07.12.11

Why Ahmed Wali Karzai Was a Target

Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, was killed by one of his own bodyguards. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau report on the warning signs and the power broker’s enemies.

Many Afghans and American militarymen believed it was only a matter of time before he would be killed. Their predictions came true on Tuesday morning when Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of the Afghan president and by far the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards inside his heavily fortified home in Kandahar City. For nearly the past decade he had acted as the region’s ultimate power broker. His death will doubtlessly unleash a power struggle among government officials, police and military officers, narcotics smugglers, and tribal chieftains who kicked back a large share of their action made possible by his patronage.

His death could bring further turmoil to the strategic region. Without his firm hand to keep all those competing interests in check, southern Afghanistan could become less stable at a time when the U.S. military was confident that its surge forces had seriously weakened the insurgency in the Taliban’s strategic heartland. Over the past 18 months American forces had killed and captured thousands of insurgents, pushing them far away from the key populated areas they had long occupied. Karzai had long been seen as a crucial U.S. ally in the region. In 2009 it was widely reported that he had been on the CIA’s payroll for years. Not only had he provided a degree of stability through his vast patronage politics, the private militia forces that he had raised for the CIA took a heavy toll on the Taliban.

But U.S. militarymen also saw him as a liability. Although never proved, Karzai, 50, was widely accused of being at the center of the southern region’s multibillion-dollar narcotics industry, a charge he vehemently denied. His brother, President Hamid Karzai, also staunchly defended his brother’s innocence. Of late AWK, as the American militarymen called him, had become almost too authoritarian and powerful for his own good. He heavily favored his own tribe, the Popalzai, to the detriment of other clans who bitterly resented his partiality. This favoritism coupled with the fact that he sat atop of a pyramid of corruption ranging from shady real estate deals, to kickbacks on construction contracts, and getting his fair share of the shakedowns of truckers and buses at police posts and bureaucratic bribes certainly helped Taliban recruiters. “He was using all his power to get money from others, and even caused us to stop a road construction project,” says one Afghan aid official who declines to be quoted because of the sensitivity of his comment. “He had guns and money and was the king of Kandahar.” In the end, he may have overplayed his hand. There clearly was growing resentment toward him in the city and province. “There’s an undercurrent of anti-AWK sentiment,” said one American officer in the region last month. “Within six months you may hear a loud ‘pop’ in the city.”

That sound came from the AK-47 of one of his own bodyguards who reportedly entered a room of his home where Karzai was meeting with tribal elders and politicians and asked him to step outside. When Karzai did, the bodyguard opened up on him, hitting him at least three times. The attacker was immediately killed by Karzai's other bodyguards. Karzai died on his way to the Kandahar hospital.

Until then he had lived a charmed life. The Taliban had tried to kill him multiple times unsuccessfully. In May 2009 his motorcade was ambushed by gunmen firing RPGs and automatic rifles. Only one of his bodyguards was killed. Earlier that year four Taliban suicide bombers attacked Kandahar’s provincial council office, killing 13 people but Karzai had just left the building before the attack. The year before a gasoline tanker truck exploded near a building in which he was holding a meeting. He emerged unscathed but six people were killed and 40 were wounded in the blast.

“He had guns and money and was the king of Kandahar,” one Afghan aid official says.

Although the Taliban has claimed responsibility for his death, a senior Taliban intelligence officer who has provided The Daily Beast with reliable information in the past says he doubts the boast. “I doubt that there is a Taliban connection to Ahmed Wali’s death.” He points out that there was also friction within the family among several brothers and cousins.

Regardless of who killed him, most Taliban certainly welcome his death. “Ahmed Wali was the best U.S. friend and the Taliban’s worst enemy. He and his whole family have the blood of thousands of Taliban on their hands,” says Mullah Adam Haji, a Taliban subcommander. “His death is very good news for us.”

But another ranking Taliban who declined to be quoted by name for security reasons says his death could be a setback for possible peace talks as a result of Karzai’s contacts with the insurgency. “He was in indirect contact with lots of Taliban,” the senior Taliban says. “His men many times visited the Taliban not for peace talks but to talk about local, tribal and social issues … I don’t think the Taliban hate Ahmed Wali as much as his brother [President Karzai],” the insurgent adds. “So his death has collapsed a strong and high bridge that could have been used for any upcoming peace talks.”

Regardless of how he is viewed, his death will have a significant impact on the region’s stability and its prospects for peace.