Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
When Newt Gingrich launched into his speech Friday night at Salem High School, it seemed as if his pledge to remain above the fray of negative ads and campaigning was about to fly out the window. He'd barely taken the stage when he threw a jab at his campaign trail nemesis, Mitt Romney, who earlier in the week Gingrich had called a "liar" for denying knowledge of a barrage of super-PAC attack ads that the former House speaker blames for undercutting his support in Iowa.
"How many of you have noticed that the state line seems to have a really significant, almost mythic, impact on behavior?" he asked, referring to Massachusetts, where Romney had served as governor, to hoots from the audience. "On one side more taxes and bigger government, on the other side lower taxes and less bureaucracy… There really are very different psychological mindsets." He arrived at the point: "The only reason I raise that is that I think there's a remarkable difference between a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate."
Was Newt—as some in the media had predicted—about to explode in a supernova of anti-Romney vitriol? It seemed this could be the moment.
At various points over the years, US military leaders and diplomats have pondered how to get rid of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of the Afghan president and the key power broker in Kandahar province. But it was ultimately the Taliban that claimed credit for completing the job: Early reports suggest he was shot dead in his home on Tuesday morning by a bodyguard, an assassination the Taliban described as "one of our biggest achievements."
The fact that Ahmed Wali, or AWK as he was sometimes known, was considered such an impediment by both sides highlights the exceedingly complex role he played in this conflict. His death comes at a fragile stage of the war, as the Obama administration prepares to withdraw 33,000 troops by next summer in advance of a full-fledged security handover in 2014. Meanwhile, the Taliban is ever working to re-entrench itself after being beaten back by US military forces.
There was a time that military commanders viewed Ahmed Wali as such a barrier to progress in the restive south, where he officially chaired the Kandahar Provincial Council and unofficially controlled much of the region's economy, that efforts were afoot to remove him from power. (In 2010, there was even talk of taking potential "law enforcement actions" against Ahmed Wali and other "malign actors," according to a leaked State Department cable.) AWK was accused of being a key player in the opium trade and a high profile example of Afghanistan's out-of-control corruption problem. Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded proof, and while a dossier was compiled enumerating AWK's misdeeds, the evidence was apparently never compelling enough to warrant his ouster. Also complicating matters was the fact that AWK was reportedly a longtime CIA asset who helped to run a paramilitary outfit called the Kandahar Strike Force, which aided agency personnel and US Special Forces teams on raids against the Taliban. (Ahmed Wali denied being on the CIA's payroll.)
Eventually, NATO military commanders adopted a better-with-us-than-against-us attitude to the mustachioed and perpetually scruffy Kandahari leader, who, years before becoming the kingmaker of the south, had worked in the family restaurant business in the US. AWK may have been corrupt, the thinking went, but he was still an important ally in a region where we had few. It was with his cooperation last year that coalition troops conducted a sustained offensive that forced Taliban insurgents out of their strongholds and brought a measure of peace to Kandahar.
The question now is: What comes next? Love him or loathe him, Ahmed Wali was fluent in the unique, tribal politics of the region, and he held enough clout to bring a variety of competing interests to heel. AWK reportedly controlled a variety of economic activity in Kandahar, and he played a never-quite-defined role with the security outfits that protect convoys ferrying key military supplies back and forth to Kabul and elsewhere. With AWK gone, there are no shortage of regional power brokers, mostly of ill repute and some with suspected Taliban ties, who will be eager to fill the power vacuum and fight over the fiefdom of the man known as the King of Kandahar. You know what they say about the devil we know.
GOP Hill staffer Scott Graves is retiring his cheeky license plate, WTF 44, following my story yesterday identifying him as the owner of the apparently Obama-bashing Texas tags. "When I realized the meaning could be misconstrued, I ordered new plates," Graves, the legislative director for Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), told Texas' San Angelo Standard Times in a statement. It seems a bit hard to imagine that Graves was not aware, at the very least, of the meaning of WTF. In fact, he used this shorthand in the appropriate context on his Twitter feed.
So, if not a political jab at the president, what did the plate mean? Graves, via Conaway's press secretary, Sam Ray, did not elaborate to the Standard Times. Nor did Ray provide an alternative explanation when I contacted him for comment. Ray did speculate, weakly, that "maybe that was his number in football" after I suggested that perhaps WTF could stand for "West Texas Football." (Hey, I watch Friday Night Lights.) In any event, Ray never got back to me on what WTF 44 "really" meant.
It seems Conaway's staffers have chosen the strategy of just playing dumb on the matter. The Standard Times Washington correspondent, Trish Choate, was accidentally cc'd on some internal correspondence related to the plates issue. She reports:
In an email addressing Ray but also sent to the Standard-Times' Washington correspondent and Graves, Chief of Staff Richard Hudson referred to "KMC"—Kenneth Michael Conaway, saying: "Give KMC a 'heads-up.' When she talks to KMC next and she asks him about it, he just needs to decline to discuss his employees' personal vehicles. Or say something like, I didn't know about the plates, but I understand he's changed them."
There is one remaining question: Now that Graves is trading in his old plates, how should he personalize his new ones?
Uncovering the Republican Hill staffer with the Obama-bashing license plates.
Daniel SchulmanMay 16, 2011 6:00 AM
Recently, an observant Capitol Hill staffer alertedMother Jones to a 2007 Lincoln Navigator in a congressional parking lot that was sporting eyebrow-raising license plates. The Texas tags read: "WTF 44." The staffer helpfully snapped a photo (see above) and sent it along.
WTF, we surmised, stands for—well, you know. And 44 is a likely reference to President Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. Put them together and you've got a mobile middle finger to the commander-in-chief. Clever, right? It's possible that the plates—one of which had a Texas Tech sticker on it, indicating that the driver might be an alum—could stand for "Win the Future," Obama's State of the Union catchphrase. Then again, probably not.