The Realist Prism: Ahmed Wali Karzai Killing Leaves Afghan Power Vacuum

The Realist Prism: Ahmed Wali Karzai Killing Leaves Afghan Power Vacuum

The Obama administration's decision to begin a process of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan was predicated on the assumption that the U.S. and NATO mission in that country had successfully set it on a "glide path" toward an acceptable level of stability. While always acknowledging the fragility and reversibility of progress achieved to date, there was increasing confidence that, especially after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. had turned a corner in Afghanistan.

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, or AWK, throws all of this into doubt. Whether his killer in fact acted on orders of the Taliban, or whether the insurgency is opportunistically benefiting from a personal dispute, the killing of the president's half-brother and the government's principal powerbroker in Kandahar and much of the southern part of the country is a major blow to the Karzai administration's credibility. Even though the Taliban has been defeated time and time again in open battle with Western and government forces, a continuing stream of assassinations of government and military functionaries and terrorist attacks targeting both foreign military and civilian personnel sends a clear message that the insurgency is prepared for a long war of attrition. If the president cannot keep his own family safe, then no one who works for the Kabul government can feel truly secure. Karzai's reference to his departed sibling as a "martyr" raises the question of whether those fighting against the Taliban actually view their struggle as a sacred cause. Will the death of AWK inspire government forces to redouble their efforts to take the battle to the Taliban, or will it cause more Afghans, particularly in the south, to decide that the best course of action is to sit on the fence?

Beyond the immediate question of the impact of the killing is whether what AWK built can endure. Michael Semple observed this week, "The president's brother was the man responsible for constructing a web of alliances across the south of the country, the real basis of the power of the Afghan government." AWK patched together a fiefdom in Kandahar based not only on his formal election as chair of the provincial council, but on his status as the head of the Popalzai tribe. He bought further allegiance by dispensing favors through a murky and interlocking web of patronage comprised of a variety of businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate, as well as the largesse of his brother, the president. He had made himself indispensable, particularly in recent months, to the NATO mission because of his unparalleled access, which enabled him to gather intelligence and broker deals with local communities.

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