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Half-Brother's Death Deals Blow to Afghan President

Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar, Afghanistan, April 14, 2010 (file photo)

Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar, Afghanistan, April 14, 2010 (file photo)

The killing of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother has removed a key power broker from the Afghan political scene. Ahmad Wali Karzai was the most powerful figure in Kandahar province, a hotbed of insurgent activity. His death is seen as a severe blow to the power base of President Karzai.

Ahmad Wali Karzai was head of the Kandahar provincial council, but had far more power than the provincial governor. He wielded both economic and political clout on behalf of himself and his half-brother, President Hamid Karzai, in the midst of the Taliban insurgency.

Ambassador Simon Gass, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, says Wali Karzai’s death is a severe political and personal blow to the Afghan president.

"Well, obviously Ahmad Wali Karzai was a really heavy hitter, particularly in Kandahar politics. He was the president’s brother, and the loss of him will be a tremendous blow to the president in personal terms. In political terms, there certainly will be a space created in Kandahar politics. But the president has many supporters in that city, not just one, and I’m sure that he’ll be resilient and bounce back from that," Gass said.

Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says Wali Karzai’s death deprives the president of a key ally who could deliver votes in elections and mobilize the ethnic Pashtun constituency.

"His ability - no matter how unsavory and so forth he might have been in regard to some of the activities he was reputed to have engaged in - his ability to deliver the south for (Hamid) Karzai and this region that is sort of the hotbed of anti-Karzai resistance was critical. And that’s going to be gone," Goodson said.

Offering his personal assessment, Goodson says he believes President Karzai has been looking for ways to stay in office. The president’s second term expires in 2014 - the year the U.S. troop withdrawal is scheduled to finish - and by law he cannot seek a third term. Goodson says Wali Karzai’s death will have what he terms an “enormous impact” on his half-brother’s plan to cling to power by amending the constitution or some other means.

"I think (Hamid) Karzai’s plan all along has been to find a way to get beyond the constitutional limit on two terms. He’s been looking for a way to alter the constitutional requirement and maintain his position. And Ahmad Wali’s ability to be a power broker in the volatile center of the insurgency region was critical to his efforts to do that," Goodson said.

But some analysts believe his death actually removes an irritant for the president. No longer will he have to answer the complaints from some Western diplomats about his half-brother’s behavior.

Wali Karzai was held up by many Western diplomats as the prime example of the corruption in Afghanistan. One former U.S. official with extensive experience in Afghanistan, who asked not to be named, said that whether true or not, everyone in Afghanistan believed Wali Karzai to be, as he put it, “a criminal, drug smuggler, thief, and a thug.” He held court like some medieval potentate, reports say, receiving diplomats and generals. He was dogged by allegations of corruption and involvement in the drug trade, charges he repeatedly denied. He was also alleged to be on the payroll of the CIA, which he also denied.

Whatever he actually was, Afghans are bracing for what comes next in Kandahar. Larry Goodson says it will be messy.

"I think what’s more likely to happen is there’s going to be a power struggle between various claimants to the throne in Kandahar. And the Taliban are going to be involved in trying to manipulate the outcome. And it’s probably going to be bloody. And the opportunity for increased corruption in the south is going to be there as people try to influence the outcome of that struggle. So I think that in the short and medium term, it’s likely to be really bad," Goodson said.

And the Taliban remain active in Kandhar. NATO Ambassador Simon Gass says the assassination of Wali Karzai - if it was indeed a Taliban killing, as they claim - is a sign of desperation.

"I do think that the policy of the insurgents now targeting senior Afghan leaders is really a self-defeating policy. Partly, of course, it reflects the fact that the insurgents are having such little success on the battlefield that they’re resorting more and more to attacks against individuals, and also a few spectacular and complex attacks against particular cities," Gass said.

Much of the U.S. troop surge ordered last year by the Obama administration was focused on Kandahar. Analysts voice concern that the NATO forces in the province could get caught in the middle of bloody contest to fill the power vacuum created by Ahmad Wali Karzai's death.