Kandahar mayor killed by suicide bomber, latest in wave of assassinations

Kandahar's Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi is the latest victim in a wave of assassinations of high-profile Afghan government officials that has many Afghans worried about a leadership void.

Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters
An unidentified relative of Kandahar slain city mayor, Ghulam Haidar Hamidi, sits next to Hamidi's coffin. Hamidi who was killed by a suicide blast in Kandahar Wedneday, just two weeks after the assassination of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother in the same city.

A suicide bomber killed the mayor of Kandahar at the municipality building on Wednesday. The most recent killing in a string of high-level assassinations, it has added to concern about leadership deficit in an area that remains fragile despite recent security gains.

The bomber entered the municipality building with a group of villagers who had come to speak with Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi about the demolition of homes built illegally on government land. When the mayor greeted the group, the suicide attacker detonated a bomb hidden inside his turban.

Although the government and NATO-led forces say they are making progress against the militant organization, the ability of killers to reach high-level officials in their homes and offices has shaken many Afghans’ faith in the government.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the assassination, calling it part of their campaign to kill government officials this summer – although it remains unclear how many of the recent murders they actually conducted.

The loss of Mr. Hamidi, who spoke with the Monitor less than 24 hours before his death, is likely to take a hard toll on southern Afghanistan. He is the third official to be murdered in Kandahar in as many months and he is remembered by many to have been one of the region’s most honest political brokers.

“I’m here to work for Kandahar City. I owe this city because I grew up here, I was educated here, I ate from here, I had good times here, and I’m here to pay back the loan to my city,” said Mr. Hamidi on Tuesday afternoon.

String of assassinations

In April Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid, police chief of the province, was killed by a suicide bomber in the city’s central police compound.

Earlier this month, Ahmad Wali Karzai, one of the president’s half brothers and a prominent powerbroker in Khandahar, was shot in his home by a member of his inner circle.

The mayor’s death adds to the province’s growing leadership deficit as officials seek to fill the power void left by Ahmad Wali. There was some speculation that Hamidi would replace the current governor in an effort to make up for the loss of the president’s brother.

Who was Hamidi?

Hamidi spent nearly two decades in Virginia, before returning to his native Kandahar City, the second largest city in Afghanistan and the birthplace of the Taliban. When he took on his role as mayor four and a half years ago, the office was marred by allegations of corruption.

An accountant for most of his life, Hamidi had far more in common with Western politicians than he did with many of the warlords and powerbrokers in control of large parts of Afghanistan.

“When people would complain about the mayor, we would invite him to talk directly with the people in the provincial council office. Every time he was able to convince the people and us that he was right through legal reasons and acceptable methods,” says Haji Fida Mohammad, a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council.

Still, Hamidi had a reputation as someone who was not afraid to use force.

“I am strong enough to fight with corrupt Kandahari people,” Hamidi told the Monitor.

The shoe incident

Local pharmacist Zoudin Barak remembers watching the son of a high-level government official drive his car the wrong way down a one-way street and park it so his car completely blocked the road. Even when a police officer came to ask the driver to move, he refused. Such disputes have often ended with drivers pulling guns on the police with impunity.

When the mayor happened upon this scene without his official entourage, Mr. Barak says he seemed undeterred and asked the man to move his car. When he refused again, the mayor took off his shoe and used it to bash off the man’s side view mirror. The man then moved his car.

“In our country, when you ask people politely they won’t listen or take it seriously. They won’t do anything until you force them to,” says Barak. “When they are the sons of warlords and high-level government officials, no one can stop them from breaking the rules. The police and courts can’t take any action, so in this case I thought the mayor was very good.”

Across Kandahar, residents have similar stories of the mayor intervening to stop people from breaking the law, even when it meant risking his own safety.

Afraid of the 'land mafia'

Some worry that the next Kandahar mayor won’t stand up to powerbrokers and warlords like Hamidi did.

“It will be impossible to demolish the houses of people living illegally on government land now because government officials will be afraid this land mafia will kill them like the mayor,” says Qale Khan, a tribal elder in Kandahar.

Despite Hamidi’s reputation as an honest politician, he played a controversial role with the city’s high-end Aino Mina housing development. He made other decisions that led some residents to speculate he may not be as clean as widely believed.

Still, most Kandaharis are quick to say he worked harder than any previous mayor to develop the city.

“If we had a few people like him all our problems would be solved. I didn’t feel sorry for any of the other officials who got killed, but I felt sorry for him,” says Barak.

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