Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan

On May 7, General David Petraeus held a meeting with the owner of a Kandahar company that legally sells ammonium nitrate. This fertilizer is a key ingredient of home made explosives (HME) used in the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or vehicle-borne explosive devices (VBIEDs) that are the main killers of our troops in Afghanistan. Major General Flynn’s CNAS report estimated that 80 to 90% of IEDs use ammonium nitrate. HME are also responsible for the majority of violent deaths of members of the Afghan National Army, Police and civilians.

Why is any Afghan company legally selling ammonium nitrate? Since last summer, coalition troops have been confiscating caches of ammonium nitrate and instructing the Afghan security forces to do the same.

Under pressure from General Stanley McChrystal, Afghan President Karzai banned sales of ammonium nitrate in Afghanistan in late January. Robert Helmerick of USAID in Kabul says that USAID contractors’ difficulty in obtaining ammonium nitrate has been one factor delaying construction of the K-G Pass Road in eastern Afghanistan. But some legal outlets still exist, if you know the right people.

When a Zabul IED cell was apprehended by coalition forces in late April, they gave up the name of their perfectly legal supplier. That Zabul company not only sold ammonium nitrate but also fuses to the insurgents, who have killed two Romanian police trainers who were just blown up two days ago. That means HMEs have killed 10 young men since July 2009. And in 2010 to date, HMEs have killed 11 Afghans and wounded 25 in Zabul.

This cleared up a puzzle for American troops, who wondered why they weren’t coming across stockpiles of ammonium nitrate in this HME-prone province. The “ban” on sales of the chemical had been circumvented by vendors supplying the Zabul construction industry (virtually non-existent). Legal companies are laundering ammonium nitrate for insurgent IED cells.

According to Zabul’s maneuver commander, LTC David Oclander of the 82nd Airborne Division, the local company in turn pointed upstream to its supplier in Kandahar, a day’s travel south. That company’s name is Kandahar Crush (a local term for a gravel provider) and it’s owned by the man General Petraeus met. His name is Ahmad Wali Karzai, and he’s a brother of Afghanistan’s president.

It isn’t clear if Petraeus knew that AWK, as he’s known locally, owned the company that sold chemicals used to kill his troops downrange.

Petraeus was meeting with AWK to get him on board for the upcoming Kandahar offensive. AWK is the head of Kandahar ’s provincial council, an elected body with no official powers.

But AWK’s real juice stems from his role as the mafia don of southern Afghanistan. A recent news report in the Times of London estimated his cartel earned a billion dollars a year from contracts with coalition forces. This is not to mention his huge earnings as a heroin dealer. The New York Times recently reported that AWK’s been on the CIA’s payroll as well.

Propping up Afghan evildoers isn’t only a disgrace to American values– it’s a recipe for defeat in counterinsurgency. A government without popular support can’t be stabilized by even the best counterinsurgency. The Karzai regime is close to having no support in southern Afghanistan, as evidenced by the Pentagon’s April 26 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stabilization in Afghanistan. A map of 80 key Afghan districts shows only five “sympathetic” to the Afghan government - and none supporting it. (p. 38) Only 24% of Afghans in a broader group of 121 key districts – about a third of the Afghan total – support the Karzai government. These figures may be optimistic, as a substantial number of southern and eastern districts are marked as “not assessed”. Most of Zabul, for example, is in that category, but in reality these areas support the insurgency actively or passively. And many areas marked “neutral” are districts where IEDs are frequent. (Editor's note: the actual report is downloadable here.) The same Pentagon report admits that “violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.”

The theory is that we need to work through men like AWK to pacify Afghanistan. This is as stupid as it is wrong. What foreign-policy “realism” requires us to pay thugs who are killing our own troops? On February 12, General Petraeus attended the West Point funeral for a young officer killed by HME in Zabul, Captain Daniel Whitten,28, a member of the West Point class of 2004. And on April 29th, Lieutenant Sal Corma, 24, a 2008 West Point graduate, became the ninth young American to die in Zabul from HME. The odds are good that the ammonium nitrate in the bombs that killed these men came from Kandahar Crush.

Our military risk and give their lives to provide a better life for Afghans and to connect them to the Karzai government. The two are incompatible, and Afghans know it. They see us supporting men who are as despicable as the Taliban -- and refuse to sign on. The “realists” in our State Department and the Pentagon undo what our military accomplishes here. Unless the Karzais and their cartels go, our defeat in Afghanistan is nearly inevitable.

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and blogs for World Affairs. She just completed her sixth embed with American troops in Afghanistan and her fourteenth trip to that country.

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