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.

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai gestures during an April 2010 interview with the Associated Press in Kandahar, Afghanistan. An Afghan official says Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half brother has been killed in southern Afghanistan.

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.

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.

It was like watching the pieces of a vast power-puzzle being assembled. Sometimes he tried to expand the puzzle. One foreign reporter told me a few years ago that AWK, as Karzai was known, offered him a vast sum to join his team and work on improving his image in the international press.

As I tagged around with him for a few days, it was the same everywhere he went: Supplicants listened to, political alliances massaged, money distributed or promised, sometimes by proxy, as with the businessman who paid the farmer. Power flowed from his person and his ability to get things done. His heavily armed guards (he had survived two Taliban assassination attempts up to that point) worked for him and were loyal to him.

He in effect was running separate governments and police services in the region, ones that answered to him. These parallel forces are arguably more important than the government institutions that the US military says are vital to Afghanistan's future.

The tribal, highly personal way of doing things (replete with arbitrary injustice, frequent corruption, and occasional bloodshed) is the way things have always been done in that part of Afghanistan. They could change some day, if the local people decide they want to shed their customs and habits, their way of being. That the US military could encourage them to do so seems unlikely.

And as a practical matter, the US presence helps strengthen the Ahmed Walis of the world, by increasing the flow of ready cash into an area and leaving the US military in their debt. Many analysts say the US created Ahmed Wali's power, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. But I also think it's likely that someone much like him -- or perhaps an alliance of 3-4 less-powerful tribal figures with the same methods -- would have emerged as the major power in Kandahar instead.

The allegations that AWK had ballot boxes stuffed and voters intimidated to help his brother win reelection in 2009? Highly credible. Was fraud extensive all over the country, in places far out of AWK's reach? Yes. In other words, AWK was a symbol of a system that in one form or another extends over vast parts of the country. He is not the system itself.

AWK received arms and funding from the US as he built his power base. By the time of his death, he was prospering financially thanks to his political power, and was hand and glove with US intelligence efforts in the region. When asked if he was on the CIA payroll, here's how he answered me last summer:

"I haven't signed a paper saying I'm working with anyone," Karzai says. "But yes, I fought against Al Qaeda with the US in 2001, yes, I work with USAID. I talk to the military and I help every American that comes to me.... When the international forces came, they needed us to show them the way. The understanding they have now mostly came from us. I'm living in the region, I know the people. When it comes to getting things done, we're the ones to come to."

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