Death Of Regional 'Sheriff' Leaves Security Vacuum In Afghanistan

General Abdul Raziq, known to sport traditional garb and a mischievous smile, was nominally the police chief of the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

But the charismatic 39-year-old was also one of the most powerful security and political figures in Afghanistan, and a formidable adversary to the Taliban in the militant group’s southern heartland.

His assassination on October 18 dealt a huge blow to the Western-backed government in Kabul, and highlighted how the country's security is often tied to controversial, powerful strongmen like Raziq.

Observers say his death is bound to have wide-ranging security and political ramifications as the Taliban and local strongmen vie to fill the vacuum he leaves behind.

Rebecca Zimmerman, an analyst at Rand Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, says the international community has worked with various Afghan strongmen, former warlords, and ex-militia leaders to maintain order in volatile areas.

As a result, Zimmerman argues, when figures like Raziq are killed they leave behind "a profound gap" because there are not any "viable successors," she says.

"He wielded great power, but I think the question that people asked was, 'power for whom?'" add Zimmerman. "He stood against the Taliban, but that didn’t necessarily correlate to standing for strong central government and rule of law in Afghanistan."

The larger-than-life Raziq had been dogged by claims of human rights abuses, including torture of detainees and extrajudicial killings. But he made himself indispensable to the U.S. military and to the Kabul government as one of the last remaining bulwarks against the Taliban.

High-profile regional actors like Raziq, whom Zimmerman says was seen as a "sheriff-like figure," often engage in standoffs with the central government and have "essentially declared themselves unfireable."

"If Kandahar now falls apart, it will tend to reinforce the idea that Afghanistan’s security depends upon these powerful regional actors, rather than upon the institutions of government, which could be damaging in the long run," adds Zimmerman.

Raziq was shot dead by a turncoat bodyguard after a high-level security meeting between senior Afghan and U.S. military officials in the governor's compound in the provincial capital, Kandahar city. The provincial intelligence chief was also shot dead, and the provincial governor was hospitalized and is reportedly fighting for his life.

In a sign of the sway he held, Raziq's funeral was held in Kandahar's holiest shrine, the Kherqa Mubarak, said to contain a cloak worn by the Prophet Muhammad.

But the impact of Raziq’s death is expected to be felt well beyond Kandahar Province -- there are ramifications for security and politics across the country.

"Kabul is desperately seeking a modicum of security to enable elections to take place in a few days and to create the space to explore a peace process," says Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "So the loss of Raziq and the destabilizing consequences of that loss will be quite a brutal blow to the government."

Raziq’s death has already led to the government delaying by one week parliamentary elections in Kandahar that are slated nationwide for October 20. Besides disrupting security preparations for the vote, the Afghan Election Commission said Raziq's killing meant the people of Kandahar were "morally not ready to vote."

Analysts also note that Raziq was crucial to the effort to ensure the fight for southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s stronghold, does not tilt in the militant group’s favor before a peace settlement can be reached. Washington and Kabul have stepped up efforts to open negotiations over a political settlement with the Taliban in recent months.

Raziq was known for his military prowess and ruthlessness in fighting the Taliban, controversially telling his men not to take any Taliban prisoners.

Raziq was also expected to play an important role in next year’s presidential election in Afghanistan. He had met several contenders for the vote in recent months and his backing was seen as crucial to winning votes in southern Afghanistan.

Ali Adili, a researcher at Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, said Raziq leaves behind a mixed legacy: he had widespread support among the Afghan public, but his vast power and rights record also made him a liability.

"There have been competing narratives surrounding Raziq," Adili says. "Was he an anchor of power who had to be removed versus an anchor of stability who had to be supported?"

Whether he was one or the other, his assassination will have a huge impact on power and stability in the south and beyond."