July 12, 2011

Assassination In Afghanistan Creates A Void

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the powerful half brother of Afghanistan’s president, was assassinated Tuesday, removing from the political scene a divisive power broker who was accused of corruption and alienated the American military, but whose connections and ruthlessness made him a critical force in volatile southern Afghanistan.

The death of Mr. Karzai, who effectively ruled much of the country’s southern tier from Kandahar, sent tremors through the country’s political establishment and raised questions about whether tenuous security gains made by the influx of American forces in the south could hold.

Mr. Karzai was shot to death by a police official, Sardar Muhammad, a longtime confidant, who was immediately killed by Mr. Karzai’s bodyguards, Afghan officials said. Mr. Muhammad’s body was later hung above a busy Kandahar street. His motives were not known; the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, but there was no evidence that Mr. Muhammad, a member of the Karzais’ Populzai tribe, had ties to the insurgency.

The immediate implications of Mr. Karzai’s death for the American-led war against the Taliban and the withdrawal of American troops beginning this month were uncertain. Many in the region warned that the Taliban, as well as competitors for Mr. Karzai’s position, would try to take advantage of the power vacuum and that without him the hard-earned security gains made by American and Afghan troops over the past year could erode.

American military commanders have long argued that Mr. Karzai’s reputation for blatant self-dealing undercut support for the government among many Afghans, and some wondered on Tuesday whether his death might make room for a leader with greater integrity.

But those commanders had clashed with Central Intelligence Agency officers who had long paid Mr. Karzai for information and other services and saw him as a crucial broker of intelligence and influence. Mr. Karzai identified Taliban fighters for attack by American forces, recruited Afghan men for a NATO-allied “Kandahar Strike Force,” and even rented space to the agency in the city, officials said.

In a sense, contradictory American attitudes toward Mr. Karzai have reflected the evolving American war strategy. When the United States was trying to win over the population with a counterinsurgency strategy, the corruption he symbolized was an insurmountable obstacle. But as the Obama administration has gradually embraced a more limited counterterrorism policy — killing Taliban fighters and moving toward political negotiations — Mr. Karzai became an indispensable, if never fully trustworthy, ally.

“We viewed him as more of an enemy of our enemy than as a friend,” said Bill Harris, who until last November served as the senior American diplomat in Kandahar.

“The fact is, we made common cause with A.W.K. during the last fighting season to run the Taliban out of Kandahar, and we should make no apologies for that,” Mr. Harris said, using the government’s shorthand for Ahmed Wali Karzai. “His death will only complicate an already complicated situation.”

One American official on Tuesday lamented the “huge power vacuum” left by the assassination. “Do we care more about security and fighting the Taliban, or about drugs and corruption?” said the official, who would discuss the internal debate only on the condition of anonymity. “I think that most people would agree that taking on the Taliban is our top priority, and Ahmed Wali Karzai helped us with that.”

Mohammed Naim Hamidzai Lalai, the chairman of the Afghan Parliament’s internal security committee and a Kandahari, said, “His presence in Kandahar was like a backbone for the security of the province.”

The president, Hamid Karzai, held a news conference in Kabul with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France barely two hours after the shooting, speaking in a steady but somber voice as he confirmed the death of his half brother.

“This is the life of Afghan people,” he said. “This sorrow is in every Afghan home; every one of us has this sorrow.” Then he turned to Mr. Sarkozy and said, “We welcome Mr. Sarkozy and hope he forgives us for not speaking with a smile today.”

President Karzai flew to Kandahar later in the day to attend mourning ceremonies along with much of the Pashtun political elite, even as a power struggle began for the lucrative business deals, trade routes and political influence that Ahmed Wali Karzai previously controlled not only in Kandahar Province, but also in neighboring Helmand Province, the heart of the country’s poppy production, and Oruzgan and Zabul Provinces.

Some of the jostling for power may involve other family members. Mr. Karzai’s relatives said the killing came as Mahmoud Karzai, another brother of the president, who has been under criminal investigation in the United States, was moving to live full time in Kandahar. Two young cousins of the president, Hashmat and Hekmat Karzai, who have been feuding with Ahmed Wali and Mahmoud, are also viewed as vying for greater political and economic power, the relatives said.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was 48 at the time of his death, had always denied the accusations that most American and Afghan officials believed: that he had connections to the opium trade, skimmed millions of dollars off contracts for supplying NATO troops and made deals with some Taliban even as he fiercely fought others. He delivered votes for President Karzai and gave him a measure of confidence that the Karzai family’s hold on its ancestral homeland in the south was secure.

American military strategists have praised the growing stability in the south in the wake of the buildup in troops there and have said they plan to shift troops to the east this winter. But those plans could be slowed if instability rises again in the south.

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a former American commander in Afghanistan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the killing of Mr. Karzai “threatens to undermine the complex power structures that the U.S. and NATO forces have relied upon over the last year to support counterinsurgency gains in this region.”

Mr. Karzai, he said, “had the family ties, the tribal connections and the political and security muscle to get things done in and around Kandahar — and the coalition took full advantage of that power.”

It was a compromise many in the military came to reluctantly, and after failing to move him aside.

Military officials said that in April 2009, Gen. David D. McKiernan, then the top American commander in Afghanistan, told subordinates that he wanted them to gather any evidence that might tie the president’s half brother to the drug trade. “He put the word out that he wanted to ‘burn’ Ahmed Wali Karzai,” one of the military officials said.

But by the following year, the effort to persuade President Karzai to ease his half brother out of power, perhaps with a diplomatic posting, had failed. The bruising internal battles over Mr. Karzai’s role were largely settled, though there remained disagreements in Washington about whether his virtues as a tough ally against the Taliban balanced out the land grabs and corruption schemes that turned many Afghans against the government in Kabul.

“We tried to appeal to the better angels of his nature,” said a Western official who had watched Ahmed Wali Karzai for years. “But there was no turning him around, or rehabilitating him. We recognized that we needed him to help run the show down there. He controls everything, he has fingers in many pies. It was a marriage of convenience, so here we were banging on about corruption and he’s a poster child for it.”