Afghanistan's influential First Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim was a man of stark contradictions.
He was a feared former warlord who faced persistent accusations of human rights abuses, corruption, and involvement in Afghanistan's rampant drug trade. He had earned a reputation as a ruthless strongman who kept his own private militias and acted on his own.
But Fahim, an ethnic Tajik, was also a powerful unifying force who served as a bridge between the opposition and President Hamid Karzai's fractured administration. He played a crucial role in keeping the peace among rival factions within the former Northern Alliance after the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
His sudden death on March 9, reportedly from a heart attack, could come as a bitter blow to the Afghan leadership and its Western allies, removing a key factional and ethnic leader from an increasingly uncertain political landscape.
Fahim's death is all the more ill-timed because it comes amid a crucial leadership transition. Afghans will go to the polls on April 5 for a presidential election that should result in the first democratic transition in the country's turbulent history. The election is taking place against a backdrop of uncertainty and deteriorating security as U.S.-led forces leave this year.
"There will be a hole in the political process around the election because Fahim's place [as leader of the ethnic Tajik minority] is empty, and now the question is who will fill it and how will it be filled," Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, explains Fahim's influence in Afghan politics. "There has always been this competition for who is the leader of Jamiat-e-Islami and other similar groups."
Jamiat-e Islami is a predominately ethnic Tajik Islamist party that fought the Soviet Union and later the Taliban.
Ruttig says Fahim's possible successors include Qunus Qanuni, a former speaker of parliament, and Ahmad Zia Masud, the brother of the legendary anti-Soviet fighter Ahmad Shah Masud, who was killed in 2001.
Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former ambassador to France and Canada, says Fahim's influence and qualities as a political unifier will be missed.
Afghan and American officials had courted him as a peacemaker after Karzai's disputed reelection in 2009, which was marred by widespread fraud. Just before a second round was to take place, Karzai's opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, conceded defeat following Fahim's intervention.
"Some of his qualities -- like rising above sectarian politics, being a bridging character, and also aiming for social and political balance -- will be missed," Samad says.
It was unclear what, if any, role Fahim would have played in the April 5 presidential vote. According to reports in the Afghan press, Fahim -- capable of bringing in the Tajik vote -- had been courted by several candidates but had not publicly committed his support.
Mohammad Qasim Fahim in the run-up to the 2009 presidential vote
Behind the scenes, Fahim's loyalties reportedly swung between different candidates. Fahim had links to Qayum Karzai, the president's brother who stepped down this week, and Abdullah Abdullah, a fellow ethnic Tajik.
Fahim held the rank of field marshal and had survived several assassination attempts, most recently in 2009 in northern Afghanistan.
He served as defense minister in Karzai's first administration and most recently was first vice president. But among his supporters he will be best remembered as the commander of the Northern Alliance that swept aside the Taliban regime after the U.S. invasion in 2001.