The murder of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the so-called “King of Kandahar,” creates a power vacuum in a key political stronghold in Afghanistan. Karzai was the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, and a pillar of the president’s authority. His death creates uncertainty for the Kabul government as it contemplates the prospect of a pullout of U.S. forces from the country.
Wali Karzai, or AWK as he was often known, was a restaurateur in Chicago until he moved to Pakistan in 2000. His U.S. connections helped him facilitate his brother’s ascent to the presidency after coalition forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
A charming, charismatic and shrewd man, AWK used his family connections to become the point man for distributing billions of dollars of aid money that flowed into southern Afghanistan. It was rumored that no appointment was made or official action taken without his consent.
He was elected head of the provincial council in 2005 — legitimately by all accounts — and proceeded to consolidate his power. At the time of his death, he was considered the most powerful man in the south. Reportedly, he was soon to have been appointed the next governor of Kandahar.
But AWK personified the paradoxes of power in Afghanistan. His authority came at the expense of formal political institutions in the country. He ran the Kandahar Strike Force, a militia that assisted U.S. Special Forces’ operations but, in one operation, killed the provincial police chief.
He mastered a patronage system that was equal parts personality, bribery and intimidation that may have worked to his and his brother’s benefit, but did not contribute to the creation of political stability and the rule of law.
Moreover, he was rumored to have been involved in the drug trade, a partner of the Taliban and the CIA. (In the murky world of Afghan politics, all three rumors could have been true.)
When the U.S. pushed its surge to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, the senior U.S. general reportedly tried to remove AWK from power, comparing him with Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster of the 1930s. But President Karzai rebuffed all pressure to remove his brother. Eventually, the coalition halted its efforts and left him in power.
On July 12, AWK’s reign came to an end. While holding court in his home for Afghans who petitioned him daily for favors, he was murdered by Sardar Mohammed, a close family friend, who headed a small militia and was sometimes referred to as the head of AWK’s bodyguard. His closeness to Karzai allowed Mohammed to request a private meeting, at which he shot AWK. Mohammed was then killed by Karzai’s bodyguards.
It is not clear what motivated the killing. There are reports that Mohammed had drug problems, but there is no indication that they were linked to the assassination.
The Taliban took credit for the killing, claiming that AWK was murdered for being a CIA agent. Government officials have accepted the claim; most observers have not. Mohammed was said to be aggressively anti-Taliban.
The question now is how the killing will affect Afghan politics. The conventional wisdom is that AWK’s death creates a power vacuum in a region critical to the central government’s survival. According to this logic, President Karzai has been weakened through the loss of a vital source of power and stability.
At the same time, the death will trigger a power struggle among rival tribes. In an attempt to forestall any violence, the president named another brother, Mr. Shah Wali Karzai, to replace his assassinated sibling.
That may make sense in the short term and may be consistent with the reality of Afghan politics, but the replacement of one family with another does little to support the notion of rule of law and institutionalized rather than family power. The loss of his brother will make the president even more sensitive to challenges to his authority and still more fickle and unreliable.
An alternative explanation is that the passing of AWK offers President Karzai a chance to show his commitment to the rule of law and the creation of formal institutions of power.
Some experts believe that AWK was not the key to President Karzai’s authority, pointing to the fact that most of his votes came from other areas. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that the killing could engender a wave of sympathy for the president, one that he could use to strengthen his grip on power.
That grip must be consolidated. The president looks increasingly shaky. On July 17, less than a week after AWK was killed, Jan Mohammed Khan, a senior adviser to the president, was killed at his home in Kabul.
The forthcoming withdrawal of coalition forces has raised real concern about the ability of Afghan forces to provide stability and security throughout the country.
A new United Nations report notes that the first six months of 2011 were the bloodiest on record for civilians since the Taliban was removed from power a decade ago: 1,462 people were killed as a result of fighting, a 15 percent increase over the same time last year.
The government is also facing a banking crisis triggered by massive fraud at Afghanistan’s two largest private banks. A failure to take action could result in the suspension of aid, a move that will compound the government’s — and the country’s — woes.
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