July 12, 2011

Karzai's brother shot dead in Kandahar


Ahmed Wali Karzai, half brother to the Afghan president and one of the most powerful men in the country, has been killed in Kandahar city by a close associate, according to government officials and a member of his security team.

Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot dead on Tuesday morning inside his house by Sardar Mohammad, a "dear" friend who regularly visited him, according to the security source and a member of the provincial council.

Mohammad shot Wali Karzai in the stomach and chest as he emerged from a bathroom and was then shot and killed by other bodyguards, the security source said.

Karzai at Tuesday's press conference. His father was assassinated in 1999 in Pakistan. [AFP]

Hamid Karzai, the president, betrayed little emotion as he attended a scheduled press conference on Tuesday afternoon with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He confirmed his brother's death.

"My younger brother was martyred in his house today. This is the life of all Afghan people, I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end," Karzai said.

Assassin an "illiterate" security commander

A Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera that they were behind the killing and had assigned Mohammad to carry it out a "long time" ago. But Afghan analysts say the hardline Islamic movement often claims credit for acts it may not have organised, and according to officials, Mohammad had been close to Wali Karzai for many years.

Mohammad was the commander of checkpoints in the Zakir Sharif area, where the Karzai family's paternal hometown of Karz is located, around five kilometres south of Kandahar, a spokesman for the provincial governor told Al Jazeera. Mohammad was around 35 years old, had 150 people under his command and was "totally illiterate," spokesman Zalmay Ayoubi said.

Some analysts speculated that the killing may have been the result of a personal dispute between the two men.

But Haji Ehsan, a member of the provincial council, said Mohammad was "very dear" to Wali Karzai and became a commander on his recommendation.

"This morning, they had spoken on the phone before [Mohammad] went to visit him," Ehsan told Al Jazeera. "This can't be a personal feud. They were too close. This is definitely a conspiracy against Ahmed Wali, it is difficult to say at this point by who."

Wali Karzai's influence far outpaced his official title

Wali Karzai's death comes two weeks after an attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, which the Taliban said was their work. Nineteen people died in that assault.

It was the second major assassination in Kandahar province in three months: In April, a suicide bomber killed provincial police chief Khan Mohammad Mujahed.

In response to the assassination, police mobilised a massive response in Kandahar city, according to Kabul-based journalist Matthieu Aikins, who spoke to a resident.

Checkpoints were "locked down," helicopters hovered overhead, and the road to the hospital, where Wali Karzai's body was taken, was blocked off, Aikins wrote on Twitter.

'Super governor' of southern Afghanistan

Wali Karzai was considered a Popalzai tribal elder, but his power extended far wider in Afghan business, politics and security. He has been described in various media reports as a "warlord" involved in drug smuggling and as a paid asset of the Central Intelligence Agency.

"He was effectively the super governor of southern Afghanistan," said Al Jazeera's James Bays, who met Wali Karzai on multiple occasions and has reported extensively from the country.

In fact, influential pro-government Kandaharis had lobbied the president as recently as June to appoint Wali Karzai governor of the province, a prospect which seemed close to becoming a reality, Aikins wrote in Harper's magazine.

The current governor, Tooryalai Wesa, spent the majority of the past two decades in Canada and was considered far less influential than the head of his provincial council.

Ex-intelligence chief calls for unity

Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, said the government should use Wali Karzai's killing to come together against common enemies: al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani armed groups.

"Ahmed Wali Karzai was standing against these forces," he said. "This has boosted the morale of our enemies and given them more opportunities to infiltrate our ranks."

US General David Petraeus condemned the killing in a statement and said NATO forces would help the Afghan government try to bring to justice those involved in Wali Karzai's killing.

"President Karzai is working to create a stronger, more secure Afghanistan, and for such a tragic event to happen to someone within his own family is unfathomable," the statement said.

Saad Mohseni, the director of a large Afghan media group, wrote on Twitter that Wali Karzai's assassination "is a big loss for the president as he helped hold the greater Kandahar region together."

There had been several previous attempts on Wali Karzai's life, and even the United States once warned that they could kill him.

In May 2009, Wali Karzai said he had been ambushed on the road to Kabul by Taliban fighters, who killed one of his bodyguards. Six months earlier, he happened to be away when a Taliban attack on government buildings in Kandahar left six people dead.

In March 2010, a senior US military official told the Reuters news agency that Wali Karzai could be targeted for killing or capture if it were ever proved that he provided arms or assistance to insurgent groups.

"We'd rather not have a guy like that down there because he's so divisive," the official said. "But there's nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency."

Allegations of CIA payments

Rumours of Wali Karzai's involvement in Afghanistan's opium trade have circulated for years. Wali Karzai once personally ordered a local commander in the security forces to release a large truck carrying heroin, the New York Times reported in 2007.

He repeatedly denied any role in the drug trade and said he was the "victim of politics".

Confronted once in 2009 by a McClatchy news agency reporter who had interviewed officials and elders implicating him in drug trafficking, Wali Karzai threatened to beat the reporter and ordered him to leave his house.

Though many in the US government and outside analysts considered Wali Karzai's pervasive influence in Kandahar and the surrounding provinces an obstacle to the stated goal of improving Afghanistan's governance, it also seemed difficult if not impossible to work against him.

After General Petraeus, who is set to become the next CIA director, took command of NATO forces in Afghanistan in mid-2010, the West's approach to Wali Karzai seemed to shift. NATO officials said their plan was to work with him, especially as their military efforts increasingly focused on Kandahar.

But clandestine cooperation with Wali Karzai likely began far earlier: The New York Times reported in 2009 that Wali Karzai had been receiving regular payments from the CIA for the previous eight years, in part to fund an Afghan paramilitary force that operated at the CIA's direction.

Wali Karzai was paid to allow the so-called Kandahar Strike Force to use a large compound outside the city, and a senior US official referred to him as "our landlord".

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

Karzai, second from left, was effectively the governor of Kandahar and very influential in Afghanistan's south [AFP]


Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, was the chief of the Kandahar Provincial Council and one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan's south, even if he was continually dogged by controversy.

Karzai was born in 1961 in Karz, Kandahar, and is an elder of the Popalzai tribe. He was first elected to the provincial council in 2005, and since then has been at the centre of a number of controversies, most notably allegations that he was on the Central Intelligence Agency's payroll.

Karzai was "absolutely crucial [in the Afghan political landscape], and arguably you could say that after the president ... this was possibly the second most powerful Afghan currently in Afghanistan," says Al Jazeera's James Bays, who met with him several times and has extensively covered the conflict in Afghanistan.

Ahmed Wali Karzai's supporters say that he was a political leader who heroically defended Pashtun rights, and he was effectively the governor of Kandahar province. Karzai also exerted considerable influence in neighbouring provinces.

Critics, however, have alleged that Karzai was a corrupt provincial official who was heavily involved in the heroin and opium trade; claims that both he and his brother have consistently denied.

It was known, for example, that in 2001 he had stayed rent-free in a house owned by Haji Azizullah, a known Afghani international drug trafficker. But Karzai maintained that he had no idea that Azizullah had any connection to drugs.

The allegations, however, have stuck. In 2007, he was accused in the Afghan parliament of being involved in the international drug trafficking.

Shortly afterwards, the United States recommended to Hamid Karzai, the president, that Ahmed Wali be posted abroad as an ambassador, in order to limit potential embarrassment.

"I am not a drug dealer, I never was and I never will be. I am a victim of vicious politics," Karzai said in 2008.

Continued controversy

There was controversy, too, over his role in the 2009 elections, when his brother Hamid was re-elected as the country's president. Opponents alleged that Ahmed Wali rigged polls in his brother's favour in districts where he was doing poorly.

He also claimed that he had brokered a peace deal with the Taliban ahead of the August 2009 polls - a claim that did not stop the Taliban from carrying out a series of at least 73 attacks on election day.

In 2009, the New York Times published perhaps the most explosive report on Karzai: that he had been on the CIA payroll since 2001, putting together a militia of Afghan paramilitary forces to conduct raids against suspected Taliban fighters in Kandahar.

Karzai consistently denied the claim, saying: "I don't know anyone under the name of the CIA. I have never received any money from any organisation. I help, definitely. I help other Americans wherever I can. This is my duty as an Afghan."

While the US had made repeated attempts to freeze Karzai out, by 2010 it appeared that efforts to find hard evidence against him had failed, and the Americans "decided to work with him, rather than against him", Al Jazeera's Bays says.

Despite all the murky allegations around him, Karzai was never one to shy away from the press.

"He was very keen, despite all of the bad press he received, to speak to the press - always happy to talk to us, and always happy to take a phone call. And when you spoke to him in person, he was always very courteous," says Bays.

Ahmed Wali had survived several previous assassination attempts. In May 2009, his motorcade was ambushed by men armed with machine guns and rockets in Nangarhar province. One of his bodyguards was killed in that encounter, but he escaped unharmed.

That attack came about two months after the Taliban attacked the Kandahar Provincial Council's offices with four suicide bombers, killing 13 people. Karzai said that assault had been aimed at him.

In March 2010, a senior US military official told the Reuters news agency that Karzai could be targeted for killing or capture if it were ever proved that he provided arms or assistance to insurgent groups.

"We'd rather not have a guy like that down there because he's so divisive," the official said. "But there's nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency."

Karzai was killed on July 12, 2011, when his bodyguards opened fire on him in his own home. He was shot in the stomach and chest by one bodyguard as he emerged from a bathroom.

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