Ahmed Wali Karzai: Martyr or Mobster?

Was the Afghan president's brother killed in an assassination? Or a hit?

Ahmed Wali Karzai, on the right, was very accustomed to things going his way. (Photo: Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters)
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council and a younger half brother of Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai, was shot and killed Tuesday within his fortified Kandahar City home. The lone shooter was “trustworthy” “dear friend” Sardar Mohammad.

A former Chicago restaurateur, Ahmed Wali Karzai was considered the most powerful man in the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar. Wali Karzai, code name AWK, was widely believed to be a paid CIA accomplice in a private war against the Taliban and an overseer of Afghanistan’s heroin warlords. Wali, who commanded a modest personal army, vehemently denied any involvement in his region’s ubiquitous, orderly and lucrative drug trade.

Afghanistan’s Taliban, which seems to be on an upswing, took credit for the assassination. (The Karzai brothers blame the Taliban for the murder of their father in Pakistan in the 1990s.)

Announcing Wali’s death, president Hamid Karzai said, “My younger brother was martyred in his house today.”

But there are indications, five for instance, that Wali died less like a martyr than like a mobster.

1) AWK worked his godfather magic in a cone of heavy security. As the head of the Kandahar council, or Shura, AWK had no government budget or official role in determining Kandahar policy, but he functioned much like Marlon Brando at the start of the first Godfather movie. A steady stream of supplicants consulted Ahmed Wali concerning business rulings, territorial squabbles and other dispute resolution. His grip on the region was much tighter than the actual governor’s. AWK and his family were ensconced behind barbwire and 8-foot blast walls in a residential fort guarded by heavily armed tribesmen. More armed tribesmen manned barricades at either end of the street, searching vehicles for explosives and enemies. Even John Gotti wasn't that well-protected.

2) Tuesday’s assault was the last in a string of attempts to rub out the council leader. Men with rifles and bombs attacked Wali’s motorcade in May 2009. Only one bodyguard was martyred. Also in 2009, a quartet of Taliban suicide bombers converged on Kandahar’s provincial council office—just after Karzai had left the facility—killing 13 people. In 2008, a targeted gasoline tanker explosion killed six people and wounded 40 in a building where Wali had business. When the smoke cleared, the president’s brother was hardly singed. Before Tuesday, Ahmed Wali Karzai had boasted of surviving nine attempts to whack him.

3) Legend will have Ahmed Wali Karzai shot in the “double tap” manner favored by seasoned hit man. Zalmay Ayoubi, spokesman for the Kandahar governor, said Sardar Mohammad pulled out a pistol and shot his “dear friend” twice in the head and once in the chest. Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, said the two men met alone in a room and, as Wali Karzai was signing papers, Mohammad “took out a pistol and shot him with two bullets—one in the forehead and one in the chest.” A dissenting official said the wounds were to Wali Karzai's head, hand and leg, but the gangland myth will be difficult to dislodge.

4) It’s hard to tell if Wali’s enemies wanted him dead more than his allies did, and which is which. Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa bewailed Karzai’s murder as “a catastrophe for everyone.” Wesa contended that Karzai “helped bring peace and stability to the region,” a peace and stability that included a bomb blast two days before AWK’s death that killed three Afghan police, a May suicide bomber attack upon the governor’s palace that killed at least 11, March riots that resulted in more than 100 deaths, and the simultaneous escape in April of 500 Taliban fighters from Kandahar’s Saraposa prison.

International security forces worked through Wali for the influence and reach of his family and tribal connections, and for his local military might and strategic infrastructure, but he was far from a beloved partner. Despite his presumed indispensability (until Tuesday), AWK’s favoring of his own Popalzai tribe in disputes and for opportunities was seen by outside analysts as an obstacle to improving Afghanistan’s governance, and as creating fatal resentments.

“There’s an undercurrent of anti-AWK sentiment” among local clans, one American officer told the Daily Beast in June. “Within six months, you may hear a loud ‘pop’ in the city.”

5) The drug stuff. Ahmed Wali Karzai insisted that drug-profiting allegations against him proved nothing except that he was the “victim of politics.” In 2009, he threatened to thrash a McClatchy news agency reporter and chased the reporter from his home. Following up on a 2007 New York Times report that depicted AWK personally ordering a local security commander to release a large truck carrying heroin, the McClatchy journalist had interviewed officials and elders who implicated the council leader in drug trafficking. It is commonly accepted as fact that Wali Karzai’s fingers were sticky with the corruption of loaded real estate deals, construction kickbacks, cuts from police post shakedowns of truckers and buses and bureaucratic graft. Since he did nothing to hinder manufacture and distribution, how could Wali Karzai have seen drugs as anything other than a straightforward value proposition?

Sources: The Daily Beast | Al Jazeera | Ottawa Citizen | Chicago Tribune-Associated Press

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