This is a "critical time" for Afghanistan. I am hearing it in every news report. When isn’t it a critical time for Afghanistan? Yet this phrase, repeated across media outlets worldwide this week, is true.
In Kandahar city a very grim week is drawing to a close. Over the past few days, Afghanistan’s second largest city has been reeling from the death of one of its most prominent and powerful citizens, the head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
"Its been a sad week too," says Haroun Mir, Director of Afghanistan’s Centre for Research and Policy Studies, "because this week we see the Taliban succeed".
On Tuesday morning Wali (or AWK, as he was known by the military), was shot dead in his house by a trusted guard. Later that day, as news of his death reached the world, the Taliban attempted to take credit for the killing. The body of his assassin was taken to the central bazaar in Kandahar city and publicly hanged for a short time before being removed by police.
Meanwhile, activity in Kabul and Kandahar city airports and main roads was frozen as Wali’s half-brother, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, travelled south.
The following day, busloads of people jammed Kandahar’s streets as they headed towards Wali’s hometown of Karz, 20km south, to attend a massive funeral. Traffic was brought to a standstill as every vehicle was searched to prevent an attack on the president. On Thursday a suicide bomber tore apart the entrance of Kandahar’s Red Mosque, where a memorial service was being held for AWK. The blast killed several people, including one prominent Afghan cleric, and wounded many others. Another explosion shook the north of the city soon after.
The international media are now eagerly appraising the "power vacuum" that AWK’s death creates, and many are predicting an even more unstable Kandahar city where security will continue to deteriorate. The author of Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, quickly responded to news of AWK’s death with a warning that "Afghanistan just became more dangerous and unpredictable" at a critical time for the Afghan government and America’s efforts to leave Afghanistan.
In fact, security and stability are already at an all-time low. A United Nations report released this week lists the past six months (to 30 June 2011) as the most deadly for Afghan civilians since the war began. "The rising tide of violence and bloodshed in the first half of 2011 brought injury and death to Afghan civilians at levels without recorded precedent in the current armed conflict," the report states.
Eighty per cent of the 1462 deaths recorded are attributed to insurgent activity, the majority of which takes place in the volatile border regions with Pakistan, such as Kandahar and the surrounding southern provinces. With this in mind, it is hard to imagine Kandahar being more dangerous than it already is — but this seems certain to be the case if the volatile days after AWK’s death are any indication.
Now, the US and Afghan governments and the international forces in Afghanistan are watching anxiously as the full significance of the week’s events becomes apparent. It is widely acknowledged that Wali was one of the most powerful, controversial operators on Afghanistan’s political stage, controlling the southern heartland and creating alliances within all the conflict’s key players — the US military, government and intelligence, Afghanistan’s political and commercial powers and importantly, the Taliban.
"Wali had authority over the whole region," Mir Ahmed Wahid Hashimi, an advocate for the rule of law in Afghanistan, told New Matilda. "He had control over Kandahar’s Governor, the Chief of Police, he fought the Taliban and had connections inside the Taliban."
Or as another Afghanistan analyst put it: "It is impossible to think of one person who combines his specific list of powers, connections and networks."
Kate Clark, a researcher with the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network, told New Matilda that AWK’s official role as the head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council was his least important. "He didn’t have particularly strong formal powers. His power came about through the networks that he set up and nurtured since 2003, particularly among the Taliban."
And, it must be said, among the US and British forces in Afghanistan.
Clark explains: "The way things have worked since 2001 is the Western institutions in Afghanistan, both civilian and military, build up and invest in persons not institutions. So the death of a man like Ahmed Wali is fundamental. There are loose networks there so it’s not entirely a vacuum, but Ahmed Wali was key. He had strong links with the CIA. He was ruthless and someone who could deliver."
Such was his power that, according to Clark, "about one and a half years ago there was a realisation among the high profile persons in the American establishment — the military and the CIA and the US government — that Ahmed Wali could be a problem for them and they considered pulling back support for him. But they didn’t follow through. The military decided that they would take on the Taliban rather than AWK. They preferred him in place."
This is why the focus across the Atlantic is now on the so-called power vacuum in southern Afghanistan, and the potential for ever greater lawlessness and bloody violence, while the Taliban has literally gained ground.
"Despite all the criticism, Ahmad Wali Karzai was a stabilising factor in Kandahar," Haroun Mir, Director of Afghanistan’s Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul, told New Matilda. "He was an important political figure who could mobilise the people. Now that he is not there, others in Kandahar are afraid. A lot of people are afraid to criticise the Taliban openly now — because who can they trust? This is a real boost to the Taliban."
Such was Wali’s power that, throughout Afghanistan, many people can’t quite believe the man is dead. How could someone so close to the president, surrounded by the tightest security and by allies and benefactors of all stripes, be shot and killed point blank? Why would a loyal member of staff, a man of the same tribe and a long-term family associate, turn his gun on AWK? Suspicion abounds.
Mir Haroun believes the Taliban when they take credit for the assassination. "The Taliban have announced their long list of targets, high profile people in the Afghan government and they have been very successful," he told New Matilda. "This targeted assassination is another example of their success. And now we don’t know who is next. We know they will continue to target high profile people in Afghanistan and so everyone is scared now."
Speaking to people in Kandahar, I hear that Ahmed Wali was a "good person". Khalil Sheyda is a recent graduate of the International High School in Kandahar and tells me his father knew Wali. He and his friends are upset by the death of a man they regard as a hero and champion of their embattled city. "He worked hard for Kandahar, for all of Afghanistan too. He brought a lot of projects to Kandahar and to the South. He looked after the city, brought good security, roads and hospitals."
Another Kandahari says simply that "AWK was a person with a good relationship with everyone in Kandahar. Everyone here knew who he was and understood his authority."
Among some of the Afghans I spoke to, there was reluctance to criticise the man publicly, especially now that he is dead. In Kandahar, where tensions run so high, this may be out of fear of reprisal. But there is also a cultural obligation and respect for the dead. "The only time I heard anyone speak bad things of a dead person in Afghanistan, it was about Osama bin Laden," says Mir Abdul Wahid Hashimi.
However, I hear one Afghan quietly infer that his death is a good thing for Afghanistan, that this was a person who was "bad for the country". The implication is that along with his half-brother the president, Wali held Afghanistan to ransom, using his formidable power and ability to manipulate international interests for personal gain and not for the public good.
Another Kandahari who wanted to remain anonymous says he speaks for many when he says "We are pleased he has gone so now there can be a change, but at the same time we are worried about the security. He made problems for us, but he also controlled the security in Kandahar."
Back on the world stage, US representatives from the outgoing General David Petreaus to Hilary Clinton gathered around the Afghan president and condemned the killing. The significance of this week’s events is clearly not lost on them. "We remain committed to supporting the government and people of Afghanistan in their struggle for peace," Clinton said in a State Department statement. But Kate Clark thinks that they will now be "running scared and wondering what to do".
"No one can fulfil his different roles — his informal roles," she told NM.
A day after his death, the President announced that another Karzai brother, Shah Wali, will be Ahmed Wali’s formal replacement on Kandahar’s Provincial Council. But aside from the security concerns, the week’s events also signal a serious drain on the President’s personal and political power. Not only did Wali shore up votes for his brother in the southern provinces through his sheer influence, he was also a reliable and generous source of funds for the Karzai campaign.
If there is any positive outcome of the week’s events for Afghanistan, Kate Clark says it is that "the removal of Ahmed Wali Karzai might bring greater plurality". But, she adds, "Given the country and climate we are in and in the context of war, that may be a pious hope".
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