For the Americans trying to pacify the south of Afghanistan, Ahmed Wali Karzai might prove even more troublesome in death than he was in life.
The younger half brother of President Hamid Karzai, shot to death in his Kandahar home Tuesday by a trusted family associate who was also a commander in the Afghan police force, was the principal power broker in Kandahar province, the ancestral home of the Karzai clan.
His vast influence, rooted in business and family connections, made him a seemingly indispensible Western ally in a long-volatile region considered pivotal to the success of the American-led military effort. But allegations that Karzai sat at the nexus of corruption and drug-running in southern Afghanistan also made him a liability both to his sibling and his U.S. patrons.
Word of his violent demise sent shock waves through the province and Afghanistan's wider political world. It also raised fears of a chaotic power struggle in Kandahar province, where the Taliban movement was born and where Western troops last year made substantial gains against insurgents — progress that some U.S. commanders fear could be jeopardized by the impending drawdown of American troops.
A solemn Hamid Karzai described his half brother, who was about 50 and the father of five young children, as having been "martyred."
"Every family in Afghanistan has suffered such pain," said the president, pale but composed as he appeared at a news conference with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozyhours after the shooting. "I hope the miseries of our people will end one day, and peace and stability will reign in our country."
A provincial spokesman, Zalmay Ayoubi, said the assailant was a company commander in the national police who played an important role in safeguarding Ahmed Wali Karzai, with direct responsibility for checkpoints surrounding his second home outside Kandahar city. Identified as Sardar Mohammed, the gunman had a long association with the family and had previously worked as a bodyguard for another Karzai brother.
The shooting occurred as Ahmed Wali Karzai was receiving guests at his heavily guarded compound in the city, according to a provincial official who was in the building at the time. Every day, dozens of people arrived to ask him for help or favors, and turbaned tribal elders would routinely come to discuss business or seek aid in mediating disputes. American military officials often visited the compound as well.
Karzai had left a meeting to go into an adjacent room with Mohammed when shots rang out, the official said. The gunman was killed almost immediately by other members of the security detail. Karzai was rushed to a nearby hospital but could not be revived.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing. But the group often makes opportunistic assertions of being behind attacks on the government or NATO forces, and it could not immediately be determined whether the assailant had acted at the group's behest or had some other motive. Karzai had many personal and political enmities stemming from clan rivalries and the sometimes cutthroat business dealings he was involved in.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi, in a statement, referred to the killer by name and suggested he had been a sleeper agent for some time. The attack, he said, was aimed at President Karzai's "puppet regime."
Ahmed Wali Karzai was the head of Kandahar's provincial council, but he wielded far more power than his official position would dictate. Critics, including U.S. officials, said he was deeply involved in corruption, some of it stemming from Kandahar's flourishing narcotics trade.
In secret documents made public last year by the WikiLeaks website, U.S. diplomats portrayed Karzai, referred to as "AWK," as a Mafia-like figure entangled in a variety of illegal activities. He consistently denied the allegations, and also hotly disputed reports that he was involved with the CIA.
He bore some resemblance to the president, though with beefier features. Like him, he could present a charming and urbane demeanor, speaking nearly unaccented American English. But also like his famous brother, he had a temper, and those around him feared his wrath.
U.S. officials had for a time pressed for Karzai's removal from his post despite his pro-American stance. But President Karzai staunchly defended him, and in the end U.S. officials decided that without his assistance, it would be difficult to move ahead with their anti-Taliban campaign in Kandahar. A U.S.-led offensive last summer drove insurgents from longtime strongholds around Kandahar city, bringing relative calm.
Karzai "knew that it was in his interest to keep violence at a level that was tolerable to us," said Robert Lamb, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "That's how his bread got buttered."
Efforts to follow the military push with better governance have proved more problematic, in part because of pervasive corruption and inefficiency. Analysts said Karzai's death would undoubtedly complicate Western efforts in the south, as tribal rivals and others seek to fill the power vacuum and move in on his lucrative holdings.
"There will be a struggle for power there," said Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "A lot of the gains that have been made could be lost."
Karzai's death could also prove politically injurious to President Karzai, who has lost an essential contact with his ethnic base, the Pashtuns, at a time when the Afghan government must show it can maintain control as the U.S. begins its departure.
"He was able to exert influence in the heartland of the Taliban insurgency," said John Nagl, president of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "It is unclear who has the stature to replace him."
One potential beneficiary might be Abdul Razzaq, the provincial border police chief who has worked closely with U.S. officials and is widely credited with bringing order to southern Kandahar province.
Official American condolences were carefully worded, condemning the killing and offering sympathies to the Afghan president and his family but pointedly avoiding commentary about the dead man himself. U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the outgoing commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, said the NATO force would do all it could to help Afghan authorities bring the guilty to justice.
In the dusty streets and bazaars of Kandahar, word of Karzai's death spread like wildfire. He was a much-feared figure, and some expressed relief at his demise, saying he wielded life-and-death power over too many people. Others expressed apprehension over the struggle for the spoils that seemed certain to follow.
"He was a bad character," said a Kandahar shopkeeper named Assadullah, who uses only one name. "He was more powerful than the police, the governor, than anyone."
Others, though, hailed him as a unifying force in a region beset by infighting.
"His death will leave a great void," said Bismillah Afghanmal, a parliamentarian from Kandahar. "He was a decision-maker; he was able to solve problems."
Assassinations are commonplace in Kandahar, sometimes carried out by close associates of the target or by someone in uniform who can circumvent the extremely heavy security that surrounds all prominent figures. In April, Kandahar's provincial police chief was killed by an assailant who managed to talk his way into the fortified police headquarters, saying he had an important message for the chief.
Karzai's compound, in the center of Kandahar, was one of the city's most heavily secured complexes, with high concrete barriers and several layers of guards and checkpoints. Most vehicles could not enter, and guests routinely underwent body searches.
Karzai, who had survived several previous assassination attempts, said in an interview with The Times in 2009 that he did not dwell on his personal safety.
"I never think about it," he said. "It's not something I can worry over."