The problem wasn’t just AWK

Though some valued the continuity he represented, it is a safe bet that there were few tears at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters when news broke that the man known as AWK had been killed Tuesday morning. The death of Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council and half-brother to Afghan president ...

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Though some valued the continuity he represented, it is a safe bet that there were few tears at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters when news broke that the man known as AWK had been killed Tuesday morning. The death of Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council and half-brother to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, leaves a gaping hole in Southern Afghanistan's power structure, and serves as an ominous metaphor for Afghan politics as a whole. In Afghanistan, your friends are often just as dangerous as your enemies-and those who live by the gun often die by it as well.

That is why the key question in the wake of AWK's death is not whether his assassin, Sardar Muhammad, was a long-time Taliban sleeper agent, had a personal grievance, or represented a competing criminal network-all of which are possible. There are many reasons to kill in Afghanistan, and distinguishing between political, personal, and criminal motivations is to assume that there is necessarily a difference. One lesson from AWK's life is that criminal, familial, insurgent, and political spheres overlap tremendously in Afghanistan. The key question highlighted by his death is whether that system can be changed-and the answer seems to be no. Turns out AWK could not trust his friends; can ISAF vet its own any better?

Several reports have noted AWK's increasing collaboration with international forces over the past six months, a notion starkly contradicted by his past public image when he was widely disparaged as a criminal vampire taking advantage of a beleaguered Afghan political system. Times change. Interests change. And sometimes they coincide in unexpected ways. But the happenstance confluence of personal and state interest that incentivized collaboration between ISAF and AWK is no basis for a reliable political system.

Though some valued the continuity he represented, it is a safe bet that there were few tears at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters when news broke that the man known as AWK had been killed Tuesday morning. The death of Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council and half-brother to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, leaves a gaping hole in Southern Afghanistan’s power structure, and serves as an ominous metaphor for Afghan politics as a whole. In Afghanistan, your friends are often just as dangerous as your enemies-and those who live by the gun often die by it as well.

That is why the key question in the wake of AWK’s death is not whether his assassin, Sardar Muhammad, was a long-time Taliban sleeper agent, had a personal grievance, or represented a competing criminal network-all of which are possible. There are many reasons to kill in Afghanistan, and distinguishing between political, personal, and criminal motivations is to assume that there is necessarily a difference. One lesson from AWK’s life is that criminal, familial, insurgent, and political spheres overlap tremendously in Afghanistan. The key question highlighted by his death is whether that system can be changed-and the answer seems to be no. Turns out AWK could not trust his friends; can ISAF vet its own any better?

Several reports have noted AWK’s increasing collaboration with international forces over the past six months, a notion starkly contradicted by his past public image when he was widely disparaged as a criminal vampire taking advantage of a beleaguered Afghan political system. Times change. Interests change. And sometimes they coincide in unexpected ways. But the happenstance confluence of personal and state interest that incentivized collaboration between ISAF and AWK is no basis for a reliable political system.

It is time to question a fundamental notion of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which is the premise that the Afghan government can co-opt warlords and powerbrokers by incorporating them into the Afghan governance structure. The problem is that the institutions become fig leafs obscuring the deeper familial and economic power structures holding together political coalitions and the government itself. AWK was not a powerbroker because he was the head of Kandahar’s provincial council; he was head of the provincial council because he was a powerbroker.

A position in government legitimized and certified AWK’s power, but the bureaucracy and legal authority of the government was not its source-and in that way AWK was not unique. He was one of the strongest of Afghanistan’s politician-crime boss-tribal leaders, but the contours of his power are familiar nationwide. The problem in Afghanistan is that it is led by a legion of AWK-like powerbrokers whose negotiations and accommodations are dressed-up in the structures of a modern bureaucracy, but ultimately the result of older power structures and personal accommodations. Those accommodations are as fragile as the bodies of the individuals that make them.

As Afghanistan expert Michael Semple writes, "the trouble with a strategy…based upon constructing this highly personalized web of relationships and alliances, between commanders, tribal figures, the mafia and even elements in the Taliban is that there is no functioning institution to provide a successor."

President Karzai said of AWK’s assassination that, "this is the life of Afghan people, this sorrow is in every Afghan home, everyone of us has this sorrow." Without institutions strong enough to frame political relationships that supersede individuals, it will stay that way.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and a fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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