What Ahmed Wali Karzai's assassination could mean for Afghanistan

The assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, could threaten NATO security gains in southern Afghanistan.

By , Correspondent

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    This undated file photo shows Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking during a meeting with elders in Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan. Ahmad Wali Karzai was killed by a gunman on Tuesday morning.
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Ahmad Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghanistan's president and a political powerhouse in the south, was killed by a gunman on Tuesday morning, threatening to destabilize the south.

The killer, Sardar Mohammed worked on Mr. Karzai’s private security detail, but was not his personal bodyguard. Witnesses say he arrived at Karzai’s residence and asked to discuss a matter in private. Moments after entering a room alone with Karzai there were several gunshots, and witnesses say they found Karzai shot twice in the head and once in the arm. Karzai’s guards then killed Mr. Mohammed.

The death is likely to shake the power bases of Kandahar and it may risk undoing the region’s recent security gains. It may force NATO to remain focused on the south, when it was planning to shift efforts toward the increasingly restive east Afghanistan.

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“I don’t think that someone else will be able to play such a role,” says Gawsudin Frotan, an independent analyst in Kandahar. “He was working here like he was a king. He was not appointed as the governor, but he had the power that the governor had.”

Karzai rose to power shortly after his half brother, Hamid Karzai, took office as president. Officially, he was head of the Kandahar Provincial Council. In practice he was one of the most powerful people in the south and arguably in Afghanistan.

His status was visible through the sheer number of people who flocked to his compound seeking his help to resolve any number of problems, compared with the much smaller numbers who sought help from the actual governor.

“His door was always open to people, and there was a big rush to see him,” says Haji Faisal Mohammed, a tribal elder in Kandahar. “Maybe now when people have no one to ask for help and they’re not happy with the government there will be a kind of unrest and frustration among the locals, which will increase the insecurity.”

As news spread throughout Kandahar City that Karzai had been shot, some residents reported that locals began closing their shops, fearing there might be demonstrations in response to the killing. Demonstrations have been known to turn violent quickly in Kandahar, as happened in April when at least 9 people died and dozens were injured during protests against the Quran burning in the US.

As Kandahar readjusts to the loss of Karzai, General Abdul Raziq, the newly appointed police commander of the province is among the most likely to fill the void left in the unofficial power structure.

Still, Karzai was a controversial figure, and some doubt his killing will have that much of a long-term impact.

“This incident will make people sad for a while. But after a while things will return to normal. I don’t think it will affect the security of Kandahar,” says Haji Agha Lali Dastagiri, a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council who was at Karzai’s house during the shooting.

Many of Karzai’s opponents say that while he did help a number of people in Kandahar, he only helped those in his tribe or with other personal connections.

“People say he was famous in Kandahar and had much power and he solved peoples’ problems, but we didn’t see any of this. He was just helping Popalzais [Karzai's tribe] and his own people,” said Abdul Ahmad, a resident of Kandahar. Mr. Ahmad declined to say any more to avoid disparaging the dead.

There were multiple allegations that he was involved in the drug trade and private security companies. Although Karzai denied the claims, numerous officials expressed their doubt about his innocence. In the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables released last winter, US officials said they were convinced he was involved in corrupt activities.

“AWK [Ahmad Wali Karzai] operates, parallel to formal government structures, through a network of political clans that use state institutions to protect and enable licit and illicit enterprises,” wrote a US official in one of the leaked cables.

Taliban claims responsibility

The shooting has the outward appearance of a personal dispute, but the killer’s motivations remain unclear.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing shortly after the attack, but the militant organization has a dubious record of claiming responsibility for attacks it had nothing to do with.

“Sardar Mohammed is a friend of ours, and we gave him the task a long time ago to infiltrate and reach Ahmad Wali Karzai,” says Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban. “This operation was done through faith in the ideology of the Taliban and it was not a personal dispute with Ahmad Wali, otherwise we would not take responsibility if he killed him.”

Despite the complicated relationship between Karzai and the international community, the US embassy and International Security Assistance Forces were both quick to issue statements expressing their condolences to the president for his loss.

“I strongly condemn the actions by anyone who played a role in this murder. ISAF will support the Afghan government in every possible way to bring to justice those involved in the murder of Ahmad Wali Karzai,” said top American commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus in a statement.

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