Karzai brother, controversial powerbroker, assassinated
Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s controversial brother, rode the tide of history from an Afghan refugee to Chicago restaurateur to powerbroker. His killing on Tuesday has sent shockwaves across the country.
Fingering his prayer beads, his portly frame encased in a loose-fitting shalwar kameez – the traditional ensemble favoured by Afghanistan’s most powerful men – Ahmed Wali Karzai for many years held a quasi durbar in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, where his constituents arrived to plead their cases and lodge their complaints because they knew Karzai had more power and influence than any other man in southern Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a man popularly known as “the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan”, was killed in his home city of Kandahar.
His assassination sent shockwaves across the country and the international community, with the killing widely seen as a personal blow to the Afghan president.
“Politics in Afghanistan is very personalized, so his death is highly symbolic,” said Thomas Ruttig, a former UN diplomat and co-founder of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “For (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai, his death is a psychological blow. This attack will be interpreted as a blow against the Afghan president.”
Born in the southern Afghan town of Karz in 1961, Karzai – like his brothers – fled Afghanistan for Pakistan during the Soviet occupation before making his way to the US, where he owned a restaurant in Chicago.
Shortly after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, Karzai returned to his homeland where he rapidly gained prominence – mostly for the wrong reasons. Persistent reports of his links with the drug trade seriously undermined his brother’s credibility as the international community’s complaints of Karzai's corruption grew louder.
Despite increasing international pressure, President Karzai refused – or was unable – to control the influence of his younger brother in southern Afghanistan.
Who killed Karzai? Claims, counterclaims, no surprises
The head of the Kandahar provincial council, Karzai was widely reputed to have links with drug barons, criminal networks, security services as well as the CIA. As his fame and power grew over the past few years, he was perennially shadowed by a retinue of heavily armed bodyguards
But according to early reports, it was apparently one of those bodyguards who turned fire on the man he was supposed to protect.
Shortly after the attack, Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, head of the counter-terrorism department at the Afghan Interior Ministry, told Reuters that, “It appears Ahmad Wali Karzai has been killed by one of his bodyguard, and there was nobody from outside involved."
The Taliban were quick to take responsibility for the attack – one of the most high-profile and carefully targeted since they were ousted from power in 2001.
In a phone interview with the AFP, a purported Taliban spokesman said the militant group had assigned a gunman – whom he referred to as “Sardar Mohammad” – to kill Karzai.
"This is one of our biggest achievements since the (spring) operation began. We assigned Sardar Mohammad to kill him recently and Sardar Mohammad is also martyred," said the purported Taliban spokesman.
But an Afghan intelligence official refuted the Taliban’s claim, maintaining that Karzai was killed by an “old friend”.
"He was visiting Wali in his home. They were meeting alone in a room, and he gets his pistol and shoots him dead,” said the official, speaking to the AFP on condition of anonymity.
The assassin was later killed by Karzai’s bodyguards, added the intelligence official.
The claims and counterclaims surrounding Karzai’s assassination did not surprise Ruttig, a veteran Afghan expert. “It’s too early to tell if the Taliban claims are credible,” said Ruttig. “They would definitely have tried to target him, but then so many others would be interested in eliminating him. This is a man who had armed factions, counterinsurgency forces. His people killed a lot of people and many Afghans claimed they were not the Taliban, but Karzai’s enemies. There’s a whole spectrum of people who could have conducted the attack.”
Tuesday’s attack was not the first attempt on Karzai’s life. In May 2009, his motorcade was ambushed by insurgents firing rockets and machine guns in the eastern province of Nangarhar. One of his bodyguards was killed, but Karzai was not harmed.
‘My younger brother was martyred’
Karzai’s assassination came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy was on a brief visit to Afghanistan Tuesday morning.
At a joint press conference in Kabul Tuesday, President Karzai confirmed the killing of his younger brother.
"My younger brother was martyred in his house today. This is the life of all Afghan people, I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end," said President Karzai at the start of a news conference with Sarkozy.
Earlier Tuesday, Sarkozy visited a French military base in the eastern Afghan province of Kapisa. Addressing French soldiers in Kapisa, Sarkozy said France would pull out 1,000 troops by the end of 2012 as it speeds up its withdrawal with the United States.
France has some 4,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
As the international troop presence winds down in Afghanistan ahead of the 2014 pullout, many Afghan and international military experts worry that Afghan troops are not sufficiently equipped to handle security in the volatile, war-torn nation.
The murder of the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, a man who rode the tide of history from an Afghan refugee to Chicago restaurateur to powerbroker, highlights the insecurity in Afghanistan a decade after the international mission there began.