Ahmad Wali Karzai assassinated

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—Wanted dead but preferred alive: That was Ahmad Wali Karzai to the West.

Odious ally yet crucial crony, a man who could get things done, schooled in the murky political machinations of Afghanistan, power-broker in its shadowlands.
Slain by an assassin’s bullets — a man who came as dear friend and trusted liege — the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai was to be buried here shortly after dawn on Wednesday.
Already the ground is churning.
And, with Karzai arriving Tuesday night for the funeral, a slew of other government officials expected from Kabul as well, there could be blood. The phalanx of grave-side dignitaries might be too irresistible a target for insurgents, gloating as they are over striking again right at the heart of Hamid’s regime, slicing off his right-hand man.
Whether the Taliban can take the credit they’ve so triumphantly claimed, however, is another matter.
The assassin has a name — Sardar Muhammed — but his motive and affiliations are still a mystery.
He was killed in a hail of gunfire.
As dusk settled over the city on Tuesday, rumours buzzed like shrapnel over the repercussions of Ahmad’s murder. It was a catastrophe for NATO; it was the best thing that could have happened for NATO.
Chaotic in the short-term, perhaps unleashing more spasms of violence to fill the vacuum of power that AWK — as he was commonly known — has left behind, his brutal departure from the political scene might just as arguably shake the moral tawdriness out of NATO, rescuing the coalition from a most unseemly and polarizing alliance.
A thorn has been removed. The king — kingpin — of Kandahar is dead.
What President Karzai steadfastly refused to do — bring his brother to heel for corruption staggering in its scope, even by Afghan standards — a heretofore unknown and unremarkable trigger-man has orchestrated, executed literally.
AWK was shot point-blank with an AK-47 shortly after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, inside his gilded and heavily fortified compound, by a private security guard and “good friend,” as described by police chief Brig.-Gen. Abdul Raziq, the second most powerful man in Kandahar province.
“It was a guard who killed him,’’ Raziq told a news conference held at the governor’s palace.
Luck — unlike the lava flow of money that filled his personal treasure chest — finally ran out for the 50-year-old Karzai, who had been the target of at least nine previous assassination attempts.
The Taliban took immediate responsibility although early reports suggested the killing may have been provoked by a personal grudge. In Afghanistan, as per ancient codes of honour and retribution, grudges quickly escalate into lethality.
Responsible or not, the Taliban is revelling in the elimination of so prominent and powerful an individual, blood-kin to the president and de facto governor of Kandahar province. Such a mauling — reaching right into the president’s immediate family — will provide an enormous morale boost to the insurgency just as coalition forces, including Canada, begin withdrawing foreign troops from Afghanistan.
That’s a double whammy for the Taliban. And what had been shaping up as a decidedly underwhelming summer fighting season, at least in the Panjwaii district that Canadians formally transferred to U.S. forces last week, now threatens to flare anew with insurgents seeking to solidify their PR gains — on the battlefield and at that negotiating table where the Taliban publicly insist they’re not sitting.
AWK was the devil the West knew, probably too well, which made the coalition tacit collaborators in the “Karzai cartel,” a web of criminal organizations and profiteering schemes that, according to an investigation by the Times of London, brought $1 billion a year into the family kitty.
Out of all seven Karzai brothers, AWK was the most predatory and maybe the most politically astute, with little of Hamid’s charm — a quality, admittedly, rapidly diminished.
He raised extortion and tribal connections to a ruthless art, raking in the dough through lucrative contracts and subcontracting deals for NATO convoy protection, construction, security and fuel.
He punished critics, allegedly to the point of murder, and rewarded friends.
Officially, AWK was chairman of the Kandahar Provincial Council, to which he was appointed in 2005. In practice, he was the Mafiosi-style godfather — warlord, narcotics baron, purportedly on the CIA payroll, commander of a reputed private “henchmen’’ militia — of this volatile southern province.
Once owner of a Chicago restaurant near Wrigley Field, when the Karzai family was in exile, AWK was Hamid’s closest sibling and architect of his brother’s gerrymandered presidential election victory in 2009, widely believed to have arranged for ghost polling stations and stuffed ballot boxes.
Yet Ahmad Karzai, from his perch in Kandahar City, also wielded enough influence — via his relationship with both Americans and the power accruing from his family’s leadership of the Popalzai tribe, a half-million strong — to hold effective court here, in the belly of the Taliban beast, deftly overlording a divergent cast of elected leaders, tribal elders, drug smugglers and even insurgents.
He was holding court yesterday at his home, as usual, hearing petitions from locals, weighing entreaties and settling disputes.
Haji Agha Lalia, who is also a provincial council member and once served as Karzai’s deputy, was with him just minutes before the shooting.
Through an intermediary, Lalia recounted events for the Star: “At approximately 11:15 a.m., I was with him in a room. As I finished my conversation with him, I moved to another room in his house. After five minutes, I heard shootings.
“A man who was a security guard came to his room and shot him by pistol several times.’’
Some media reports claimed the shooter was a member of Karzai’s own personal bodyguard detail. Lalia denied this.
“The man who assassinated him was not his own guard who was serving in his home. Actually, this guard was serving for . . . another brother.’’
Conflicting details were difficult to sort out. But the assassin, Sardar Muhammed, was apparently in charge of several checkpoints in the eastern portion of Kandahar and not a member of Karzai’s close-protection squad.
Karzai was shot twice, once in the head and once in the chest.
Muhammed had reportedly asked for, and received, a private audience with Karzai. Karzai obviously let down his guard. And the guard let down his vow of allegiance.
“Nobody here knows why,’’ Raziq said later of the assassination. “Sardar Muhammed was shot dead on the spot by members of Ahmad Wali Karzai’s bodyguards.
“He (Karzai) was signing documents, signing papers at the time. It is a big loss.’’
According to a Taliban spokesman, Muhammed had been recruited by the insurgents a “long time’’ ago and “finally he find the chance today and achieved the objective.’’ The Taliban said Karzai’s assassination was one of their “biggest achievements’’ and there’s no disputing that.
The Taliban, however, routinely takes credit for events not of their doing when the opportunity arises. Exploiting Karzai’s murder would reinforce their constant refrain that no one connected with the central government — or NATO forces — is beyond their reach. That, in turn, would further undermine public confidence in both the coalition and Kabul.
Muhammed, according to The Canadian Press sources who knew him, was once a member of Hezb-i-Islami, a fanatical party originally founded by the most villainous warlord of all, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who over the decades has been variously aligned with all the militia factions in Afghanistan.
The official governor, Tooryalai Wesa, verified Karzai’s murder about three hours after it occurred: “I can confirm that Ahmed Wali Karzai, leader of the provincial shura, was assassinated today in Kandahar City. It was a big loss for us and the entire Afghan nation . . . his death is a catastrophe for everyone.’’
During a press conference later in the day with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a grieving Hamid Karzai declared: “My younger brother was martyred in his home today. This is the life of all Afghan people. I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end.’’
It is a grim irony that Karzai was killed by a shooter described as a “private security guard.” As a political and financial impresario, the controversial Karzai derived much of his wealth from ownership of private security firms — his brother had kicked most foreign security outfits out of the country — such as Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group, which enjoy fat contracts with ISAF to provide protection for supply convoys.
The latter functions as a quasi-private paramilitary organization, with reportedly its own elite Kandahar Strike Force — AWK had denied this — that allegedly assisted U.S. Special Forces and the CIA in seeking out and killing top Taliban insurgents.
But Karzai had his grasping fingers in many pies, owning a string of hotels, real estate companies and a car dealership.
Kandahar had been his El Dorado. His avarice, the well-documented financial windfall accruing to the Karzai family through Ahmad’s essential control of donor funds and contracts that poured into Kandahar, made him widely reviled among the populace, which saw little direct benefit from humanitarian assistance and donated riches. Opposition to Karzai’s corrupt fiefdom stoked populist alliance with the insurgency.
He was also allegedly a narcotics colossus, straddling a drug empire and smuggling operation through control of the opium trade, accusations documented last year by The New York Times. Karzai hired lawyers to defend himself.
In a revealing subsequent interview with Kathy Gannon of Associated Press, AWK explained the dynamics of his family connection: “Yes, I am powerful because I am the president’s brother. This is a country ruled by kings. The king’s brothers, cousins, sons are all powerful. This is Afghanistan. It will change but it will not change overnight.’’
Late last year, the whistle-blower WikiLeaks publicized American diplomatic cables that portrayed Karzai as a corrupt drug oligarch. Yet western officials have always been loath to publicly criticize him.
Throughout Tuesday, an unusual number of American convoys trundled out of KAF, heading toward the capital as a preemptive — or belated — force shield. Afghan security forces were also fortifying the city, which is the spiritual capital and cradle of the Taliban.
Raziq called for calm. “I am telling the people of Kandahar to tolerate this tragedy.’’
They seem to be tolerating it quite well.

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