Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother, Qayum, is the type of guy who watches the Godfather movies not for entertainment purposes, but to learn new techniques. Hence, it is more than a little concerning that President Karzai has reportedly been grooming Qayum to succeed him as the country's next president - a move that could accomplish the impossible by making life even more unbearable for most Afghans.
I discovered all of this on Friday afternoon during an exclusive discussion with Naseem Pashtoon Sharifi - a business rival of the Karzai family who was forced into exile in the U.S. after Qayum Karzai tried to have him assassinated on more than one occasion.
Naseem is the editor of the Kandahar-based Surgar Weekly and president of Arakozia Advertising, two of the many industries Qayum has completely dominated despite the fact that monopolies are illegal in Afghanistan.
Qayum, who has actually lived in Maryland for years, also dominates the construction, logistics and security sectors throughout most of southern Afghanistan. But there isn't a soul willing to challenge Qayum for fear of violent retribution and because of his unrivaled political power, which primarily stems from the fact Qayum is the one who literally appoints most of Afghanistan's cabinet ministers, provincial governors, mayors and police chiefs.
Qayum's primary companies, Technologist Inc. and Daman Construction, win every government contract without having to deal with the nuisance of free market competition, which allows Qayum to reap healthy margins by, for example, selling $4 million generators to the governor of Kandahar for $50 million.
Qayum is not above letting the Taliban in on the action either. As 60% owner of the notorious Watan Risk Management firm Qayum has rewarded a number of insurgent commanders with cuts of NATO security and logistics contracts.
Qayum's control of the media has reduced southern Afghanistan to a de facto totalitarian state. This doesn't seem to bother NATO a bit considering it finances Qayum-owned media outlets which, incidentally, never seem to report anything negative about the Karzai regime.
Local writers working for reputable news organizations such as BBC, Voice of America and Reuters even have their articles and reports censored by the provincial government.
Competitors like Naseem who dare resist Qayum's Orwellian censorship are financially choked and brutally intimidated. Recently, Qayum deployed razor-wielding thugs to cut down an Arakozia ad draped across Surgar's office window (see Photo #1), knowing full well that the revenue stream from Naseem's outdoor advertising business funds his newspaper operations.
However, it is fair to wonder who is more at fault - the Karzai crime family or those who gifted them with power in the first place. Because the truth is, back in 2002 the Bush administration allowed a cabal of neoconservative "free market" ideologues, led by Afghan expatriate Zalmay Khalilizad, to install the Western-friendly Karzai as president.
Then, as the U.S. took its Iraq detour in 2003, it cut Faustian deals with a network of warlords, empowering them with guns and money in an effort to "keep the peace" in Afghanistan.
According to journalist Douglas Wissing in his new book, Funding the Enemy, once the unholy alliance was forged between the brothers Karzai, rapacious warlords and incestuous multinational corporations, U.S. taxpayer dollars began to "lubricate an entire system of corruption that eventually extended to the Taliban."
It is interesting to note that before Hamid Karzai became president the Karzai brothers were, for the most part, middle-class small business owners living on average wages. Miraculously, just a decade later, the Karzai family now brings in billions of dollars a year and can suddenly afford to build mansions in Dubai.
This unearned exuberance comes at the expense of the American taxpayer while a high percentage of U.S. aid never reaches those who need it most. The Karzai family's profligacy seems even more abhorrent when one considers that, according to the UN's Human Development Index, 42% of Afghans live on roughly a dollar a day.
The reemergence of the Taliban that began in 2005 was not some inevitable development but occurred because Afghan peasants grew weary of watching members of the Karzai family grow rich while they starved.
"The social injustice, the corruption, the support of thugs and warlords, the assassinations... these are the reasons young Afghans continue to join the Taliban," Naseem said. "More Taliban have been added to the frontline by this [the Karzai] government's brutalities than any ideology."
Yet Naseem held out hope that the Americans would eventually course-correct. Instead, the coalition has continued to feed and enrich the Karzai syndicate because, according to the conventional wisdom that pervades the DoD and the White House -- no other viable options exist.
Such an ill-informed mindset has resulted in the cultural, economic and political erosion of Afghan society. Naseem wants the American public to understand that most Afghans are decent people - it is the crooked 1% of the population that has ruined his homeland's good name. And, what is even more maddening, is that this crooked 1% has been fully funded and supported by the United States military.
Naseem believes beyond any doubt that Afghanistan will never see peace if the U.S. supports Qayum's candidacy and continues to fund the Karzai cartel. He is certain that whichever candidate the U.S. backs will become the next president.
Naseem explained that the U.S. simply needs to modify its king-making criteria. For example, candidates should be immediately disqualified who possess any of the following attributes: corrupt, homicidal, greedy, untrustworthy and unpopular. And certain categories of persons should be excluded from the process altogether, including known kingpins, warlords, fanatics and war criminals.
What the Afghans need more than anything is a president who is honest, uncorrupt and willing to put the public interest above private greed. They need someone with blood-free hands who is capable of building inclusive and equitable economic and political institutions. They need a well-respected leader who can garner broad support across Afghanistan's mosaic of tribes, ethnicities and sects. In other words, the last thing they need right now is Qayum Karzai.
Mr. Hughes also attends and covers the State Department's Daily Press Briefing as the Geopolitics Examiner.