Ahmed Wali Karzai was an indispensable problem
The assassinated half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai ran Kandahar with guile and toughness. The US worked with him, but he symbolized how out of reach US goals are.
Ahmed Wali Karzai was murdered today by a militiaman on his own payroll, an event that's certain to upset the delicate political order of Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city where the Taliban were born. As the assassin's body hangs in a city square to be gawked at, Kandahar's tribal leaders and power players are surely scrambling to fill the void.Skip to next paragraph
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Was he killed by a Taliban agent? Well, they say so. But the Taliban often lie. And Sardar Mohammed, the killer, was a long-time employee and trusted member of Mr. Karzai's circle. A personal dispute shouldn't be ruled out. The repercussions are the same either way.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother spent the decade since the US dislodged the Taliban turning himself into Kandahar's indispensable man. Though his formal post was as head of the provincial council, his real power extended far beyond that chamber.
He took a respected lineage in the Popalzai tribe – his father was assassinated by the Taliban – and all the advantages of being related to America's hand-picked ruler of Afghanistan. He converted that stock into a vast network of patronage and clan alliance that made him the province's most powerful man.
Enormously ambitious, he practically crackled with nervous energy and had his finger in every local pie, whether it was the vast property development on the edge of town owned by another Karzai brother, intelligence gathering on the Taliban, or helping to steer US aid spending to favored villages.
US officers came and went in his region. Some were more concerned than others about allegations he was involved in Afghanistan's opium trade (he lived rent-free in a mansion owned by a powerful drug lord) or the protection rackets around guarding US fuel and supply trucks. But all of them worked with him. How could they avoid it? He had intelligence, resources, and local respect. He genuinely opposed the Taliban. And any replacement was no likely to be better, and could well have been worse. So, yes, an indispensable man -- but an enduring example of how the Afghan system, which frequently preys on the poorest with little mercy, isn't changing.
Last July, I sat in the chamber in the sprawling guesthouse where he entertained petitioners for five hours. His guards told me that was a light work day.
His system struck me then as a cross between Tammany Hall and an Afghan jirga. I watched as he gave his blessing to a local politician running for parliament, mediated a tribal dispute that was headed towards bloodshed, received an antique Luger pistol as a sign of respect from a delegation of rural tribal elders, gave a job at the local election office to an unemployed young man, and instructed a local businessman to compensate a farmer whose wheat crop had been destroyed by an American illumination round.