3 Quick Questions: Karzai’s brother assassinated
Hamid Karzai’s younger half brother, Ahmad Wali, was a master of balancing various powerful forces in southern Afghanistan — tribal leaders, U.S. and NATO military and intelligence interests, allegedly even powerful drug lords. It’s what made him such a valuable asset to his older brother. He was also a link for President Karzai to the ...
Hamid Karzai's younger half brother, Ahmad Wali, was a master of balancing various powerful forces in southern Afghanistan -- tribal leaders, U.S. and NATO military and intelligence interests, allegedly even powerful drug lords. It's what made him such a valuable asset to his older brother.
Hamid Karzai’s younger half brother, Ahmad Wali, was a master of balancing various powerful forces in southern Afghanistan — tribal leaders, U.S. and NATO military and intelligence interests, allegedly even powerful drug lords. It’s what made him such a valuable asset to his older brother.
He was also a link for President Karzai to the murkier side of Afghan politics — tribal power. Karzai may have won the presidency through elections, but he maintained power the way politics in Afghanistan has always been played — through patronage and tribal links.
Moreover, Ahmad Wali managed the troubled southern city of Kandahar, keeping it in his brother’s political sphere. As Vali Nasr, a former senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, put it, "Afghan politics is all about power brokers and their webs of relationships. The bigger your web, the more powerful you are."
His assassination — which the Taliban has taken credit for — leaves a number of tricky questions for Karzai and the United States.
Did the Taliban just send a message about negotiations?
Just last month, Hamid Karzai said peace talks with the Taliban are "going well." As relations between Karzai and the United States have become more contentious — and the U.S. drawdown begins — the Afghan president has grown more open in public to reestablishing relations to the Taliban.
As far as negotiating tactics go, killing the leader’s brother isn’t exactly a way to send a positive signal. Even if they didn’t kill him, as Matthieu Akins suggests, they are still taking credit.
"It would suggest they are not in a reconciliation mood," Nasr told Foreign Policy.
President Obama has seen political negotiations as necessary to ending the war. Karzai’s death may have just delivered a severe blow to those hopes.
"It puts the burden on the United States and the Karzai government," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. "Will we suspend talks with the Taliban because they claimed credit for something like this? The burden is on Karzai. He’s been calling them his ‘brothers,’ talking to them, and encouraging them to make peace."
Who fills the sizable power vacuum in Kandahar?
Ahmad Wali was an easy figure to criticize — a man with murky ties and no clear political ideology — but his absence will be felt in Kandahar, a city key to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
"Good or bad, he was nevertheless Karzai’s most important instrument and pillar of authority in Kandahar," Nasr said. "Without him, we’ll have a much more dangerous time dealing with that city."
Now, who will manage the complex web of tribal power brokers there? Potentially the Taliban, said Nasr. But expect some battles between aspiring warlords over his turf.
Karzai will surely try to fill the breach with someone else. But there’s no guarantee his new man — whomever that may be — will be able to keep the lid on the city with quite as much success.
What does his death mean for the United States?
The United States could never seem to make up its mind about the younger Karzai. They acknowledged his vast corruption and dirty dealings, but also seemed to realize his brand of Afghan power politics was necessary, to a degree. He was regarded by U.S. intelligence officials as "indispensable," according to the Washington Post, even if he "has long been viewed with mistrust by American military officers, who describe him as an obstacle in their efforts to fight corruption and bolster the rule of law."
Last March, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told his subordinates to "stop saying bad stuff about" the younger Karzai and to work with him.
Karzai had ties to the CIA (some reports say he was on their payroll in exchange for security forces and providing safe houses around Kandahar). But many in Washington also believed he was tied to the opium trade and other illicit activities.
Still, Khalilzad said that when he was ambassador, the United States dealt with him effectively on a number of security issues, as well as facilitating engagement with local leaders. "He was seen as being helpful," he said.
However, another former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry called Ahmad Wali Karzai an obstacle to U.S. efforts, according to a leaked diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks.
"One of our major challenges in Afghanistan [is] how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt," he wrote. The memo singled out Ahmad Wali as "widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker."
Good or bad, his death surely complicates efforts to bring peace to the southern region of Afghanistan — and clearly highlights the lack of security for the highest echelons of the government there.
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