In the long line of assassinations carried out by all sides in the war since 2001, Ahmad Wali Karzai is surely the most powerful man yet to be killed. Formally, his powers were limited to being the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, an elected body. Informally, he was the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, important for his brother, President Hamed Karzai and the rest of the family, the Americans and the various networks which intersected in his person. AAN’s Senior analyst, Kate Clark looks into the killing.
No-one, it seems, is safe. Ahmad Wali was shot dead this morning in his own home. Speaking at a press conference to local journalists, the governor of Kandahar, Toryalai Wisa, named the killer as Sardar Muhammad, saying he had been a close associate of Ahmad Wali for seven and a half years and was a police commander of ‘checkpoints’ in the Karzais’ home district of Dand. As a trusted person, he had open access to Ahmad Wali and often visited him.
Kandahar’s recently appointed police chief, Abdul Razeq, gave more details, telling the same press conference that Sardar had been based at a compound in the Karzai’s home village of Karz and had travelled into Kandahar on Tuesday morning saying he had an application he needed to give his boss. Razeq said, ‘The man carried his pistol through the security checks to Wali Karzai’s room. As soon as Wali Karzai came out of bathroom, he opened fire and shot him in the head and chest’ (see a reporthere).
Sardar was shot dead by Karzai’s bodyguards moments after opening fire.
The Taleban claimed the killing, but – for them – in a very half-hearted way (see their statement here). In ‘breaking news’ on their website, a spokesman cited ‘reports from Kandahar’ that the killing had been carried out by Sardar Muhammad whom he said had been ‘in contact with the Mujahedin’ (‘mujahedin’ is how the Taleban describe themselves).
The motivation could as easily be personal, particularly given the various feuds in Dand involving the Karzai clan, and issues of revenge after Ahmad Wali’s Kandahar Strike Force, an irregular troop, had taken part in anti-Taleban operations alongside US units. Moreover, Ahmad Wali was the sort of man who had many enemies.
His rise to power came in tandem with his older half-brother, Hamed’s.* Ahmad Wali’s influence increased sharply after the easing out of the other major power broker in Kandahar, the dominant Barakzai mujahedin commander, Gul Agha Sherzoi, who was governor from 2001 to 2003 (when he was strongly supported by the US) and again for a few months in 2005. ** The third powerful figure to emerge in post-Taleban Kandahar, another former mujahedin commander, Mullah Naqib who was an Alokozai, had already been effectively eased out of the three-way power struggle by the Americans in 2001. Antonio Giustozzi describes how the struggle between the three men and their followers finally left Ahmad Wali on top, ‘able to control informally local power structures, having “exiled” rivals to other provinces and replaced them with powerless individuals or with family friends’.***
Ahmad Wali was a controversial figure. Perhaps the most serious accusation against him was that he favoured his own tribe so blatantly that he alienated segments of the population badly enough for them not to stand up against the Taleban or even to join the insurgency. Giustozzi, for example, dates the first appearance of Taleban in the mainly Alokozai-populated Arghandab district from their and Mullah Naqibullah’s loss of control of the police.*** Ladbury, who carried out a survey into the drivers of radicalisation in 2009, reports that respondents from Kandahar described it as a ‘state within a state, where religious and tribal leaders had been sidelined and power … centralised’. She writes that, ‘the general perception was that the province was controlled by Ahmed Wali Karzai … who used it as his personal fiefdom […] Some respondents maintained that the Taleban would not have got a foothold had it not been for AWK.’***
The population of Kandahar, wrote Carl Forsberg in his in-depth study of Kandahar ‘sees the government as an exclusive oligarchy devoted to its own enrichment and closely tied to the international coalition. Anti-government sentiments are exploited and aggravated by the Taliban. Many of the local powerbrokers who are excluded from Wali Karzai’s network see the Taliban insurgency as the only viable means of political opposition.’***
There were other specific allegations – that Ahmad Wali facilitated the opium trade in the south and was involved in land-grabbing, election rigging, getting Taleban prisoners freed and rival businessmen eased out.**** These accusations were always strenuously denied both by Ahmad Wali and the president and the allegations of links to the drug trade were never backed up by any publicly available evidence.***** Despite the controversies, Ahmad Wali retained his role as the president’s most important man in the south. Most recently there was talk of him being appointed governor of Kandahar, supported by sympathetic elders travelling to Kabul to support him, giving some formal recognition to his informal powers.
ISAF officers speaking privately in early 2010 were explicit about the dangers posed to stability by Ahmad Wali.****** It seemed the Americans toyed with exerting enough pressure on President Karzai to get his brother removed. Ultimately, however, officers – again speaking privately – said they felt any attempt to remove him would be counter-productive, especially given their planned drive against the Taleban in Kandahar that year. One official explained, ‘there are areas where you need strong leadership, and some of those leaders are not entirely pure’. Ahmad Wali’s alleged receipt of CIA money – again something he denied – may also have led Washington to decide he was ultimately more useful retaining his power in the south.**** Even now, the various tribes and factions of the US establishment must be trying to decide how to steer this new situation.
As symbolic as this death is – for it hit someone so well protected and close to the President -, it is unlikely to lead to a complete power vacuum in Kandahar. There is a broad alliance of Karzai allies and confidants and family members who are held together, not only by tribal affiliation but by business interests and who have a lot to lose. At the same time, while others may be able to fill some of Ahmad Wali’s roles, it is impossible to think of any one person who combines his specific list of powers, connections and networks.
The removal of such a powerful figure may encourage greater plurality – or a fragmentation which makes the province even more insecure. There may also be a scrabbling for bits of Ahmad Wali’s business and political empire by former friends and rivals. His old rival, Gul Agha Sherzai, may, for example, find his position now strengthened. But so also might the Chief of Police, Abdul Razeq. He is a close ally of both the Karzais and the Americans, despite credible accusations of atrocities (read a much acclaimed story on this here). Much depends on how quickly – and how intelligently – President Karzai, who has travelled to Kandahar for his brother’s funeral, decides on who takes over AWK’s roles in the southern network.
* The two men shared the same father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, but Ahmad Wali’s mother is his second wife.
** Shirzai was appointed minister of urban development in 2004 and went back to being governor of Kandahar in 2005 before finally being sent to Nangrahar as governor in 2006.
*** References cited in the blog are:
Carl Forsberg, Politics and Power in Kandahar, Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2010) p. 7
Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 20.
Sarah Ladbury and Cooperation for Peace and Unity (Afghanistan) (CPAU),Testing Hypotheses on Radicalisation in Afghanistan: Why Do Men Join the Taliban and Hizb-i Islami?, Kabul: Department for International Development, 2009, p. 18.
**** For allegations on opium, see this New York Times article.
For allegations on prisoner releases, including the releasing of Taleban prisoners, see t hisReuters report.
For accusations on the easing out of business rivals, see this article.
For accusations on land-grabbing and electioneering, see this report (p26).
For accusations on CIA payments, see the New York Times again.
***** For robust denials of everything, see two report on The Daily Beasthere and here. See also John Kerry’s response to allegations in October 2009: ‘We should not condemn Ahmed Wali Karzai or damage our critical relations with his brother, President Karzai, on the basis of newspaper articles or rumours. But the appropriate congressional committees must be immediately provided with the most comprehensive and untainted information about his alleged entanglements’ (the full statement here).
****** See also Graeme Smith, who quotes a 2008 US intelligence report that: ‘Karzai uses the instruments of official power to support his own Popalzai tribe and selected allies with the Zirak Durrani confederacy. The Taliban have exploited the resulting anger among the other Pashtun tribes, many of whom find themselves on the wrong side of disputes over money, land, opium or water.’ In Graeme Smith, ‘What Kandahar’s Taliban Say’, in Giustozzi (Ed), Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field,New York/Chichester: Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2009, p197.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020