The South Asia Channel

Kandahar’s looming tribal struggle

Kandahar’s looming tribal struggle

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, younger brother of Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai, as well as a suspected drug baron and CIA partner alike, seems to dangerously complicate the already problematical situation in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.

Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, Kandahar has been vitally important for President Karzai. The importance of Kandahar for him mainly originates from the struggle for power among various Pashtun tribes in the province. Kandahar is one of the few provinces in Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgents have consistently been and continue to be violently active.

Right after the fall of the Taliban regime, Gul Agha Sherzai, an influential figure from the Barakzai tribe, became the governor of Kandahar. Sherzai actively tried to manipulate other tribes in Kandahar, a move which was not welcomed by President Karzai, who wanted his tribe, the Popalzai, to be the province’s most powerful. Regular and active efforts by Sherzai to make the Barakzai tribe more powerful provoked President Karzia to eventually take action and remove Sherzai from his position.

Vahid Mojdeh, an Afghan political analyst and former Taliban foreign ministry worker, told me, "In 2003, President Karzai intentionally removed and extradited Sherzai from Kandahar. His aim behind the move was obvious: to pave the way for Popalzai tribe to take the leading role in Kandahar and he did so by giving power to his controversial younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai."

The removal of Sherzai from Kandahar practically paved the way for Karzai’s family and tribe to emerge as regional leaders. At that stage, Wali Karzai began to strengthen his own powerbase. Officially, Wali Karzai was the head of Kandahar Provincial Council, but in practice, according to experts, he was a jack of all trades in the province.

"He [Ahmad Wali Karzai] was the unofficial powerful governor of Kandahar. Without his approval, no single senior provincial officials, including the governors were able to take any important action. No one would dare to stand up against his wishes, if they did, they were soon laid off from their positions" Mojdeh added.

The assassination of Wali Karzai occurred at a time when President Karzai is facing several major problems, each of which requires time and wise policies. These problems include the rigid stance of a number of Afghan parliamentarians against the decisions of Karzai’s Special Election Tribunal, continuous rocket attacks by Pakistan on Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, and increasing insecurity throughout the country.

There are already a number of speculations about the motivation behind the assassination, including possible personal tension, money, seeking revenge for an unknown slight, as well as potentially honor-related issues, a common factor behind disputes in Afghanistan. Yet the reasons behind the assassination are not nearly as important as the question of what will happen next.

There are several important questions to be answered. If the Taliban are responsible for the assassination, as they have claimed, what will be the reaction of President Karzai? Will he try to seek revenge? If so, what will happen to his call for peace with the Taliban, whom he consistently refers to as his "brothers"? According to Abdul Hai, an Afghan political expert, "If the Taliban are behind this assassination, and Karzai tries to seek revenge, not only will it sabotage the peace process with the insurgents, but also escalate the ongoing conflict."

The other question is whether President Karzai will be able to deal with the sudden dissipation of his brother’s considerable power and influence. Karzai swiftly named his brother Shah Wali Karzai as the head of the Karzai family and the Popalzai tribe, but according to an Afghan reporter in Kandahar, who asked not to be named "It will be extremely difficult for President Karzai-if not impossible-to fill the vacuum of power caused by assassination of his brother."

Vahid Mojdeh has a similar opinion about the issue. He believes that in the short run, there is no single person within Karzai’s family who could even remotely fill the gap created Wali Karzai’s death. So this killing means not only the loss of family member for President Karzai, but also the very possible loss of power and political reach in Afghanistan’s south. 

One Wednesday, under a tight security measures, President Karzai attended the funeral of Ahmed Wali in Kandahar, where he praised the work of his late brother and cried publicly. Hundreds of high-ranking Afghan officials, including Sherzai attended the funeral, and participated in the ceremonial appointment of Shah Wali to head the Popalzais. Meanwhile, some tough opponents of President Karzai including Abdullah Abdullah, his main rival in last presidential elections, and Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief and staunch opponent of reconciliation with the Taliban, condemned Ahmed Wali’s killing and expressed their sympathy to President Karzai.

Sherzai, who now serves as the governor of the eastern province of Nangarhar, may not take speedy action to seek power in Kandahar. Nevertheless, in the long-run, the Barakzai tribe at large will. The reason is clear: the two tribes — Popalzai and Barikzai — have had an entrenched and protracted conflict against each other for decades, one that will only continue to play itself out.

It is unclear what the situation will look like in Kandahar in the coming days, weeks and months. But according to some political analysts, the relatively latent, but protracted, conflict among rival tribes will manifest itself as they strive for a larger share of power and privilege in the region.

This in turn will enable the Taliban to take advantage of the confusion and power vacuum to further destabilize security in Kandahar and adjoining provinces like Helmand, where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed. This will only further complicate the already difficult situation in Afghanistan’s south and throughout the country, as American forces begin their withdrawal.

Khalid Mafton is an Afghan writer and analyst.