Ahmed Wali Karzai, RI… oh nevermind

by Joshua Foust on 7/12/2011 · 26 comments

Ahmed Wali Karzai is dead. I’ve spent the morning assembling some initial thoughts and reactions as to what comes next. The short of it is: this is bad. It was going to be bad, and our leaders need to be asked why they ever thought this wouldn’t be bad.

More later.


For the AfPak Channel, I ask who will really miss Ahmed Wali Karzai?

Whatever his influence as a political stabilizer, though, Ahmed Wali was also an economic and political nightmare. He would, in essence, hold court at his many offices and mansions around Kandahar city, circumventing the “legitimate” government and doling out to his supplicants handfuls of cash everyone whispered were gained through smuggling opium. From a business perspective, AWK was a mafia don, controlling his own business interests with an iron fist and, the rumors go, violently attacking anyone who posed too much competition.

When you combine his violent business activities with his close association with his brother Hamid, it is unsurprising that AWK had a list of enemies as large as the Hindu Kush Mountains. Even if his killer turns out to have very little real association with the Taliban, AWK’s death is, in many ways, just the latest in a string of violent acts against Kandahar’s prominent leaders.

There’s more, obviously, at the link. Meanwhile, on my commute to work this morning I was talking over traffic and incoming flights at Reagan National Airport whilst driving up I-395 and talking to The Takeaway:

Finally, I spoke with Ritula Shah at BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight. I’m in the teaser and at the last five minutes of the episode.

Finally, Yochi Dreazen quotes me in his story on the killing, contrasting the desire by some ISAF officials to arrest Ahmed Wali Karzai for drug, organized criminal, or other charges. The problem is the dearth of concrete, documentary evidence linking AWK to those things—rumors abound, and some of them are probably true, but we never had enough evidence to really follow through. Yochi had asked me if I thought it might still be a good thing, now that AWK is, basically, out of the way.

“Arresting him would have been much better because it would have been example of Afghan law finally being employed against a powerful man,” said Joshua Foust, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency who now works as a fellow at the American Security Project. “Instead there’s just a sudden power vacuum at the top of the province, and there will be lots of lower-level thugs fighting for control of a very large pie.”

Foust noted that the U.S. has routinely turned key regions of Afghanistan over to autocrats such as Ahmad Wali Karzai but has rarely taken steps to moderate their power or replace them with more legitimate rulers. “Relying on rule through strongmen only gets you so far,” he said.

But of course, I must always be associated with the DIA, even though I worked there for four stupid months last year. Sigh.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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TJM July 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

Are you going to add more later? My initial thought was that this would be short-term disruptive, long-term good.

anan July 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Agreed TJM. Joshua, hopefully this facilitates an increased role by 205th ANA Corps, NDS, ANCOP in Kandahar.

M Shannon July 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm

An increased role? In what? The drug trade, corruption and providing phoney security?

Schwartz July 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

Well, this is a moral-pragmatic clusterf*ck. Then again, AW Karzai always was.

CE July 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

This is bad, but since the situation on the ground was already irreparably, hopelessly, miserably, catastrophically fucked to begin with, I don’t consider this a ‘game-changer,’ or a ‘turning point,’ or a ‘peripeteia’ or whatever the shit the histrionic punditry wants to call it.

ISAF and GIRoA just lost their Kandahari consigliere; that is all. They lost the guy that picked up the dry cleaning.

Now they’ll have to wash their own rags themselves.

Briandot July 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm

He was not really an ISAF asset. OGA yes, ISAF no.

CE July 13, 2011 at 3:26 am

You’re right. A liability for ISAF; an asset for the other guys.

Steve C July 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Can someone please tell me why this is bad? Serious question.

jonathan p July 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I have the same question, Steve. Not understanding the long-term negative side of this event.

John July 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm

It is the risk of instability, jonathan and steve. AWK was certainly no saint, but his networks kept all the powerbrokers in Kandahar from feuding with each other. With his demise a sudden power vacuum opens up- every minor powerbroker sees this as their opportunity to exert their influence and flex their muscle, and every one of them has armed guards to carry out that task.

Additionally, if powerbroker-based violence begins to destabilize Kandahar, the Taliban will have the perfect opportunity to try re-infiltrating the city. The Taliban have (somewhat) been pushed out of the city itself and into the surrounding districts, but if the police are busy (or participating in) factional violence, they may be able to get back in.

Finally, the main person to take over now may be Abdul Razziq, the provincial police chief. He’s efficient if ruthless, and will likely seek to arrest or kill just to prove he’s capable of handling himself without AWK as his benefactor. The US may have no choice but to support him since he is the “legitimate” Afghan government security figure in the area.

Hope that helps clarify things. It is going to get worse before it gets better, if it does indeed get better at all. Another AWK-like figure may rise to fill the void, continuing the cycle of corruption and crime. Or the city tears itself apart with violence from criminals, power-players and insurgents.

Steve C July 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Thanks John. Given the shaky foundations this structure was built upon, sounds like AWK catching a bad cold would have threatened the situation.

I was reading a piece a few months back about the reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone national park. They had been the main predator for the Elk who spent many years grazing peacefully along the banks of the river, destroying the vegetation and creating an ecological disaster zone.

Since the wolves returned the Elk have retreated back into the woodland to present themselves as less of an easy meal and this has led to a quite miraculous regeneration of flora, fauna and survival possibilities for a whole host of wildlife from beaver to rare insects.

Interestingly enough, the only ones who are bitching about this are the “hunters” who, without any particular set of skills, could lay up and kill Elk as they munched away at the river bank.

Perhaps it’s time to allow the wolves back?

BruceR July 13, 2011 at 9:58 am

What’s interesting about this anecdote is it leads to two completely different policy prescriptions if you assume Taliban=elk, or Taliban=wolves.

Steve C July 13, 2011 at 10:21 am

Well Bruce, if you think of the Elk as getting rather fat whilst feeding off the easy pickings (and upsetting an ecological balance) as they’re free from natural predators – except those with a government granted lisense to “cull”….

Grant July 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm

The question is really one of ‘why’. Was it a personal grudge? Was it done at the behest of one of AWK’s rivals? Was it actually the Taliban? What was behind the assassination?

GSM July 12, 2011 at 6:15 pm

But John, what if AWK’s brand of stability was exactly the problem? He was certainly good for “stability” from oh… 7 or 8k miles away, where he could keep a lid on violence (or so we have been led to believe) and could serve as a go-between between the Int. community and “the locals” but was he good for stability on the ground?

Perhaps because he was so strong, the only alternative to his brand of stability was the Taliban, and now there is an opportunity for some diversity of opinion.

Or perhaps its too late and people have taken sides, and this is just the biggest blow to one side of the struggle for Kandahar?

Dafydd July 13, 2011 at 7:58 am

There were a whole host of problems with AWK, and he needed to be removed. Anyone with Afghanistan’s interest at heart knows that. The fact he personally fulfilled some functions of a state (like getting close to a monopoly on violence for instance) illustrates the problem. That is the function of a state, a legitimate ruler (monarch, president, mullah, whatever way the Afghans like it) , not a warlord/gangster. AWK was basically a warlord/gangster.

ISAF/NATO/Whoever should never have got into bed with him, and on the discovery of a nasty rash next morning really should have dealt with the situation. They failed to do that.

Now we have a propaganda battle. If the Taliban manage to establish the perception it was they who removed AWK, that is a massive victory for them. Like I said, it (his removal) needed doing, No proponent of democracy and freedom can say that it didn’t without tieing themselves in knots. Moreover, this is a methodology they have no ideological objection to. They are not constrained by our quaint notions of due process etc..

Unfortunately, while there is a big upside for the Taliban, I don’t see much downside. If the perception that someone else killed him becomes rooted, I do not think that will harm the Taliban too much.

Steve C July 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Kate Clark has a piece up on AAN that suggests he and his type have been instrumental in radicalization.

Pol-Mil FSO July 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm

I want to echo John’s on-the-mark point about the risk of instability. AWK had a widespread network of relationships that helped keep the peace, and while his patronage politics may have hindered the development of Western-style bureaucratic institutions, they were in keeping with the Afghan style of politics and served, I believe, to extend the reach of the Afghan Government.

I don’t see Abdul Razziq as a viable successor to AWK because, to put it bluntly, he is really the head of a tribal-based smuggling organization that happens to wear Border Police uniforms and is good at fighting the Taliban. He is certainly widely feared, and respected for his fighting prowess (especially by ISAF), but I think he is too young and lacks the tribal pedigree and connections to be taken seriously as a provincial leader. To cite one example, AWK had marriage ties to the Noorzai leadership while Abdul Razziq is notorious for his persecution of the Noorzai (the traditional rivals of the Achekzai in the smuggling business).

Gul Agha Sherzai and his brothers have similar negatives from his legacy as Governor of Kandahar. Qayum Karzai might be a possible successor if he can overcome his instinctive shying away from the limelight and preference to work behind the scenes. However, I doubt that anyone can replace AWK and I worry that we will see a deterioration of the Government position in Kandahar that will mirror the decline of the Alokozai following the death of Mullah Naquib in October 2007.

Steve C July 13, 2011 at 6:29 am

Tens of thousands of foreign troops are stomping around southern Afghanistan carrying out night raids, calling in artillery and airstrikes, destroying villages in the name of force protection, all against the very publicly expressed wishes of the country’s president.

The lives and property of the citizens of Afghanistan are devalued and disregarded with an impunity that beggars belief and you “worry that we will see a deterioration of the Government position in Kandahar” as a result of A.W. Karzai getting whacked?

I think, sir, that it’s time you pulled your head out of the Who’s Who of tribal luminaries and began to think like a human being again. You may see a little more clearly what is really to the detriment of the government position.

Lee-Anne G July 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Thanks for talking to me today! Much appreciated.

Mc July 13, 2011 at 1:23 am

Sorry but AWK helped keep the peace??? In Kandahar??? Exactly what peace would that be? The place was a mess before ISAF surged in. Mafia like behavior is never a stabilizer. It only foments grievances.

Pol-Mil FSO July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

A comment that I posted yesterday on Joshua’s piece on the AF-Pak Channel of the Foreign Policy blog:

“Having been in Kandahar in 2007, I have to respectfully disagree with Joshua’s contention that ISAF missed an opportunity then to “start developing the fundamentals of the institutions of government in the area, a system of rule based not on personality or thuggery, but laws, regulations, and structure.” ISAF in 2007 did not have the resources, the will, nor, most importantly, the knowledge to play an influential role in the opaque and ruthless Kandahar politics. I would argue that we still don’t know enough to play an effective role in the politics. And I think it reflects a Western conceit to believe that we can bend Afghan politicians to do our bidding.”

All of the name calling doesn’t obscure the basic fact that AWK was an Afghan politician, more powerful than most, but still an Afghan politician, no more and no less. What was the alternative to AWK? The Taliban? Non-existent Western-style politicians? As many other commentators have noted, nobody had the combination of personal ties, tribal connections, money, and power that AWK possessed. Afghan Government influence and power in Kandahar,and southern Afghanistan in general, would have been weaker without AWK’s efforts.

There seems to have been a pattern of Westerners who arrived in Kandahar with strongly negative views of AWK, and with vows to find a way to marginalize or replace him. Most of these officials came to realize that AWK wasn’t going anywhere and that he shared the same bottom-line goal as the coalition – the survival of the Afghan Government headed by his half-brother. With varying degrees of success and enthusiasm they learned to work with him on this common goal. Not an ideal outcome from Western perspectives, but the only realistic one in the Afghan context.

Joshua Foust July 13, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I’m sympathetic to that, but that basically amounts to “it was hard and we didn’t already know how so we didn’t bother.” I know that’s just what people end up having to do to get by, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say we should have tried something else, too.

GSM July 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Agree to agree. It is not realistic in the Afghan context. It is realistic in the Afghan context viewed through the short time frames of the International Community. this is just a symptom of a larger problem.

Everyone who has showed up in Kandahar for the last 9 years has had (at most) a one year time frame. Basically… “well, we only have one year to meet our goals, and we realized that we can’t get anything done without AWK, so we figure we’ll work with him. He was here before we got here and will be here when we leave…”

Dafydd July 14, 2011 at 6:28 am

“Everyone who has showed up in Kandahar for the last 9 years has had (at most) a one year time frame”

Interestingly, this leaves AWK playing the same game as the Taliban.

‘I will still be here when the Americans are long gone’

Pol-Mil FSO July 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

It was probably 2005, if not earlier, when the U.S. Ambassador first went to President Karzai and told him that he needed to move his half-brother out of Kandahar by making him an Ambassador to another country or some similar posting to get him out of Afghanistan. The answer then, and during subsequent visits, was no. The U.S. Government then had to make a decision as to whether it was willing to make this issue the subject of a major conflict with President Karzai. Setting aside the issue of whether any level of pressure would have caused President Karzai to change his mind – I personally think not – the calculus had to include the importance of this issue to the overall war effort and the question of who could replace AWK in Kandahar. In this case I think going with the status quo was the “least bad” decision.

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