Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why Ahmed Wali Karzai was a target

The Daily Beast
Many Afghans and American militarymen believed it was only a matter of time before he would be killed. Their predictions came true on Tuesday morning when Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of the Afghan president and by far the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards inside his heavily fortified home in Kandahar City. For nearly the past decade he had acted as the region’s ultimate powerbroker. His death will doubtlessly unleash a power struggle among government officials, police and military officers, narcotics smugglers and tribal chieftains who kicked back a large share of their action made possible by his patronage.

His death could bring further turmoil to the strategic region. Without his firm hand to keep all those competing interests in check, southern Afghanistan could become less stable at a time when the U.S. military was confident that its surge forces had seriously weakened the insurgency in the Taliban’s strategic heartland. Over the past 18 months American forces had killed and captured thousands of insurgents, pushing them far away from the key populated areas they had long occupied. Karzai had long been seen as a crucial U.S. ally in the region. In 2009 it was widely reported that he had been on the CIA’s payroll for years. Not only had he provided a degree of stability through his vast patronage politics, the private militia forces that he had raised for the CIA took a heavy toll on the Taliban.

But U.S. militarymen also saw him as a liability. Although never proven, Karzai, 50, was widely accused of being at the center of the southern region’s multi-billion dollar narcotics industry, a charge he vehemently denied. His brother, President Hamid Karzai, also staunchly defended his brother’s innocence. Of late AWK, as the American militarymen called him, had become almost too authoritarian and powerful for his own good. He heavily favored his own tribe, the Popalzai, to the detriment of other clans who bitterly resented his partiality. This favoritism coupled with the fact that he sat atop of a pyramid of corruption ranging from shady real estate deals, to kickbacks on construction contracts, and getting his fair share of the shakedowns of truckers and buses at police posts and bureaucratic bribes certainly helped Taliban recruiters. “He was using all his power to get money from others, and even caused us to stop a road construction project,” says one Afghan aid official who declines to be quoted because of the sensitivity of his comment. “He had guns and money and was the king of Kandahar.” In the end, he may have overplayed his hand. There clearly was growing resentment toward him in the city and province. “There’s an undercurrent of anti-AWK sentiment,” said one American officer in the region last month. “Within six months you may hear a loud ‘pop’ in the city.”

That sound came from the AK-47 of one of his down bodyguards who reportedly entered a room of his home where Karzai was meeting with tribal elders and politicians and asked him to step outside. When Karzai did, the bodyguards opened up on him, hitting him at least three times. Karzai died on his way to the Kandahar hospital.

Until then he had lived a charmed life. The Taliban had tried to kill him multiple times unsuccessfully. In May 2009 his motorcade was ambushed by gunmen firing RPGs and automatic rifles. Only one of his bodyguards was killed. Earlier that year four Taliban suicide bombers attacked Kandahar’s provincial council office, killing 13 people but Karzai had just left the building before the attack. The year before a gasoline tanker truck exploded near a building in which he was holding a meeting. He emerged unscathed but six people were killed and 40 were wounded in the blast.

Although the Taliban has claimed responsibility for his death, a senior Taliban intelligence officer who has provided The Daily Beast with reliable information in the past says he doubts the boast. “I doubt that there is a Taliban connection to Ahmed Wali’s death.” He points out that there was also friction within the family among several brothers and cousins.

Regardless of who killed him, most Taliban certainly welcome his death. “Ahmed Wali was the best U.S. friend and the Taliban’s worst enemy. He and his whole family have the blood of thousands of Taliban on their hands,” says Mullah Adam Haji, a Taliban sub-commander. “His death is very good news for us.”

But another ranking Taliban who declined to be quoted by name for security reasons says his death could be a setback for possible peace talks as a result of Karzai’s contacts with the insurgency. “He was in indirect contact with lots of Taliban,” the senior Taliban says. “His men many times visited the Taliban not for peace talks but to talk about local, tribal and social issues… I don’t think the Taliban hate Ahmed Wali as much as his brother (President Karzai,)” the insurgent adds. “So his death has collapsed a strong and high bridge that could have been used for any upcoming peace talks.”

Regardless of how he is viewed, his death will have a significant impact on the region’s stability and its prospects for peace.

Hillary Clinton:'Our partnership depends on cooperation'

The US administration Monday defended its decision to suspend $800 million of military aid to Pakistan, saying its uneasy ally needed to make a greater effort in the fight against Islamists.

"When it comes to our military assistance, we're not prepared to continue providing that at the pace that we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The United States was particularly "looking to improve our cooperation in counterterrorism, in counterinsurgency," she told journalists.

Nuland recalled that on May 25 Islamabad demanded that about 100 US advisers leave Pakistani soil, effectively halting military training, adding "we obviously can't do that in an environment where Pakistan has asked our trainers to go."

US President Barack Obama's chief of staff, William Daley, confirmed in a television interview on Sunday that the United States has decided to withhold almost a third of its annual $2.7 billion security assistance to Islamabad.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday the decision to suspend part of the security aid to Pakistan "does not signify a shift in policy."

"Our relationship with Pakistan is not always easy, but it's one that we consider vital to our national security and to our regional interest," she told reporters.

"That said the government of Pakistan must take certain steps and we have outlined those steps in more than one occasion to make sure that we can deliver all the military assistance."

Clinton insisted: "Our decision to pause delivery on this portion of security assistance does not signify a shift in policy, but underscores the fact that our partnership depends on cooperation that's always been the case and it must continue to do so."

Her spokeswoman, Nuland, added: "We are working together on how we can improve our relationship particularly in the categories of counterterrorism and counterintelligence."

Karzai's half-brother shot dead

The half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was shot dead at his home in Kandahar on Tuesday, authorities said.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Kandahar provincial council chief, was killed during a gathering, said provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa. He did not know a motive.

While the governor initially said a friend killed Karzai, his spokesman later clarified that the death was at the hands of a guard.

Karzai suffered bullet wounds to his head and chest, said Mohammad Dawood Farhad, the head of Kandahar Hospital.

In a meeting with a senior U.S. diplomat, Karzai once made the case that he, not the governor of Kandahar, was "the most powerful official in Kandahar and could deliver whatever is needed," according to a cable about the meeting leaked last year by WikiLeaks.

Karzai, who has been dogged by drug dealing accusations, also brought the subject up in the meeting, according to the cable.

"Unprompted, AWK (Ahmed Wali Karzai) raised allegations of his involvement in narcotics, telling the (U.S. official) that he is willing to take a polygraph anytime, anywhere to prove his innocence," the cable said.

Karzai said the drug-dealing rap is part of a campaign to discredit him, "like a spice added to a dish to make it more enticing to eat."

After a separate meeting with Karzai, a U.S. official who authored another cable wrote, "While we must deal with AWK as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker. End Note."

The cable concluded: "The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan. How to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt. Given AWK's reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism."

In the first cable, Karzai offers suggestions on how to stop drug dealing. "He suggested that the coalition pay mullahs to preach against heroin, which would reduce demand for poppy cultivation."

The author of the cable also wrote that Karzai "appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities, and that the coalition views many of his activities as malign, particularly relating to his influence over the police."

In addition to discussions of war, drugs and Afghan politics, a comment in one of the cables also addressed an American sports landmark.

"Further emphasizing his links to the United States, AWK fondly recalled his days in Chicago as a restaurant owner close to Chicago's Wrigley Field. His restaurant was a hub for American(s) in the Midwest who had worked or lived in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion," the cable read.