A trusted family associate shot Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, multiple times this morning in one of Wali’s five Kandahar mansions. While the Taliban have claimed responsibility for his death, there’s no reason — yet — to think Sardar Mohammed, who was quickly gunned down by Wali Karzai’s bodyguards, had any connection to the insurgency.
In a way, AWK, as he was known, was the penultimate Afghan leader: Deeply popular to his followers, hated and feared by everyone else, involved in a number of questionable activities, but utterly essential to the American presence. Rumors abound that he was on the payroll of the CIA, that he ran his own private army, that he was a vital node in monitoring and attacking the insurgency in the country’s south. Like Afghanistan itself, AWK was fascinating, dangerous, and tightly controlled Western access to his domain.
While everyone ponders the big questions about AWK’s death — especially those related to his place as a regional security broker — it’s worth considering how the contradictions of his rule in Kandahar played out. He was elected to Kandahar’s provincial council in 2005, in one of the few actually democratic and fair elections in the country. AWK zealously defended his people, and among direct recipients of his patronage and support he inspired fierce loyalty.
Whatever his influence as a political stabilizer, though, Ahmed Wali was also an economic and political nightmare. He would, in essence, hold court at his many offices and mansions around Kandahar city, circumventing the "legitimate" government and doling out to his supplicants handfuls of cash everyone whispered were gained through smuggling opium. From a business perspective, AWK was a mafia don, controlling his own business interests with an iron fist and, the rumors go, violently attacking anyone who posed too much competition.
When you combine his violent business activities with his close association with his brother Hamid, it is unsurprising that AWK had a list of enemies as large as the Hindu Kush Mountains. Even if his killer turns out to have very little real association with the Taliban, AWK’s death is, in many ways, just the latest in a string of violent acts against Kandahar’s prominent leaders.
From the perspective of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), this throws things into disarray. Much like the 32-year old Gen. Abdul Raziq, AWK was beloved of the Americans in particular because of his penchant for getting things done. The Western preference for working through strongmen and thugs probably won’t abate even now, which is a real shame.
Ever since the 2007 death of anti-Taliban tribal leader Mullah Naqib, in the Arghandab Valley just north of Kandahar City, the province’s leaders have been under the constant threat of death-often from the Taliban, but sometimes from their local rivals. Four years ago, ISAF had the opportunity to start developing the fundamentals of the institutions of government in the area, a system of rule based not on personality or thuggery, but laws, regulations, and structure. They chose, instead, to go through Ahmed Wali Karzai.
When your entire modus operandi is based on friendly local strongmen,you rise and fall on their backs. AWK reaped what he sowed in Kandahar: A vicious rule by thug, gently papered over with the veneer of respectability and Western-friendliness. Among the Americans, his loss is devastating; among the Afghans, he will barely be missed.