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Margaret Wente

Cable from Kandahar: You can't buy peace Add to ...

The real bombshell for Canada in the latest round of the WikiLeaks affair is not that our ambassador to Afghanistan said Hamid Karzai makes his blood boil. There's nothing outrageous about that; the Afghan President makes everyone's blood boil. No, the bombshell is that our good friend Mr. Karzai doesn't value Canada's help very much.

He strongly prefers U.S. troops, and regards others as a nuisance. In a meeting with the U.S. ambassador and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of 2009, Mr. Karzai joked that soldiers from other NATO countries were more of a "headache" than a help. (My gratitude to Globe super-blogger Norman Spector for spotting this depressing nugget.) Gee, thanks a lot! You might think he'd be a tiny bit more grateful for our $20-billion and 153 lives - to say nothing of how much we've done to line the pockets and strengthen the position of the notoriously corrupt Karzai clan.

Consider the Dahla Dam, which was intended to be Canada's "signature" project in Afghanistan. Rebuilding the dam, at a cost of $50-million, was supposed to show that we believe in development as much as in arms. What better legacy could there be? The rebuilt dam would turn the arid wasteland green and channel badly needed water to the parched fields of hungry peasant farmers.

"The reason that we chose it was that it was a request from the president of the country," said Ben Rowswell, Canada's top civilian official in Kandahar. What Mr. Rowswell didn't mention at the time was that the kingpin of Kandahar is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's younger half-brother. And he turned out to be the project's biggest beneficiary.

"Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK) dominates access to economic resources, patronage, and protection," says a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from June, 2009. "Much of the real business of running Kandahar takes place out of public sight, where AWK operates, parallel to formal government structures, through a network of political clans that use state institutions to protect and enable licit and illicit enterprises." The cable went on to note that AWK's overriding objective is the "enrichment, extension and perpetuation of the Karzai clan."

It didn't take long for the Canadians - including engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, whose consortium had won the contract for the dam - to run afoul of the AWK protection racket. As they discovered, you deal with AWK or you don't deal at all. Last February, according to the Toronto Star's Mitch Potter, senior Canadian security officials were run out of the country after an ugly confrontation with a security company run by the Karzai clan that insisted it alone would manage security for the project.

But the greatest riches lie ahead. According to the leaked American cable, AWK will control the water flows. Land values are expected to increase dramatically in the river valley served by the dam. And guess who owns the land?

And so, instead of helping the downtrodden Afghan people, we have entrenched a deeply unpopular warlord who's building his own private militia. That will surely come in handy once the Karzais are booted out of power.

The cumulative weight of the latest leaked documents is certainly the opposite of the one intended by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a sworn enemy of America. Instead of depicting a bullying superpower that swaggers around the world and hammers everyone until it gets its way, the leaks give us something far more disturbing - a portrait of an enfeebled giant that commands no fear, gets no respect and is incapable of managing the world's affairs to its own advantage.

This is a nation that can't even bribe countries you've never heard of to take Guantanamo prisoners off its hands. It has absolutely no idea what to do with the colossal scale of Afghan corruption because, as the leaked cable notes, any measures to tackle corruption would "require the prosecution of people on whom we often rely for assistance and/or support."

It's hard not to think of the Roman Empire in its last days of imperial overstretch, when it desperately tried to buy off the restive tribes in a bid to secure peace in far-off lands. Naturally, the restive tribes kept upping the ante, until Rome eventually ran out of money and was overrun. Let's hope this empire has a better ending.

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