After Karzai, who will fill the power void in Kandahar?

Analysts and Afghans worry that the killing of Kandahar powerbroker Ahmad Wali Karzai will destabilize Afghanistan's south, which has seen major security gains this year.

By , Correspondent

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    Afghan people offer prayers at the grave of Ahmad Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother who was killed by his close associate, after his burial in his family's ancestral village of Karz, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on Wednesday, July 13.
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While mourners buried Ahmad Wali Karzai on Wednesday, the fate of the small empire President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother left behind remains very much unsettled.

Mr. Karzai was officially the head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, but in practice he was one of the most powerful men in Kandahar – and arguably in all of Afghanistan. Few people conducted business or handled important disputes in Kandahar outside of Karzai’s purview. He was also a controversial figure rumored to have ties to the drug trade and the private security industry.

Shortly after Ahmad Wali’s funeral, President Hamid Karzai appointed their older brother, Shah Wali Karzai, as leader of the Popalzai tribe. This positions him as the most likely person to subsume the assassinated brother’s role as head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, which remains empty.

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No matter who takes the slot, analysts and Afghans alike worry that the loss of such a strong powerbroker could destabilize the south, which has seen considerable security gains in the past year.

“In the history of Afghanistan, a son has never filled the gap left by his father or brother because they have a different character and way of behaving,” says Mohammed Naser Mubarez, independent analyst in Kandahar and member of Karzai’s Popalzai tribe.

Despite his positioning to take on such a major role, the elder Karzai is a relative unknown figure in Afghan politics.

Among the seven Karzai brothers, Hamid and Ahmad Wali were the best known. Qayum was a member of parliament for Kandahar Province until he lost reelection last fall. Mahmoud is a prominent businessman and a shareholder in Kabul Bank. The other three brothers, including Shah Wali, have done relatively little to distinguish themselves.

Ahmad Wali’s most significant source of power came from his unofficial leadership role within the community, not a clearly defined position that can be inherited. His advisers are likely to assist Shah Wali, but it will take considerable time for Shah Wali to establish himself, if he can, let alone reach Ahmad Wali’s level of influence.

“If Shah Wali works hard and is successful in his job, it will bring some positive news, otherwise there will be security problems,” says Kalimullah Naqibi, a prominent tribal elder in Kandahar.

Building trust

Though Ahmad Wali was long a divisive figure in Kandahar, in recent months there were indications that he was beginning to build support among the region’s various tribes. Leaders from tribes that have long harbored hostility toward Ahmad Wali said they would acknowledge a successor from his family as his replacement.

Even with the approval of different tribes, Shah Wali is likely to be tested by the Taliban and other strongmen looking to increase their power.

“At the same time NATO is decreasing their activities in the south, so the Taliban will come forward and take advantage of this situation. They will easily increase their violent activities and there will be insecurity again in Kandahar,” says Haji Nik Mohammed, tribal elder in Kandahar.

Although Afghanistan has experienced record levels of violence this summer, the Taliban have lost considerable ground throughout Kandahar. Residents say they enjoy freedom of movement in areas around Kandahar that were previously insurgent strongholds, and that fighting is down in areas that saw heavy violence as recently as last summer.

Other groups vying for power

Beyond the Taliban and insurgent groups, other powerbrokers may use Ahmad Wali’s death as an opportunity to strengthen their position. Gen. Abdul Raziq, who was recently promoted to police chief of Kandahar, is well positioned to make a bid for more clout, but he lacks a strong base of popular support.

Locals in Kandahar's neighboring provinces worry that instability resulting from the power vacuum could spread throughout the region. Ahmad Wali was particularly adept at restraining tribal feuds, which can easily cross borders as members of a single tribe often live in several different provinces.

Ahmad Wali Khan’s absence will definitely have an impact on security and tribal relations,” says Sardar Mohammed Khan, a tribal elder in Helmand Province directly to the west of Kandahar. “He tried to solve problems between tribes and not let them grow into something more serious.”

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