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Killing of Afghan ‘Godfather’ Fuels New Questions on Stability

July 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated in Kandahar on Tuesday by a longtime associate, who was then killed by guards. Judy Woodruff discusses the killing of the Afghan president's half-brother and what it means for Afghan security with the Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin and the Naval Postgraduate School's Thomas Johnson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we go to Trudy Rubin, a foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She interviewed Ahmed Wali Karzai this past May. And Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., as an adviser to the Canadian military, he participated in meetings with Ahmed Wali Karzai.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Thomas Johnson, to you first. What more is known about what happened here, about who would kill the president — President Karzai’s brother?

THOMAS JOHNSON, Naval Postgraduate School: Well, apparently, the person that killed him, Mohammed, was a commander of a militia south of the city in Kandahar, but also a very close friend of the Karzai family.

In fact, his family was responsible for the security at Hamid Karzai’s father’s grave site. And what I have under — what I have been told by my sources is that, at about 11:00 a.m. this morning, Mohammed showed up at Ahmed Wali Karzai’s estate and asked to speak to Karzai.

He walked in with a letter in hand and brought out a pistol. Karzai came out of his bathroom and apparently was shot in the chest and also in the head, as you reported. So it’s been reported that this person was basically a bodyguard for the Karzai family. And I think that’s somewhat of an overstatement.

One of the checkpoints that his militia controlled, controlled the access to another Karzai brother, Quayum Karzai. So, I don’t think he was really a bodyguard. So — but the militia connection raises some issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that suggest some sort of internal feud, or is that pure speculation?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, I think that’s almost pure speculation.

There could be a feud. Oftentimes, with many of these local militias, there are feuds. I mean, Ahmed Karzai himself, AWK, as he’s known, had his own tribal militia known as the Kandahar Strike Force. And Karzai was basically the manager of the president’s affairs in the south, and he had many friends, but he also had many enemies.

As you mentioned in the lead-in to this article — to this segment, he was also alleged of having opium connections, especially with his trucking firm. So, he had enemies. He had many friends.

I once had a NATO general, a very senior NATO general, tell me that nothing important happened in Kandahar without AWK’s knowledge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trudy Rubin, fill in more of the picture of who he was and the role that he filled in the southern part of the country.

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, when I interviewed him at his home in May, you could see that this man was the godfather.

There was already a queue waiting to see him at 10:00 in the morning. I met him in a large meeting room which was lined with big plush couches and chairs. He was cross-legged, barefoot in a (INAUDIBLE) the loose garment, tunic and pants. And his cell phone was ringing constantly.

It was clear from what he said and what everybody knew nothing happened in the city without his being a part of it. In fact, the governor of Kandahar Province and the mayor of Kandahar City were both expatriates. The mayor is an accountant from Virginia, an African-American.

The governor is an academic from Canada. And they were family friends of the Karzais, with his approval put in. But, basically, he ran both the city and the province and was very influential in peace — in police appointments, in every kind of appointment and business dealing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thomas Johnson, tell us more about how he operated. Or do you have examples of what he did to exert his control over the area, over people?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, let me put it this way. To understand the politics, the security, the economics, the basic situation in Kandahar and Kandahar City, you have to know three things. You need to know the relationships between the different powerful families, clans and tribes.

Ahmed Wali Karzai was a Popalzai Durrani, a very prominent tribe in the south. The second thing you need to know is the relationship — the elicit business relationships. He was an entrepreneur. He was involved in cement. He was involved in trucking. He had land reaches all the way from Dand all the way up into Arghandab.

Two years ago, a very knowledgeable person told me that if land had any water near it, Ahmed Wali Karzai probably owned it. So, he was a businessman that accumulated great wealth. And with wealth come power, especially when you’re the younger half-brother of the president of the country.

And the third thing to understand — that you need to know to understand the dynamics of Kandahar and Kandahar City is the illicit business relationships, so tribe licit and illicit business relationships.

And he was heavily woven into everything. I mean, I can recall times out in some of the hinterland provinces, for example, in Panjwai where there were serious discussions going on concerning who would be the governor, the district governor. And AWK, Ahmed Wali Karzai, played a role at that level. I mean, nothing happened down there without his knowledge. That’s not to suggest he controlled everything, but he knew what was going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Trudy Rubin, despite all this, or maybe because of it, he still had a very close connection evidently with U.S. forces, with other Western forces in the country, the military.

TRUDY RUBIN: Yes.

When Gen. McChrystal came in, in 2009, I believe it was, there was a serious thinking and effort to try to get rid of him. That was because McChrystal was really focused on a counterinsurgency strategy that believed, that argued that you needed to win the support of the population, get them to support the legitimate government, and not feel that they had to turn to the Taliban because there was no governance, no court system, no law and order.

And so the chief of military intelligence for McChrystal, Gen. Mike Flynn, actually said famously to The New York Times that the only way to get rid of — the only way — sorry — to clean up Chicago was to get rid of Capone. And he meant Ahmed Wali Karzai.

But that effort sizzled, in part because the president, his half-brother, stood firmly behind him, and, in part, I think because the Americans realized they couldn’t handle the tribal dynamics in Kandahar. And he did know everybody, and, in fact, became more adept I think in the latter part of the decade in spreading out appointments to other tribes, because it had been a complaint that he was giving too much to his own tribal colleagues.

And then, of course, the CIA was reportedly paying him for many years. This was in reported in 2009.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thomas Johnson, it’s early, but what is the sense of the impact this is going to have on Afghanistan and on U.S. plans to pull troops out?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, you know, I’m sure it’s going to have a major psychological impact, at least over the short term, with his brother.

I think that there’s going to be a lot of maneuvering, both relative to major families and tribes and other personalities, now that this power vacuum has been created. He was the president’s manager in Kandahar. So there’s going to be a bunch of maneuvering for this.

And this could lead to some insecurity that could have an impact on the drawdown. But I don’t think it’s going to be very significant. And, finally, I think that, most importantly, this is just a further demonstration to the Afghan people that nobody appears to be safe in the country. Now, I’m sure the Taliban were probably not involved, but it does send a message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Trudy Rubin, a sense of where things go from here in Afghanistan.

TRUDY RUBIN: Yes.

When I was there, there had already been a rash of assassinations of top officials in Kandahar, including the previous police chief in Kandahar City. So this certainly will make officials feel uncertain, feel that nobody is safe.

And, moreover, to find somebody who is acceptable, who can maneuver and manage all the tribes and the Americans can rely on in Kandahar is going to be a very tough job. And the candidates mentioned so far are other warlords who have their own problems, so this really hurts the American effort in southern Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trudy Rubin, Thomas Johnson, we thank you both.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Thank you.