KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - As the war grinds toward its endgame, and administration officials debate how fast to draw down troops and whether to talk to the Taliban, I got a startling earful on both subjects - from one of Afghanistan's most powerful and controversial leaders, Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's younger brother.
I interviewed AWK, as he is known, in his two-story office behind a guarded metal gate. The halls and stairways were crowded with turbaned petitioners seeking favors.
AWK is the elected head of Kandahar's provincial council - more like a don than backroom boss. He handpicks city and district officials, and police chiefs, of this crucial province and city of Kandahar.
This city is where Mullah Omar's Taliban emirate was based and where the Taliban had taken root again until U.S. "surge" troops began clearing them out last year.
In the past, U.S. officials accused AWK of running an administration so corrupt that it helped drive locals into the arms of the Taliban, of abetting drug trafficking, and orchestrating massive voter fraud to ensure his brother's 2010 reelection. (He was also reputed to be on the CIA payroll, which he denies).
However, the American take on AWK has clearly shifted; on this trip, U.S. military officers told me his savvy was needed to balance tribal rivalries and help clear pockets of Taliban from the city and environs.
"The Americans realized I am a reliable person," Karzai told me with satisfaction, sitting barefoot on a plush chair in Afghan fashion, wearing a white shalwar khameez, and fielding steady cellphone calls as he constantly fingered his worry beads.
"You cannot accuse a person forever," he said. "It was just allegations. Finally, everyone realized they couldn't find proof."
I still think AWK is part of the problem. U.S. strategy is based on clearing out the Taliban and handing over the cleared areas to Afghan civilians and police. But the corrosive corruption of his brother's government, extended to Kandahar province, angers ordinary Afghans and undercuts efforts to build loyalty to the state.
A weak provincial governor (an Afghan Canadian professor) and an over-his-head mayor (an Afghan American accountant) were apparently appointed because they were pliable friends of the Karzai family. Extortive police and bureaucrats drive Afghans to seek justice from Taliban courts.
AWK's cavalier rebuffs of these charges - "corruption happens everywhere," he says - infuriate, although I don't have space here to detail the charges and his responses. (You can read more of the interview with AWK in my blog at www.philly.com/worldview).
Yet, with some justification, Karzai insists the main obstacles to stabilizing his country - and enabling U.S. troops to leave - do not depend on better governance. They depend, he says, on dealing with Pakistan.
The Taliban who carried out spectacular attacks in Kandahar city last weekend came across the border from sanctuaries in Pakistan; several had Pakistani ID cards.
"If you want to see the challenges, drive just 45 minutes [to the border] and you can go to Chaman on the Pakistani side and see the madrassas [religious schools]," Karzai said.
"If Pakistan doesn't stop, we'll see the same for the next five years. What would you do if Mexico brought enemies of your country to a border town, trained them, and sent them across? Would you go across and solve the problem? When are they going to stop?"
Echoing the concerns of many U.S. military officers, Karzai says there is no point in clearing Kandahar of Taliban, unless the safe havens in Pakistan are shuttered. "Once the Americans clear an area and hand over, this is just temporary clearance. If America wants to clear an area, they should stop Pakistan. [Otherwise] when you leave, the Taliban will return."
What of the local Taliban who join up for a paycheck because the government won't provide jobs and services? "The local Taliban will stop the next day once the support from Pakistan stops," says the younger Karzai. "They won't last for a week."
Should America go after the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, in Pakistan, as they did Osama bin Laden? "It absolutely would help the process if America did it," says AWK with relish.
But he went further, insisting - despite the U.S. interest, and his brother's proclaimed interest in talking with the Taliban - that there was no point unless the Pakistani havens were dealt with first.
"Talking to the Taliban means talking only to Pakistan," he says, as he believes Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, runs the Taliban in order to exert influence over Afghanistan's future. "This was the problem for the last 20 years," Karzai says. "Everyone believes the ISI is running the show."
Under current circumstances, the goal of the Taliban and the ISI, he says, is still a return to power in Kabul. Moreover, "if anyone believes that the Taliban are separated from al-Qaeda, they are stupid."
Conversely, he says, "if Pakistan decides they should stop, Taliban will melt in a minute, and they are gone, finished."
Karzai says that if the United States pulls its troops out of Afghanistan before dealing with the Pakistan problem, his country will descend back into civil war, with the ISI and the Taliban the winners. He wants America to establish long-term bases in his country.
AWK's arguments may be overdrawn and self-serving. But he is raising the harsh question that the United States must face after discovering Osama bin Laden in Abottabad: Is there any way out of Afghanistan without confronting the Pakistan problem first?
and read her reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan at www.philly.com/trudyrubin.