Influential brother of Afghan president killed

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The younger half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, one of the most powerful and controversial men in southern Afghanistan, was shot dead at his home by a senior and highly trusted bodyguard, officials said.

Ahmad Wali Karzai’s assassination will leave a dangerous power vacuum in volatile Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace and a focus of recent efforts by a surge of U.S. troops to turn the tide against the insurgency.

He was accused of corruption and ties to the opium trade, but always denied any wrongdoing and was strongly supported by his brother whose influence he shored up in the south, Reuters reports.

President Karzai may find his reach there is now limited as a power struggle plays out among the possible successors to Ahmad Wali Karzai’s unofficial crown.
“We felt more safe when Ahmad Wali Karzai was around,” said Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar who outranked Karzai, but like almost everyone in the province deferred to him.
“His loss will have a negative impact on issues with tribes, and current affairs and security. Kandahar today witnessed the darkest day,” Wesa added at a news conference.

Ahmad Wali Karzai was shot dead by Sardar Mohammad, a senior member of the Karzai family’s security team in Kandahar who had known his victim for at least a decade.

He was based at a compound in the village of Karz, where both brothers were born, and travelled into Kandahar on Tuesday morning saying he had an application he needed to give his boss, Kandahar police chief Abdul Razeq told a news conference.
“The man carried his pistol through the security checks to Wali Karzai’s room. As soon as Wali Karzai came out of bathroom, he opened fire and shot him in the head and chest,” Razeq said.

Mohammad was shot dead by Karzai’s bodyguards moments after opening fire, witnesses and officials said.

The killing cast a pall over the city of Kandahar, which has been a focus of violence in recent months as the Taliban came under pressure in surrounding districts from a wave of extra troops ordered in by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.

Over half of all assassinations in Afghanistan since March were carried out in Kandahar city, a recent U.N. report said. Police had set up extra checkpoints on Tuesday, security forces flooded the city and shops were closed in central areas.
“My younger brother was martyred in his house today,” President Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul held with his visiting French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy. “I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end.”

The killing was condemned by Karzai’s backers and neighbours including the commander of NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, the U.S. embassy in Kabul and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
“MANY ENEMIES”

The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of the most high-profile assassinations of the last decade after news of his death became public. They have in the past taken responsibility for attacks that security services have questioned.

Years in power and his sometimes ruthless operating methods meant there might be many other people keen to target Karzai, who was often known simply by his initials, AWK.
“I’m not sure whether I would assume that this was the Taliban because he had a lot of enemies down there,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Officials in Kabul and Kandahar declined comment on whether they thought the killing was personal, connected to the insurgency or driven by other grievances.

Ahmad Wali Karzai survived several other assassination attempts. He said in May 2009 he had been ambushed on the road to Kabul by Taliban insurgents who killed one of his bodyguards.

In November 2008, he escaped unscathed from an attack on government buildings in his home province which killed six, and in 2003 there was an explosion outside his home.

CRITICAL POWER BROKER

A half-brother of the president, Ahmad Wali Karzai returned to Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban government, leaving behind a career as a restaurateur in Chicago to eventually become probably the most powerful man in Kandahar.

His power came not from his position as head of the provincial council — a largely consultative role which normally carries limited influence — but from his tribal and family connections and the fortune he accumulated.

Karzai will miss his support, particularly at a time when he is mired in a long-running dispute with parliament and faces a slow but steady reduction in Western financial and military support over the next four years.
“It’s going to leave a very profound vacuum in the south because he was basically running the south for his brother,” said Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban and long-time friend of the Karzai family.
“He basically won two elections for his brother there.”

The killing is also likely to alarm Western military and civilian officials, despite misgivings they had about Karzai’s role and reach, because it comes at a time when they are trying to map out their departure from Afghanistan.
“It’s a big blow for the whole exit strategy because even though he was a controversial figure…I think the Americans and the British were extremely dependent on him for keeping a lot of these very prominent Pashtun tribes in line and not going over to the Taliban,” he said.