The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai,
last week has sent political shockwaves throughout Afghanistan. A close confidant of the
president, Wali was not only widely seen as the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan,
but one of the most powerful figures in the country. A few days later, another of the president's
close confidants, Jan Mohammad Khan, who hailed from the same Popolzai tribe as Karzai,
was assassinated in Kabul, most likely by the Taliban. A former
governor of Uruzgan, notorious for his poor and discriminatory governance, Khan was reputed to be relied upon to mediate disputes among the Karzai brothers. Both deaths have greatly raised a sense of vulnerability among President Karzai's close circle of advisors.
Wali's death is not only a moment of danger, but also a moment of
opportunity for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Wali supplied a variety of services for ISAF
and U.S. government agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency -- providing intelligence
on the Taliban to ISAF and being one of the first powerbrokers in southern Afghanistan to start
talking with the Taliban about negotiations. At minimum, his death greatly destabilizes southern
Afghanistan, which could mean a loss of a go-to man for ISAF for intelligence and political
deals in Kandahar. The resulting political infighting over Wali's economic and political empire
in southern Afghanistan could further complicate the already poor governance in Afghanistan.
Yet Wali's death also provides the U.S. government, ISAF, and the broader international
community with an important opportunity. Wali was notorious for his nefarious activities
and for running southern Afghanistan like an exclusionary mafia fief. For many, he was
the epitome of bad governance in Afghanistan. Careful handing by the United States of the
political rearrangement after Wali's death in Kandahar could allow for major improvements in
governance there -- with greater inclusion of various tribes and communities and greater equity,
transparency, and accountability for the Afghan people.
Poor governance in Afghanistan is the Achilles heel of U.S. efforts there: without
greater legitimacy, the current order in Afghanistan is likely to collapse even if the Taliban
is weakened militarily. The Dutch mission to Uruzgan, when its military was deployed there
until 2010, experienced the effects of bad governance first hand: Jan Mohammad Khan's
governance was so poor, discriminatory, and riddled with corruption that it was believed to
be turning entire districts into Taliban supporters. The Dutch finally managed to
persuade President Karzai to remove him from the governor's post in 2006, and Khan served as
a member of the Afghan parliament until his recent assassination.
The conspiracy-prone Kandahar has been swirling in rumors of who and what really was behind the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai -- the Taliban (who claimed responsibility), a
disgruntled family member, one of Wali's many political and economic rivals in the south? Did
the Americans wish him dead? (Many Afghans imbue the United States with a peculiar mixture
of omnipotence -- if something happens, it must be because the powerful Americans wanted it
to take place -- and gullibility, of which clever Afghans can take advantage and con money and
favors out of the Americans.)
Dominating the political and economic life in Kandahar and beyond, Wali was the pivot
of power in Afghanistan's south. He held frequent audiences for tribal and individual supplicants
-- dispensing advice, money, and access to contracts and other juicy deals. (Many of the deals
were alleged to be of criminal nature -- not just drug trafficking, but also contract wars that left
opponents dead, land grabs, and various protection rackets.) General Abdul Raziq,
embraced by ISAF for routing the Taliban out of the difficult Malajat and Arghandab, a
subdistrict and district of Kandahar, and now its police chief, and Mattulah Khan, a self-
appointed highway police chief from Uruzgan, circled in Wali's and Jan Mohammad Khan's
orbits. They too are notorious for their thuggish ways. The rival Shirzai clan operated in a
precarious division of power with Wali in Kandahar.
Those who were excluded from the narrow but highly profitable patronage network that
Wali ran often hated him: They claimed it was his exclusionary and rapacious practices that
drove many in southern Afghanistan to join the Taliban or at least detest the Karzai government.
Yet periodically, calls for appointing Wali the official governor of Kandahar emerged - not just
from those who benefited from his patronage, but also from those who wanted to couple his
great power with formal responsibility so as to hold him accountable
ISAF and the international community were often mystified by how to deal with Wali.
His nefarious behavior and stronghold on power in southern Afghanistan made it difficult for the
internationals to endorse him. But unlike in Jan Mohammad Khan'case, their efforts to remove
him from power (by persuading President Karzai to appoint him ambassador to the UAE, for
example) or work around him failed. A year ago ISAF decided to abort an effort to gather
evidence on Wali's alleged drug dealing, unable to come up with anything robust. (As a
Kandahari friend once told me: "If someone had the dough on Wali, he'd be dead.")
Yet as the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, Wali was also very useful to the
internationals -- and not just for the properties and skills he was rumored to rent to the CIA and
Wali's death thus has the potential to trigger a massive power fight in Kandahar and
beyond. After Kabul, Kandahar is the critical seat of power in Afghanistan with repercussions
for politics and economic life far beyond. How power is divided in Kandahar will, for example,
be a critical part of any negotiations with the Taliban.
The assassination also has great implications for President Hamid Karzai personally,
compounding his sense of vulnerability as he sees the world beyond the walls of the Arg Palace
closing in on his power and perhaps survival. The subsequent assassination of Jan Mohammad
Khan must have only exacerbated the feeling of danger among Karzai's closest circle, further
reminding them of the complex threats to their power and the 1990s' assassination waves, civil
war, and Taliban rule.
This sense of vulnerability in the power circle around President Karzai in turn has
important implications for the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The relationship between President
Karzai and the Obama administration has steadily deteriorated. Chagrined by Karzai's tolerance of corruption that implicated his closest relatives, cabinet officials, and friends and by his
unwillingness to clamp down on even rival warlords-cum-government officials who ran fiefs
similar to Wali's in different parts of Afghanistan, the Obama administration sought to pressure
Karzai into changing his ways or leaving power. But it succeeded in neither: Karzai has not
improved governance in Afghanistan; instead, he now mistrusts Washington. At times, he has
even suggested that the United States is as much a problem for him and Afghanistan as the
Taliban . Wali's and Khan's deaths, despite the swift reappointment of Ahmed Wali's brother
Shah Wali Karzai as the head of Karzai's Popolzai clan, can thus send President Karzai further
into a defensive crouch. Instead of motivating him to improve governance in Afghanistan, a
feeling of vulnerability can make him continue to lash out against perceived enemies and the
United States, while coopting rivals in the detrimental wheeling and dealing that has
characterized Afghan politics in the 2000s.
Despite the appointment of Shah Wali Karzai to lead the Popolzai, the chances are
high for a frenzied power fight over the redistribution of power in Kandahar, akin to when a
kingpin goes down in an area of weak governance and nonexistent law enforcement. Under the
worst circumstances, Wali and Khan's assassinations will trigger waves and counterwaves of
assassinations in Afghanistan's south, in a throwback to the country's past and perhaps a preview
of its future.
In such circumstances, whether by design or default, the United States may be tempted
to anoint its new favorite go-to man in Kandahar, such as Raziq or Gul Agha Shirzai, the
former governor of Kandahar. Once again the United States may be inclined to ignore how
the thuggish practices of such men alienate the population of southern Afghanistan from the
In that case, short-term considerations of success on the military battlefield against the
Taliban would once again trump the medium and long-term necessity of fostering a political
order in Afghanistan with enough legitimacy to survive the departure of U.S. and ISAF's troops.
Or the departure of Wali could be an important opportunity to improve governance in
Afghanistan, increase the plurality of decision making in the country, and broaden the narrow and
rapacious power networks that have come to characterize Afghanistan's politics. Washington
and the international community can use Wali and Khan's deaths to reduce tensions with
President Karzai by working with him on improving the accountability and transparency of
political processes in Kandahar, Uruzgan, and beyond, broadening the political representation of
provincial and district development councils, and empowering district and provincial governors.
If with international assistance, the Afghans can manage such a power
transformation in Kandahar, then Afghanistan's politics can perhaps yet be salvaged from power
grabbing, internecine infighting, and further deterioration of governance, making any prospect of
peace more viable. However, in the absence of such governance improvements, without greater
legitimacy of Afghanistan's political system, the eventual departure of U.S. troops will likely
trigger the collapse of the current order in Afghanistan.