The Taliban is taking credit for assassinating the Afghan president's powerful brother. But a personal feud seems more likely.
KABUL — Around 11 a.m. this morning, Kandahar time, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the controversial half brother of President Hamid Karzai and the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, was shot dead in his home by Sardar Mohammed, who was in turn killed by Ahmad Wali's bodyguards.
In the confusion of breaking news reports following the shooting, I asked someone close to Ahmed Wali who this "Sardar Mohammed" was, and he gasped at the name. Mohammed, who commanded a force of men who ran checkpoints close to Ahmed Wali's hometown of Karz, had worked for the Karzai family for years and was from the same Popalzai tribe and district. The fact that he was allowed to bring his weapon into Ahmed Wali's presence shows just how trusted he was, and it seems likely that there was a personal motivation behind the attack. There have been a number of killings related to disputes within the Karzai family in Kandahar, most recently a misdirected NATO airstrike in March that killed a relative of the president.
The manner of Ahmed Wali's death is all the more striking considering that the last major figure to be assassinated in Kandahar, Police Chief Khan Mohammed Mujahed, was killed by own his bodyguard-turned-suicide-bomber in April. In May, one of the most important anti-Taliban commanders in northern Afghanistan, Gen. Daud Daud, was assassinated by a bomb planted in the Takhar's governor's office; and last October, Engineer Omar, governor of Kunduz, was blown up by a bomb planted in the floor of the mosque where he habitually prayed.
These inside-job attacks point to the weakness of pro-government networks, which have largely been held together by money, not ideology or personal loyalty. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack, though Ahmed Wali, in his role as chief enforcer of the south, has accumulated many enemies who would be happy to see him dead.
There were even reports that the United States had considered putting Ahmed Wali on its "kill/capture list," during the heyday of the debate in late 2009 over what to do with corrupt actors in Afghanistan. The dilemma that the U.S. military and NATO had repeatedly confronted, without success, was that Ahmed Wali was at the heart of both the order underpinning the Afghan government in Kandahar and the corrupt, exclusionary dynamics that have fueled much of the insurgency.
In the end, given the imperative of having reliable allies in place for the troop surge, the coalition decided to work with Ahmed Wali ahead of the Hamkari offensive in Kandahar last fall. They have since consulted him on several key subprovincial appointments, most notably Fazluddin Agha, governor of Panjwai District, who has managed to reconcile a couple of midlevel Taliban commanders.
As the West began looking ahead to transition and political reconciliation, the hope was that Ahmed Wali would be able to consolidate a stable political order, despite the fact that he and his associates had grown vastly wealthy off the conflict and the U.S. military presence. Two weeks ago, in an indication of how far this process had gone, there was a high-level push to make Ahmed Wali the next governor of Kandahar province.
His death leaves a massive hole in the fabric of Kandahari power politics and shows how dangerous a strategy of relying on individual power brokers can be. Ahmed Wali was the linchpin of the Loya Kandahar pro-Karzai network, a pan-tribal alliance brought together by money and mutual security that included figures like Aref Noorzai, Agha Lalai Dastagiri, Fazluddin Agha, and the current chief of police, Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq.
There is now no clear successor to Ahmed Wali, and certainly no one can combine his vast influence and closeness to the president. Any figure other than a Popalzai might upset the delicate balance between the pro-government elements of Kandahar's various tribes, and so his two brothers, Qayum and Shah Wali, are seen as potential candidates who could step into the role of the president's power broker in the south.
There was also speculation, in my conversations with Kandahari politicians, that this might open the door for Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Kandahar, to return. Sherzai represents the Barakzai tribe, and his considerably rivalry with Ahmed Wali in the early years eventually led him to be pushed out to the consolation prize of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Yet relations between Sherzai and the president are said to have improved in recent years, and Sherzai has also earned respect among internationals for his steady-handed, if rather venal, handling of his bailiwick, a key territory bordering Pakistan.
For now, Kandahar is tense and bracing itself for future fallout. Ahmed Wali was never popular in Kandahar among the ordinary locals. Street vendors and schoolteachers alike would blame him for the criminality and corruption that have only grown since 2001. But the Kandahari friends I've spoken with since his death have shown no joy, only apprehension for what the future might bring.
"The city is locked down; there are checkpoints everywhere and helicopters overhead," said one. "We are afraid of what will happen next."
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images