With a charismatic style and a record of fighting the Taliban, as well as close ties to the C.I.A. and differing Afghan factions, Mr. Khalid could become a powerful political proxy and security enforcer for Mr. Karzai, Western officials say. If he is confirmed this week as chief of the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, he would be in a unique position to help Mr. Karzai stay in influence after term limits require him to step down in 2014.
Since the assassination of the president’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, last year, Mr. Khalid has become almost a surrogate family member — an ethnic Pashtun with deft political skills who has proved himself fiercely loyal, and a bridge to some former Northern Alliance leaders who remain important to Mr. Karzai’s support but are wary of presidential aides too sympathetic to Pakistan.
By contrast, Mr. Khalid is seen as a foe of Pakistan. Amrullah Saleh, a former Northern Alliance official and former Afghan intelligence director now in opposition to the Karzai government, called Mr. Khalid “a good man” known for his courage and unusually strong ties to different factions. “He knows leaders in the North and leaders in the South, so he can connect the two.”
But his nomination was troubling for human rights officials and some other Western and Afghan officials who have focused on persistent allegations that Mr. Khalid oversaw a torture prison while governor of Kandahar Province several years ago. Those officials, among more than 20 interviewed who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that if he wields the security agency as a weapon of repression, he could undermine a decade spent moving the country toward Western-style human rights.
“If Afghan security organizations are able to use the most egregious methods to combat the insurgency in the name of greater security, then we are sacrificing elements of the rule of law and accountability that are at the heart of the success of the transition,” one Western diplomat said.
Mr. Khalid did not respond to an interview request. But he has denied human rights and corruption allegations. His allies have said that in many cases the accusations were politically motivated, or that he never did anything worse than other senior officials.
As Mr. Karzai’s legal span in office — and, with it, the NATO mission in Afghanistan — expires in two years, speculation about the president’s next moves has been a favorite parlor game: He could engineer a Russian-style Putin-Medvedev arrangement with a trusted successor. He could try to repeal term limits. Or he could throw support behind his brother Qayum. (Mr. Karzai has told some diplomats he intends to step down and do nothing to taint the process, one official said.)
What is sure is that Mr. Khalid, if confirmed, would be a crucial help in any of those situations. In the 2009 election, when he was minister of border and tribal affairs, Mr. Khalid “helped Karzai significantly,” and there were some allegations that he used “most of his ministry’s budget to do so,” according to an American diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
And it is hard to overstate how much power and trust Mr. Karzai has assigned to Mr. Khalid in the past year, officials say.
After Ahmed Wali Karzai’s death, the president gave Mr. Khalid his late brother’s security portfolio in southern Afghanistan and charged him with securing the family’s prosperous enterprises in Kandahar.
“He is absolutely on the cusp of family,” said another Western diplomat, noting that Mr. Khalid was trusted enough that after Ahmed Wali Karzai’s death, he was sent to Kandahar “to ensure that Karzai’s interests were protected.”
Mr. Karzai’s paternal view of Mr. Khalid was made clear to one former Western diplomat during a conversation with the president. “He was like a father with a son who he was really hoping would do well,” the former diplomat said. Assessing Mr. Khalid’s appointment, the diplomat added: “If 80 percent of the job is getting a grip on security, you want this guy. But if 80 percent is about making institutions more accountable and improving rule of law, he’s probably not the best choice.”
Mr. Khalid worked for Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, a religiously conservative Sunni close to Saudi Arabia and one of the warlords who tore Kabul apart in the 1992-96 civil war. Mr. Sayyaf remains a patron and pressured Mr. Karzai to award him crucial jobs. He also helped secure Mr. Khalid’s first governorship, in Ghazni Province in spring 2002.
Then, “he was an inexperienced boy,” one Ghazni official said. But he matured quickly and led raids on Taliban hide-outs, said the official, who described him as Ghazni’s best post-Taliban governor.
In 2005 Mr. Khalid was transferred to Kandahar, the heart of Karzai family intrigue and home turf for Ahmed Wali Karzai. The president told his brother not to interfere with Mr. Khalid, people close to the brother said.
As his stature rose, Mr. Khalid’s tightest family relationship was with Qayum Karzai, according to some officials, who took Mr. Khalid to Saudi Arabia four years ago to meet with officials about Taliban negotiations.
But in Kandahar he proved controversial. He won support from NATO Special Operations troops for his tactics, but he angered some diplomats by alienating much of the populace with highhanded measures, two former Western officials said.
And while he can charm Westerners, his style sometimes offended traditional Pashtuns. A high-ranking Afghan said that Mr. Khalid would rudely throw his feet on the table during meetings with elders. In 2006 a senior Afghan official complained to diplomats that he angered tribal leaders because he “does not have respect for the local conservative traditions.”
Mr. Khalid was dismissed from Kandahar in 2008. According to one leaked diplomatic cable, President Karzai was “unimpressed by Khalid’s stewardship of his home province.” In another cable a year later, American diplomats were scathing when assessing him as a cabinet choice, calling him “exceptionally corrupt and incompetent.”
Then, at a 2009 Canadian parliamentary hearing, some of the most serious charges imaginable were leveled against Mr. Khalid by Richard Colvin, a former high-ranking Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan. He described Mr. Khalid as a narcotics trafficker who, while governor, tortured people in a Kandahar dungeon. At that time, Canadian forces were responsible for the region’s security. “He had people killed who got in his way,” Mr. Colvin said.
Returning to Kandahar last year, Mr. Khalid may have moved too fast to replace officials with his allies. The governor, Tooryalai Wesa, complained to Mr. Karzai, who told Mr. Khalid to back off, a Kandahar official said.
But in short order he also had every National Directorate of Security office in the South reporting to him, another diplomat said. He is also now serving as Mr. Karzai’s eyes, ears and dispenser of money for anti-Taliban uprising movements in Ghazni. That has bolstered relations with some members of Hezb-i-Islami, a party that, unlike Mr. Khalid, has strong ties to Pakistan.
Whatever his past, Mr. Khalid is astute enough to heed warnings from officials worried about the implications of his actions, one American official said. “We’re going to encourage him to go in the right direction,” the official said. “Asadullah Khalid is someone we have been able to work with.”
“This is sovereignty,” the official added. “It can be messy.”