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Gul Agha Shirzai
Barakzai Good ol' Boy

In 2001, Mullah Omar retreated to Kandahar for a last stand. While bombs rained, two Afghan militias approached the city; Hamid Karzai of the Popolzai tribe from the north, and Gul Agha Shirzai of the Barakzai tribe from the south. Tall, heavily muscled men with dark sunglasses rode in the trucks with the approaching militias, directing the bombs.

Once victorious, they divided the spoils. Hamid Karzai, an educated, well dressed and charismatic man, became president and went to Kabul. Gul Agha Shirzai, a dumpy man who liked to pee in the street and blow his nose in his turban's tail, became governor of Kandahar. Shirzai extorted bribes at checkpoints, sold protection to opium traffickers, gave all the jobs to his Barakzai tribesmen, embezzled money, ran protection rackets, lied to the Americans, and enforced a shaky, capricious law and order. In short, he used his time in power to benefit himself and his tribe.

Other tribes in Kandahar complained Shirzai was unfair and his abuse of power would turn the locals against the United States. They couldn't reach the soldiers, who were in Shirzai's pocket, so they complained to NGO workers and reporters. One reporter, Sarah Cheyes, managed to get negative stories about Shirzai in the US media. She ranted to the US public, to soldiers, to Karzai in Kabul, and to the State Department, but to no avail. Karzai left Shirzai in place because the deal in Kandahar was holding, the tribes were not fighting openly and Karzai wanted above all else to end the violence.

Sarah had a good virtuous Afghan picked out to replace Shirzai, but he would have disappointed her. Any governor of Kandahar must extort and embezzle. His fellow tribesmen expect largess from such income, as well as the plum jobs. A Kandahari who fails to provide for his tribe is immoral. Reforming Kandahar is not as easy as replacing the governor; we have to teach modern institutions to the people. Crazy as it sounds, this is possible. Athens and Rome, the very founders of modern government, started with tribes. But it can't be done in a day. It takes generations, and we haven't started.


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