Implications of the Assassinations of Prominent Politicians in Afghanistan

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai last week has sent political shockwaves throughout Afghanistan. A close confidant of the president, Wali was not only widely seen as the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, but one of the most powerful figures in the country. A few days later, another of the president’s close confidants, Jan Mohammad Khan, who hailed from the same Popolzai tribe as Karzai, was assassinated in Kabul, most likely by the Taliban. A former governor of Uruzgan, notorious for his poor and discriminatory governance, Khan was reputed to be relied upon to mediate disputes among the Karzai brothers. Both deaths have greatly raised a sense of vulnerability among President Karzai’s close circle of advisors.

Wali’s death is not only a moment of danger, but also a moment of opportunity for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Wali supplied a variety of services for ISAF and U.S. government agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency — providing intelligence on the Taliban to ISAF and being one of the first powerbrokers in southern Afghanistan to start talking with the Taliban about negotiations. At minimum, his death greatly destabilizes southern Afghanistan, which could mean a loss of a go-to man for ISAF for intelligence and political deals in Kandahar. The resulting political infighting over Wali’s economic and political empire in southern Afghanistan could further complicate the already poor governance in Afghanistan.

Yet Wali’s death also provides the U.S. government, ISAF, and the broader international community with an important opportunity. Wali was notorious for his nefarious activities and for running southern Afghanistan like an exclusionary mafia fief. For many, he was the epitome of bad governance in Afghanistan. Careful handing by the United States of the political rearrangement after Wali’s death in Kandahar could allow for major improvements in governance there — with greater inclusion of various tribes and communities and greater equity, transparency, and accountability for the Afghan people.

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