Murders deepen Karzai’s Kandahar dilemma

Recent assassinations of Jan Mohamed Khan and Ahmad Wali Karzai jeopardise Afghan president’s power base in the south.

Karzai lead''s brother''s funeral prayers
Khan’s funeral prayer was held at the presidential palace, a sign of how close he was to the president [EPA]

Early on Sunday evening in Kabul, two young men arrived at the home of Jan Mohammed Khan, tribal elder and senior advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They claimed to be students from southern Uruzgan province, where Khan formerly served as governor, and they wanted to see him and ask for help.

After Khan’s bodyguards searched them, they went inside.

They claimed to study at the nearby Khoshal Khan High school and their families were still in Uruzgan. Khan gave them each $70 and sent them off to buy clothes and other necessities from a nearby bazaar.

When the young men returned around 8:00pm to thank Khan and say their goodbyes, his bodyguards thought no checks were necessary, according to Masood Bakhtawar, a friend of Khan and a parliamentary candidate from neighbouring Farah province, who recounted the story to Al Jazeera.

The police, however, said the duo were older than high school age, and that they forced their way in the second time.

Khan was a former governor of Uruzgan province [AFP]

The two entered the room where Khan was meeting with a member of the parliament, Mohammed Hashim Watanwal, pulled out AK-47s and shot both men dead.

For the next several hours, the assailants, armed with grenades and their machine guns, battled a police commando team and held Khan’s family hostage. One of the attackers was killed right away. The other put up a fight from a bathroom.

“He kept firing at our police until four in the morning. We finally took him out by placing explosives in the bathroom wall,” said Sediq Seddiq, spokesman of the ministry of interior.

“It is difficult to believe that two young students, from the mountains of Uruzgan, could put up a fight against an elite force for two hours,” said Bakhtawar, who arrived at the scene as soon as he heard the news.

“And how did they manage to bring the weapons to Kabul? Surely it sounds more than a personal animosity.”

Khan’s assassination was the most recent murder in a trend of high profile killings for which the Taliban have claimed responsibility. A popular tribal elder in his home province of Uruzgan, Khan was also close to Karzai, making this a second blow to the president within a week. Ahmad Wali Karzai, his younger brother and lynchpin of his authority in the south, was gunned down on July 12 by his longtime confidant at his home in Kandahar.

“The president’s connection to Ahmad Wali was one of blood, but Jan Mohamed Khan was no less to him,” Bakhtawar said.

One of Khan’s brothers was reportedly killed while fighting the Soviets alongside Karzai. When Khan was imprisoned by the Taliban in Kandahar n 1999, the Karzais provided cash and rallied supporters to help his release.

When Karzai arrived in southern provinces days before the US invasion in 2001, Khan was one of the few tribal elders that supported him. When he became president after the fall of Taliban, he repaid the favour by appointing Khan as governor of Uruzgan province. Facing increasing pressure from international forces and charges of corruption, Karzai brought him to Kabul in 2006 as a senior advisor.

The two recently murdered Karzai confidants commanded much more authority than their official titles suggest. Khan maintained his stronghold in Uruzgan through his nephew, Matiullah Khan, a prominent militia commander who owns a security company.

Ahmad Wali, the 49-year-old whose official title was the chief of Kandahar Provincial Council, was the ultimate powerbroker in the four southern provinces – commonly referred to as “greater Kandahar”. The death of Ahmad Wali – and to a lesser extent Khan – has left Karzai with a power vacuum in the south, at a time when responsibility for security is in transition from foreign forces and reconciliation with the Taliban is underway.

Some believe that Ahmad Wali’s death gives Kandahar’s local government the space to establish its own authority. Others say the strongman’s demise leaves the field open for warring local rivals to struggle over power.

Fear of the next

As the events unfolded in Kabul on Sunday night, the Taliban, reportedly in preparation for another round of attacks on Kandahar city, disrupted communications.

“The enemy managed to order the phone networks shut and close off connection for four hours as they carried out attacks,” said Abdul Rahim Ayoubi, a member of parliament from Kandahar.

“Ahmad Wali would never let such a thing happen.”

The president’s influential younger brother was gunned down on July 12[AFP]

The president’s younger brother had a massive presence in the south, particularly in Kandahar, drawing support from several bases. As one analyst put it, the signature of his brother in Kabul, support from foreign forces, and his elected office as chief of the provincial council made Ahmad Wali an unrivalled leader. Like any effective tribal leader, he had positioned himself as the only answer to the problems of his followers.

“My fear is that his death will increase tribal tensions. Ahmad Wali had controlled them. I am afraid, that, God forbid, these groups will start against each other,” said Ayoubi.

“Already I hear on people’s lips that the Achikzai tribe is controlling the police and this and that. This is dangerous talk.”

Kandahar has remained troubled throughout the past decade of struggle against the Taliban. The government has failed to establish itself outside of the city and security has constantly deteriorated. The US-led NATO forces are completing a year of extensive operations there, but progress remains fragile. Taliban fighters have repeatedly penetrated the heart of the city in high profile attacks, most recently in a raid on central police headquarters that killed at least 18 people.

“People’s hopes have been cut off. The only work that is done by officials here is 100 per cent symbolic,” said Rangina Hamidi, an activist in Kandahar city.

“All that is on people’s mind is the fear of when and where the next incident will happen.”

Kandahar has also seen many of its political figures targeted in assassinations. Two months before Ahamd Wali was gunned down, police chief Khan Mohammed Muajid was killed by his own bodyguard.

“Ahmad Wali is only one in the list of approximately 530 tribal elders gunned down in Kandahar in recent years,” said Malalai Ishaqzai, a former member of parliament from Kandahar.

For residents, the violence has left its mark.

“The enemy’s morale is boosted,” said Ayoubi. “Those who were helping the government are going to flee now. If Ahmad Wali could not protect himself, if Jan Mohamed Khan could not protect himself, who will protect those in villages that are supporting the government?”

Reasons unclear

Unlike Khan, Ahmad Wali was gunned down by a longtime friend who headed security checkpoints in Karz, the ancestral village of the Karzai clan. Sardar Mohammed, the murderer, was “very dear” to Ahmad Wali, one friend said after the killing. According to another Karzai friend – who had met Mohammed several times – the killer also commanded a 500-member security company, which reportedly belonged to a friend of Ahmad Wali’s but in which Wali had a close interest. The company protected military convoys between Kandahar and Ghazni.

A week after his death, the reasons behind the younger Karzai’s death remain unclear. The Taliban have claimed responsibility, but many observers have their doubts.

“I don’t think it was the Taliban. Sardar was the only person who could walk into Ahmad Wali’s house carrying a gun. So clearly, their relationship was one of trust,” said Malalai Ishaqzai, a former member of parliament from Kandahar.

Shah Wali Karzai (L) took on his brother’s tribal role, but many say Colonel Raziq (R) has emerged as the powerful man [EPA]

Ishaqzai, along with many others, believe that Ahmad Wali was a divisive figure and created many enemies on his path to power. Some say he was a hindrance to the authority of provincial government.

“In Kandahar, no one could do a thing without consulting Ahmad Wali first – whether it was the governor, the police chief, or the elders. Even ministers in Kabul were fearful of him and had to ask him first,”Ishaqzai said.

She pointed to former governor Rahmatullah Raufi, who only lasted three months in office, reportedly because Ahmad Wali did not get along with him.

“Yes, Ahmad Wali had changed a little recently and was working towards peace. But he was also doing things that people of Kandahar could not tolerate,” Ishaqzai said.

Ahmad Wali’s position as head of his Popalzai tribe was officially handed to his younger brother Shah Wali, when President Karzai placed a turban on his head at Wali’s funeral in Kandahar.

Wali’s seat in the provincial council will remain empty until the next elections, a provincial spokesman said.
Although who will emerge as the next authority in Kandahar remains unclear, Ishaqzai thinks Governor Toryalay Wesa’s days in office are numbered.

“He has only held on this long because of support from Ahmad Wali,” she said.

Analysts say the president might have to again rely on Gul Agha Sherzai, currently the governor of eastern Nangrahar province. His previous stint as governor in Kandahar ended with the rise of Ahmad Wali in 2005. Sherzai was brought to Kabul as a minister first and then posted to Nangrahar.

Another possible candidate is Arif Khan Noorzai, a former minister of tribal affairs in Karzai’s cabinet and a current member of parliament. He is also related to the Karzai family by marriage.

But for now, the 32-year-old police chief of Kandahar, Colonel Abdul Raziq stands out to many as the most powerful man in greater Kandahar. After Mujahid was assassinated in April, Raziq was offered the post as provincial police chief, but reportedly only agreed if he could keep his other job as border police chief as well.

“In the eyes of the government, as well as the international forces, Raziq has made himself invincible,” one Kabul insider told Al Jazeera. “To me, he is the most powerful person out there right now.”

For Kandahar, the death of Ahmad Wali has only brought more uncertainty. Even so, as Ishaqzai put it, one thing remains clear: “The Afghan government’s success and failure lies in the success or failure of Kandahar.”

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujmash

Source: Al Jazeera