Evaluating the Political Impact of the Karzai Assassination

July 15, 2011 - 1:03pm, by Aunohita Mojumdar

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The killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghan President Ahmed Karzai, was a shocking development -- even for Afghanistan, a country steeped in tragedy. But experts are unsure whether it will have a lasting impact on political developments.

Ahmed Wali, or AWK as he was known among foreign diplomats and aid workers, was murdered by a former bodyguard on July 12. Since then, policy experts have been seeking answers to a bevy of questions: Will this personal blow to President Karzai also weaken him politically? Will political opposition in parliament intensify? Will the killing alter the president’s stance on negotiating with the Taliban? Will security in and around Kandahar be weakened with the absence of the “King of Kandahar,” as the international forces begin thinning out of Afghanistan? Or will AWK’s death offer the president a chance to regain lost political ground?

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the assassination, and on July 14, the radical Islamic movement issued a statement offering a supposed rationale for the act. In short, AWK, in spite of his image as a typical Afghan warlord, was killed because he was a CIA agent, the Taliban claimed.

Afghan government officials have publicly accepted the Taliban responsibility claim, but few in the international community are similarly credulous. The circumstances surrounding the incident make it difficult to believe the gunman was acting on the Taliban’s behalf. “We are treating it as a murder, and not a terrorist assassination” a high-ranking ISAF official told EurasiaNet.org on condition that his name would not be used. “It is a tragic event, but it was a murder by his personal protector, a trusted bodyguard.”

While investigators wrestle with determining a motive for the killing, diplomats and experts are focusing on its impact. The murder has the potential to alter Afghanistan’s political calculus at a sensitive time, when the Afghan government, with tacit international acquiescence, is trying to find political common ground with the Taliban, and when a foreign military drawdown is preparing to commence.

To get a handle on the future, experts are striving to determine who, exactly, was Ahmed Wali Karzai? In life, AWK had been linked to drug traffickers (allegations that surfaced regularly in the western media), the CIA and even the Taliban. In Afghanistan’s complex political waters, these roles were not necessarily mutually exclusive. The impact of his death, then, could be similarly ambiguous, fostering elements of stability and instability at the same time. It could weaken President Karzai, even as it offers him an opportunity to move beyond the politics of patronage that Ahmed Wali symbolized.

“He (Ahmed Wali) is such a paradoxical figure” said Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group. “He was pulling things together through patronage and his adept use of bribery. At the same time, we saw the surge in Kandahar being used against his enemies,” leading to destabilization.

Ahmed Wali was useful to the international community, even though he undermined the long-term goals of strengthening institutions. He ran, for example, the Kandahar Strike Force, a militia that assisted US Special Forces’ operations. Yet the same force ran afoul of Afghan National Security Forces, and in an infamous raid in June of 2009, the Strike Force killed the provincial police chief Matiullah Qateh.

Ahmed Wali was often a cause of embarrassment to the president, who was continuously asked by the international community to put an end to the criminal activities of his brother. Ahmed Wali’s control of patronage also alienated many tribal leaders who turned against the president. President Karzai may not be able to clean the family stable even now. “The problem is President Karzai is unable to work within institutional boundaries to ensure the even distribution of political spoils,” said Rondeaux.

Already feeling vulnerable, the assassination could cause President Karzai to grow even more sensitive to both real and perceived challenges to his authority, Rondeaux said. This increased sensitivity could, in turn, make Karzai a very fickle negotiator.

Omar Sharifi, the director of the American Institute of Afghan Studies (AIAS), agreed that assassination could significantly impact the president’s political outlook. “We will have to see whether this affects his vision on talks with the Taliban,” Sharifi said.

As to whether the void created by AWK’s death helps or hurts President Karzai in the near-term, expert consensus remains elusive.

Rondeaux indicated the coming days and weeks would pose a challenge for Karzai, noting that the president “has lost the confidence of the international community, his constituency in the parliament and in Kandahar.”

Opposition to Karzai within parliament could draw strength from the perception of vulnerability created by the death of his brother. In addition, the power vacuum that has opened in Kandahar could easily spark instability, as rivals -- including the current governor of Nangarhar Province, Gul Agha Sherzai who had been removed as chief executive in Kandahar at the insistence of Ahmed Wali – seek to establish themselves as the region’s new leader. Ultimately, Karzai must worry about the possibility of Kandahar becoming a bastion of opposition to his authority.

Other experts believe Karzai could potentially emerge from the assassination in a stronger political position. Sharifi noted that President Karzai was never politically dependent on his half-brother’s ability to control Kandahar. “In fact, the death has created a wave of sympathy for the president,” Sharifi said. “We have to see if he can turn it into an act of support.”

Shah Mahmood Miakhel, the country director of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), also downplayed the notion that the assassination marked a political calamity for the president. “Even during elections, more of his [Karzai’s] votes were from Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar and greater Paktia than Kandahar,” Miakhel said.

Such an assessment feeds into a common perception that Ahmed Wali derived his power from his proximity to his half-brother, rather than the other way around. Yet, while Ahmed Wali may not have contributed much to the president’s political stability, he at least ensured that the president didn’t have to worry about the province being a threat to Kabul’s authority.
Editor's note:
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.