An Assassination in Kandahar
Ahmad Wali Karzai’s death is a setback for negotiations with the Taliban, whether they were the ones who killed him or not.


Elise Jordan

Before the end, Ahmad Wali Karzai thought his assassin was his friend.

The colorful younger brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai was shot and killed last week at his home in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The assassin, Sardar Muhammad, was a close associate and security manager for the Karzai family. There has been no clear verdict as to why AWK — as he was known in U.S. diplomatic and military circles — was killed. It might have been a result of a family feud, or perhaps a Taliban plot. But there was never really a clear verdict on who AWK was in life, either: the King of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s Don Corleone, CIA informant, or a warlord who skillfully played the often deadly game of Afghan politics — until last week.

That we’re still guessing at his role demonstrates why he was such a successful politician in Afghanistan. The ability to be a bit of everything to everyone — from a friend of the Americans to a loyal member of the Karzai clan to a conduit to the Taliban — allowed him to thrive. He got his power both from skimming NATO contracts and from having a hand in the illicit smuggling networks operating across southern Afghanistan.

When I interviewed him in May of last year, Wali Karzai described himself as the “Nancy Pelosi of Kandahar.” It was an amusing metaphor, his way of explaining himself to a Western audience, which often viewed him with undisguised hostility. “Whatever she is doing in Washington I am doing at the Kandahar level in Kandahar,” he said. In other words, consolidating power, cutting deals, and making compromises. He offered that he was playing a conciliatory role in negotiations with the Taliban — a role he was uniquely posed to play. He represented, perhaps better than anyone else, the almost invisible line between the shadow and legitimate governments of Afghanistan.

I interviewed AWK in the middle of his media charm offensive following a series of damaging stories in the West detailing his ties to organized crime in southern Afghanistan. The New York Times alleged he was part of the drug trade, while also reporting that he had been on the CIA payroll since 2001. AWK thought he was being unfairly singled out. He bemoaned how tough it was to be brother to the president — everyone always making a big deal out of everything he said, carefully scrutinizing his every deed. He had stopped trusting American officials, if he ever did; they described him in official State Department cables as “nervous.” After the bad press, he never quite knew where he stood with them. In one meeting, he even demanded a polygraph test to settle the drug allegations he vehemently denied.

For a period, AWK actually thought he might be exiled from Afghanistan. U.S. officials debated putting him on a list of wanted insurgents. The Americans proposed sending him to London as an ambassador — a sign that the International Security Forces in Afghanistan headquarters fundamentally misunderstood the man. He already had money — and American citizenship (in the late ’80s and early ’90s he ran an Afghan restaurant in Chicago). He didn’t need London; he was in Kandahar because he loved the power he could wield in the country in which he felt most at home.

While the pressure from the Americans finally decreased, his other enemies never let up. He described himself as under siege. Nine assassination attempts kept him under constant protection and his four young children behind compound walls. They only got to play outside when they traveled to Dubai, he told me. (His wife gave birth recently to another child.)

If AWK was made nervous by American officials debating his fate, his brother Hamid Karzai was enraged. U.S. officials pinned the blame for much of the electoral fraud in the south on AWK, and felt he was getting in the way of so-called good governance. But as much as anything else, it was the White House’s undisguised disdain for AWK, and its inability to make up its mind about him, that helped poison our already precarious partnership with Hamid Karzai.

Karzai was deeply offended by the suggestion that he cast his brother aside, and the personal slights had strategic impact. We’d adopted a strategy in Afghanistan that relied on Karzai and his potential to lead; but by going after his brother, we undercut him. During the military surge, which was intended to “create the space for governance” in Afghanistan, relations between the Obama White House and Karzai deteriorated further, hampering political progress. The relationship with AWK perfectly encapsulated Obama’s indecisiveness in Afghanistan: Are we in or are we out? Are we surging or retreating? Are we behind AWK or are we going to throw him in jail?

Over the past few months, the U.S. has started to pursue more serious negotiations with the Taliban. AWK’s death — even if it wasn’t at the Taliban’s hands — compounds these already difficult negotiations, possibly igniting a power struggle in the restive south, where tenuous NATO gains could easily evaporate. (In another blow last week, the Taliban claimed credit for assassinating the former governor of the southern Uruzgan province, close Karzai aide Jan Mohammad Khan, who also would have played a role in negotiating with the Taliban.)

And if AWK was killed by a member of his own tribe, then we can only guess how other rival tribes felt about him. If folks within his own government wanted him dead, then prospects for reconciliation between the government and the insurgents seem even bleaker. Perhaps Pakistan wanted to knock him off, another theory has it, to ensure their Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) would have more control over any eventual agreement in the south.

There’s a compelling argument that we should never have empowered AWK — putting him on our payroll and giving him access to high-level U.S. officials in the run-up to our offensive in Kandahar. In theory, we should be on the lookout for non-corrupt reformers. In practice, there are not many pro-West, liberal democrats who are also willing to fight a war — who are willing to choose a dusty compound in Kandahar over a cushy gig in London. And I’m betting that when the international aid dries up and foreign troops head home, duplicitous characters wielding fear, violence, and money are going to end up on top. We can either be friends with them as we draw down into a limited counterterrorism mission against shared enemies, or we can hold our noses and fantasize about some nonexistent, angelic Afghan politician. It’s something to bear in mind when the next version of AWK — a rough-and-tumble leader, certainly tainted, but always charming — enters the scene.

— Elise Jordan, a New York€’based writer who has traveled frequently to Afghanistan and Iraq, has served as director for communications at the National Security Council and as a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.