My meeting with Ahmed Wali Karzai
Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid’s half-brother, was assassinated in Kandahar on Tuesday. Wali was many things: the most powerful man in Kandahar, head of the provincial council there, chieftain of the Popalzai tribe, and allegedly a major player in the regional narcotics trade, according to the New York Times. I had occasion to meet with many ...
Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid's half-brother, was assassinated in Kandahar on Tuesday.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, Hamid’s half-brother, was assassinated in Kandahar on Tuesday.
Wali was many things: the most powerful man in Kandahar, head of the provincial council there, chieftain of the Popalzai tribe, and allegedly a major player in the regional narcotics trade, according to the New York Times.
I had occasion to meet with many Afghan officials over the years in my position as director for Afghanistan with the National Security Council staff. I had a two-hour one-on-one meeting with Wali several years back. He was dressed in a simple shalwar kameez, which surprised me. Some Afghan officials I met with, including Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Shirzai, were more showy about their power and opulence, while others, like Amrullah Saleh, took pride in their immaculate western business suits. Wali’s attire suggested a show of appealing simplicity.
Wali also spoke in a far more direct, clear, and polished western kind of way. By contrast, the older warlords like Shirzai or Ismail Khan have a roundabout, faux-grandiose style of declaiming from on high, like they are auditioning for an amateur production of The Godfather. Wali knew what westerners wanted to hear, and he gave me one of the most powerful, blunt, and impassioned tirades against the corrupting effects of the drug trade I have ever heard. The irony was not lost on me.
I believe Wali rose to his position — powerbroker of Kandahar — because he had a unique ability to be all things to all people. He could speak everyone’s language. He could be a thug among thugs, an enlightened statesman among international technocrats, a tribal elder among the Popalzai, and an Afghan nationalist among his Kandaharis. In that sense, he was very much like his older brother, Hamid.
The Taliban have claimed credit for his killing. Other reports say he was killed by a bodyguard or by a local commander with ties to the Karzai family. They might all be true. Wali moved in the shadow worlds of espionage, smuggling, politics, and tribal rivalry. He made enough enemies that any one of them would have been happy to pull the trigger. More than likely, a handful of factions cooperated in the killing when it came down to it.
Was he one of the good guys? Wali was no poster boy for democracy and human rights. He was, however, supremely effective in the wheeling and dealing of Afghan politics. He knew how to manage the factions, tribes, smugglers, and other interests of the crucial southern theater of the war. His alleged ties to the drug trade didn’t do Kabul or Washington any favors.
Critics of Wali should keep this in mind: We have apparently lowered the bar for success in Afghanistan to getting to "good enough" governance in Afghanistan that is dependent on "local solutions" and "Afghan tradition." That sounds an awful lot like Ahmed Wali Karzai and his ilk. His death blows the lid off the simmering pot of Kandahari politics, and is likely to set off a destabilizing power struggle across the south that will do nothing to help the war effort there.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2
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