Early Wednesday morning at nearly 1:00 A.M., I checked my email for a final time and saw notice of a newsbreak from The New York Times that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and the man often called the Pablo Escobar of the country’s heroin trade, has been on a CIA payroll for the past eight years. I immediately called him.
I reached him on his private cell number. When I asked if he had seen The Times story, he seemed surprised. His Internet access was down.
“Can you read it to me,” he asked. “I’ll comment on it as you go through.”
That was the first of a dozen calls. Each time I’d start by reading the article, only to have the line go dead after a few seconds. On some return calls, Karzai’s number just had a fast busy tone. He tried calling me back but when I picked up, the phone again went dead. I called his brother Mahmoud in Kabul, whose rapid rise to become one of the wealthiest men in one of the world’s poorer countries has raised unproven rumors about corrupt deals and insider access. His line, too, went dead during several calls.
“Everything is false,” Ahmed Karzai told me. “I explained everything to The Times reporter. Ask yourself, why is this coming up right before the election for my brother? It is clearly serving someone’s personal agenda.”
It was probably a coincidence, but the gods had conspired to block the Karzais from getting on a phone or the Internet to see what had been dumped on them.
But Wednesday morning, the Karzais came out swinging. I woke up to an email from Mahmoud. “Here we go again, a clear case of hearsay and rumors. NY Times is becoming an instrument for special interest of the evil-doers of the world to achieve their political goals. What Mr. Risen [New York Times reporter James Risen, who co-authored the Times’ report] has published against me, convinced me that presenting the truth about the world outside of the United States is not part of the agenda of the NY Times. In fact, misrepresentation of the international facts to the American people could be considered a serious national security threat to the United States of America. I will appreciate it if you could answer this propaganda, as I told you in the past, removing Ahmed Wali Karzai [sic] from Kandahar is a perfect strategy for Taliban to take over Kandahar.”
I called Mahmoud. He was angry. “This is being coordinated by the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service). They have been behind the assassinations of several provincial leaders who are against the Taliban. And my brother is the last major obstacle to them in the south. If they remove Ahmed Wali, the Taliban will fill the void.”
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• Gerald Posner: The Taliban’s Heroin PloyMahmoud had particular venom for The New York Times even though James Risen is one of the paper's most respected foreign affairs journalists and his article was replete with specifics and seemed a bullet-proof piece of reporting. “We [the Karzais] are being harassed by The New York Times. This is a smear campaign. James Risen has a vendetta against us. And the Times is obviously being fed by the far-left lobbyist groups who are paying them to do this. These leftists want Afghanistan destabilized, they want the Karzais out of power so there is a vacuum, and then they can say it is such a mess that the Americans should abandon the country. This is a coordinated plan, have no doubt about it.”
Next, I got Ahmed on the phone. He was the same talkative man I had had trouble getting off the phone in previous conversations. He had invited me repeatedly to Kandahar to be his guest and to judge first-hand his denials of being a drug lord or running a mafia-like organization in the volatile and violent southern region of Afghanistan that serves as his power base. I thought back to the half-dozen talks with Ahmed and my own suspicions during those chats that he was connected to some western intelligence agency, likely either U.S. or British. Once, Ahmed had implied as much. "I have worked with Americans since 2001,” he told me, in an assertion that would seem to fit with the Times’ report that he has been on the CIA payroll for eight years. "I have been fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda …. No one has any idea how much I have done for the Americans. Really, I have done so many things they have asked me.”
Wednesday morning, Ahmed rejected any such notion. “My friend, I have had a chance to read the article,” he said. “Everything is false. I explained everything to the Times reporter. I have nothing to do with the strike force. I get no money or cash from this. I told them that last night. I have not got a penny from anyone. Ask yourself, why is this coming up right before the election for my brother? It is clearly serving someone’s personal agenda.” Ahmed pointed to Senator John Kerry’s statement about him Tuesday. When asked if Ahmed Wali was a drug trafficker, Kerry told a reporter that he had asked United States intelligence and law-enforcement people for “the smoking gun — the evidence.” “Show me,” the senator said. “What do we know? And I tell you right now, folks, nobody has, nobody has, nobody’s given me the hard-and-fast.”
On the phone, Ahmed asked me: “So why doesn’t the U.S. government coordinate its actions? Is it Kerry who is speaking for the government and I am not this evil person, or is it the anonymous sources in the Times article that says I am spy and drug dealer? I’ve dealt with the drug accusations for five years. The spy charges are new.”
Ahmed maintained that the report didn’t matter much in Afghanistan. It “doesn’t bother me that much because no one in Afghanistan believes what The New York Times prints anyway,” he said. “No one here gives a damn about the Times. It is discredited among the Afghan people. Everyone here knows it is against the Pashtun tribe, my family and the best interests of this country.” Ahmed told me that he had spent his morning meeting with American and Canadian contingents and some tribal leaders. “I’m going to keep doing what I do. I’m going to help my brother win the election, and I’m going to continue to work with the tribes to defeat the Taliban.”
When asked if he thought the idea that he was a CIA asset put him at greater personal risk in Afghanistan, he laughed. “No. I am already a top target. They have wasted nine suicide bombers on me. Do you think that al Qaeda will read The New York Times today and say, ‘Oh, we must kill that Karzai?’ They want me dead before this even ran.
“So now, if people want to think I am a spy, fine. I’ll continue to help the Americans because I must do that in order to help the Afghan people and to keep my country from falling back into the hands of the Taliban. There are five million people in this country. How come I am the only one who is mentioned as a spy and drug dealer? I’m sick of these political attacks, but they can’t be avoided.”
Mahmoud did express concern about appearances, at least in one respect. “This smear campaign must not be allowed to affect President Obama’s decision about his commitment to help Afghanistan,” he said.
My conversations with the Karzai brothers were not surprising. The duo I’ve come to know in the last month are not going down without a fight.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's Chief Investigative Reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.