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Q&A: What Does the Assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai Mean for Afghanistan?

Ahmad Wali Karzai in Kandahar, Afghanistan on April 14, 2010. AP File Photo by Rahmat Gul

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, shows the depth and complexity of Afghanistan’s power struggles and the need to come to a political settlement to end the violence, some analysts say.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, leader of the Kandahar provincial council, was fatally shot Tuesday at his home in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan by a close associate, who was delivering papers for him to sign, reported the Associated Press.

“It’s not just the enemy which supports international terrorism that is destabilizing Afghanistan, but a whole variety of factions that are difficult to track and to calculate,” said Scott Worden, senior rule of law adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Attacks on government leaders and other violence contribute to a feeling of insecurity and instability among Afghan people, which is driving them away from the government and a peace process, Worden said. “So the sooner a peace process is started that seriously addresses all the interests of the different Afghan parties, the sooner this kind of violence can end.”

Here’s more of our Q&A:

The assassin appears to be a close associate. What does that tell us about the situation in Afghanistan?

SCOTT WORDEN: It illustrates the complexity of politics in Afghanistan, that while we’ve been focused on the insurgency as manifested by the Taliban, really the conflict in Afghanistan is the product of a lot of political rivalries, tribal rivalries, and complicated power dynamics. It’s not just the enemy which supports international terrorism that is destabilizing Afghanistan, but a whole variety of factions that are difficult to track and to calculate.

In Ahmed Wali Karzai’s particular case, he was one of the most powerful political figures in Kandahar if not the most powerful one, and so the fact that it’s a close associate doesn’t tell you immediately who is behind the killing or what the motivation was. It certainly could be linked to the insurgency, but it could just as easily be the result of business dealings or forms of corruption that Karzai might have been involved in. And it could be a rival that’s not associated with the Taliban who wanted to take him out.

Why did the Taliban claim responsibility?

SCOTT WORDEN: I think the Taliban tend to take responsibility for any attack or successful killing of international forces or Afghan government forces, and a lot of times they are behind it. But they want to get the public message out first that they were the ones that successfully penetrated what would have been a highly secure compound. They get a PR bump if people believe that they were behind the attack. It just remains to be seen what actually motivated it.

Ahmed Wali Karzai reportedly had become a political lightning rod for criticism of the government. Why is that?

SCOTT WORDEN: His family relationship with President Hamid Karzai, his half-brother, obviously was one avenue of power. He was head of the provincial council which itself is not a particularly powerful political entity — they don’t have a budget, they don’t have an official government role in making policy in the province. Usually the governor is the most powerful figure in the province.

The combination of his family connections, his business dealings — it’s been reported that he controlled a militia that was often subcontracted by international forces to run operations against the Taliban or other targets. So he had multiple sources of power that were beyond his normal government role and as such he stepped on a lot of toes for people that were in government in the form of other officials who were not as powerful as they would otherwise be if he wasn’t there.

He also was allegedly and I think convincingly linked to significant drug operations. He’s been accused of a lot of business corruption. His power kind of had many different paths that made him a controversial figure and potential destabilizer within Kandahar and the southern region.

What effects if any will his death have on the way the Karzai government operates?

SCOTT WORDEN: That’s the key question. I think in the short-term, we’re not going to see any radical changes because a lot of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s power was informal or unofficial. It was beyond the scope of just being the head of the provincial council. So it’s not like there’s a gap in official government structures that needs to be filled or that would cause any policy shifts.

Having said that, obviously Kandahar is one of the central fronts on the insurgency in the counterinsurgency effort. And so in the short-term I think that you will see Kandahar province and maybe the region be less stable as other power brokers rival to fill the vacuum that Ahmed Wali Karzai’s death leaves in the power structure. And also you’ll see, whether the Taliban were directly responsible or not, this would give I think a lot of encouragement to their fighters that “if we keep up our pressure and government officials and power brokers will wind up getting killed, and this is good for our cause.”

In the longer-term the question is how is his position filled. Is it because there’s fighting between different factions within Kandahar and just the strongest man wins? That’s negative for governance and stability in Afghanistan.

If, on the other hand, the Afghan government sees this as an opportunity to say now that this politically controversial figure is out of the picture, we can go back to more, shall I say, normal governance with the governor playing his role and the provincial council playing a more normal role with the government moving forward on a lot of anti-corruption and counter-narcotics programs that were I think effectively suspended because of the complexity of the relationships between Ahmed Wali Karzai and others in the province. So there is an opportunity in the longer-term to make governance and the rule of law stronger in the government of Kandahar if it’s handled in the right way.

Will it also affect U.S. dealings with the Afghan government?

SCOTT WORDEN: I don’t think there should be an immediate effect. Certainly, the U.S. was dealing with Ahmed Wali Karzai both officially and unofficially to help with this campaign in Kandahar and so they’re going to have to react and assure allies that the U.S. is supporting them and make sure it’s a united front against the insurgency that’s going on there. But I think that will be doable and that will be a very short-term issue.

In the longer-term, there’s been a growing mistrust between the Afghan government and the U.S. government and particularly controversial statements that President Karzai has made in the past several weeks about NATO potentially being occupiers and so forth. If there is somehow a belief that the international community was behind this, which I would put in the category of pure conspiracy theory — I don’t think there’s any basis to that. However, the rhetoric of the past several months has been international forces and the international community generally is responsible for whatever bad things are happening. It could drive that gap further. I don’t think that would be factually accurate. I think that would be more of a play for some short-term political gains.

But I could see maybe some testing period over the next few weeks to sort out who benefited and who lost from this and let the conspiracies run their course. In the long term I think the relationship will be as strong as it’s been, which is still shaky, but it’s really above the level of the intrigue in Kandahar.

What did President Karzai mean when he said in response to his half-brother’s death, “Such is the life of Afghanistan’s people”?

SCOTT WORDEN: I think he’s rightly pointing out that with this ongoing conflict, which goes back decades and most recently has involved the insurgency over the last 10 years, all Afghans have suffered losses in their families for one reason or the other. It’s a function of the instability and the insurgency and the lack of governance that people’s physical security is always at risk.

I think that when you follow the news of Afghanistan for any length of time you see it really is ordinary Afghans that are hurt — most often in roadside bombings and suicide attacks. But also the elites are hurt by assassinations. There’s the issue of civilian casualties. The level of violence in Afghanistan is extraordinary compared to most other countries of the world, and I think he was making a personal point about his loss is mirrored by many Afghan families, regardless of the cause.

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