghanistan].

”œYou’re welcome to take any com- pany out there, and put their numbers against mine,” Azimi says. ”œIn terms of value and return, I have a very clear conscience. I welcome anyone to come in and look at my books. I have noth- ing to hide, nothing to be afraid of.”

Hamed Wardak could not be located for his response to this story. Azimi says he does not know the whereabouts of his former ”œmanaging director of inter- national operations,” and Wardak’s name has been removed from TI’s web- site. Wardak reportedly has set up his own company, NCL, in Kabul, along with a foundation called Sacrificers for Peace, described as a ”œmulti-ethnic move- ment” seeking ”œgovernmental reform.”

The name prompts a wry smile from the source in President Karzai’s office. ”œThe Afghan people know who has made genuine sacrifices " their own families, their villages, their country. Afghans know the meaning of the word sacrifice. And they know too well about those who only pretend to be concerned, while get- ting rich on foreign aid.”

As Afghanistan slumps toward the 30th anniversary of the Communist coup that triggered the civil war, Rahim Wardak, a relic of the early years of the conflict, hangs on as minister of defence. He does so despite clashes with both Karzai and US General Karl Eikenberry, the former com- mander of American and coalition forces. General Eikenberry, according to an official who witnessed one of his confrontations with Wardak in Karzai’s presence, lost patience with the Defence Minister’s fail- ure to meet recruiting targets.

”œWardak’s connections saved him,” the source says. ”œIn the end, it came down to a test of which man had closer ties with Rumsfeld’s office, Wardak or Eikenberry. Rahim Wardak won out, because of his connections through Khalilzad.”

As for Khalilzad, his star continues to rise. From his office at the UN, he’s well positioned to become secretary of state, should Republicans win the 2008 election. Khalilzad has never stopped pulling strings in Kabul. When his move to Baghdad in 2005 enabled his successor as Afghan ambassador, Ronald Neumann, to dismantle ARG, returning contract controls to the State Department, Khalilzad retaliated. He per- suaded Rumsfeld to dispatch Strmecki to conduct a ”œpolitical audit” of the US Embassy in Kabul. The result stunned Karzai’s staff, who understood that Neumann had been seeking an extension to his posting. Instead, the White House announced Neumann was to be replaced by its former ambassador to Colombia, William Wood " described as ”œZal- friendly” by sources in Kabul.

According to a former White House adviser on Afghanistan: ”œThere is no doubt that Khalilzad’s approach has been very disruptive. Especially by way of his appointments strategy, he has compro- mised Karzai’s entire administration.”

The Karzai brothers, meanwhile, have flourished under the Washington-backed regime. Qayum Karzai has secured election to Parliament, while Mahmood has become a leading property owner in Kandahar. There, younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai heads both the regional council and the list of sus- pects being investigated by Afghan journalists for links to the heroin trade. Hamid remains president, but faces mounting criticism from both legislators and laymen " and, increas- ingly, from his foreign sponsors.

According to Ramazan Bashar Dost: ”œThe Afghan government is completely corrupted. The internal and external mafia should be totally removed. The authorities should be replaced by those real Afghans who believe in national ben- efits, human rights and democracy not only as political philosophy but as a phi- losophy of life.” The firebrand MP’s views are echoed by the source at Karzai’s palace. ”œAfghans watch all of this foreign aid money being poured into Kabul, most in control of foreign governments and private contractors. There are complaints of bribery and fraud going on, but look at all the so-called experts " all those US and UN and EU agencies. We’ve got the world’s largest alphabet soup of account- ing and transparency in Kabul, yet the system’s completely out of control.”

MP Shukria Barakzai says: ”œWhy are contracts given to warlords? Why are the provincial reconstruction teams doing their projects under cover of local commanders? Why are they hiding the war economy, instead of cleaning it up?”

One of Karzai’s former ministers says US domination of Afghanistan’s international sponsors has widened frac- tures within the regime, tilting the entire process of nation building into a decline from which it may not recover. ”œThere is friction and disenchantment on all levels,” he says. ”œThe international commu- nity has no shared vision, much less a common strategy. The Afghan govern- ment, in turn, is drifting from its inter- national allies, and is paralyzed by individuals and factions within, making short-term tactical deals and alliances.”

Where does Stephen Harper stand on the plight of the regime and its army? Neither he nor his people will say. Foreign Affairs, the Afghan Task Force, Canada’s embassy in Kabul: all declined comment for this article. (As did Zalmay Khalilzad, Marin Strmecki, and Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington.)

Canadians are left to sort out wildly conflicting claims. First, Harper’s state- ment, during a Quebec swing in August, that Afghanistan’s security forces are becoming more and more responsible for their country’s security. Next, Karzai in Kabul, telling embedded reporters air- lifted in from Kandahar that ”œAfghanistan will fall back into anar- chy” if Canadian troops are pulled from their combat role before the country can stand on its own, which he made clear would not be by February 2009. Far from clearing up the confusion that has afflicted the Afghan mission, the Harper government is blowing more smoke " and hiding behind the fog of war.