KANDAHAR -- The hectic pace of life in Kandahar always slows considerably during Ramadan. Many residents participating in the dawn-to-dusk fast stay indoors, seeking respite from the blistering heat outside.
But this holy month, traditional inaction is magnified by fear following the loss of a number of high-profile political figures, and uncertainty over whether their replacements will bring more security to this center of Pashtun power and politics in southern Afghanistan.
Conversations and whispers in this city of 800,000 people center on the vacuum left behind by the deaths of Provincial Council head Ahmad Wali Karzai, the powerful and controversial brother of the president, Hamid Karzai, and Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, one of the region's most trusted public servants.
Adding to the uncertainty was the death of Amir Lalai, a former mujahedin-era commander and key pillar of the coalition ruling the city who died of a heart attack last week.
In April, a suspected Taliban suicide bomber killed Kandahar Police Chief Khan Muhammad Mujahed, who had fought the Red Army and the Taliban.
A Modicum Of Governance
The question is how can these powerful men, who came from different Pashtun tribes in the region and managed a complex web of alliances, be replaced?
While far from perfect, their influence ensured a modicum of governance and helped prevent the Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the violent deaths, from retaking its former capital.
In replacing these men, will Kabul try to repeat its previous formula by choosing loyal and powerful leaders, or will it find compromise candidates who are less likely to be targeted by the Taliban?
Men harvesting a crop of opium poppies in Kandahar Province. Controlling the Afghan narco-economy is considered the major spoil of power in the region.
The name of Gul Agha Sherzai, current governor of eastern Nangarhar Province, is being tipped to return to his former stronghold to take Karzai's place. This would fit the government's mold of tapping a local strongman.
But even his success is not guaranteed with foreign forces looking to exit. The situation in Kandahar is further complicated by major NATO military operations that helped create new conflicts and possibly dented efforts toward reconciliation with the Taliban.
Unending Tribal Disagreements
Yama Gul Watandost, a young resident of Kandahar, says that Ahmad Wali Karzai had put a lid on seemingly unending tribal disagreements in the region. Filling Karzai's shoes, Watandost predicts, will be challenging.
"Family members might be able to fill up the vacuum he left behind but it won't match Ahmad Wali [Karzai's] competence," he says. "There will definitely be competition and feuds among the various tribes. Earlier Ahmad Wali [Karzai] balanced them through skillful negotiations and peace."
Competition or cooperation among the various Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtun tribes in Kandahar and the surrounding Pashtun provinces has defined war and peace in the region.
Kandahar-based analyst Mohammad Omar Sathey keeps a close eye on the developments in his home city. He says that strongmen in the region know that skillful manipulation of the tribal dynamics ultimately leads to power.
Sathey says that certain outside forces now want to exploit the uncertainty and disunity among the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, sensing an opportunity to shape the region to their liking.
Two Choices For Tackling Power Vacuum
Southern Afghanistan borders Pakistan and Iran. Kabul has blamed both Islamabad and Tehran for sheltering and protecting insurgents from the region.
According to Sathey, Kabul now has two choices in addressing the power vacuum in the region.
"We need a proper administration which can balance competing interests among various clans," he says. "Another way of sorting it will be to appoint people from other regions. Many people here think that officials from other provinces will not be interested in engaging in tribal struggle. This will deter them from fanning the fire here and won't instigate tribal rivalries."
Observers in the region, however, consider tribal rivalries a mere cover for a complicated power struggle among strongmen.
Controlling the Afghan narco-economy in the area is considered the major spoil of power in this region.
Poppy cultivation and trafficking began to take shape in southern Afghanistan toward the end of the Soviet occupation in late 1980s. Many powerful, regional mujahedeen commanders then acquired controlling interests in the drug economy by paying farmers for their poppy harvests and raking in profits from processing and smuggling the crops.
This turned the region into the world's largest poppy producer, with the anarchy during the civil war in the 1990s providing an opportunity for warlords to carve out large fiefdoms for themeselves.
However, many of these commanders soon fell out over the control of the drug trade. Some of them bankrolled the Taliban movement in the mid-1990s and took over rival networks with their backing.
The demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001 exposed the region to another round of strongman rivalry. Back in power with the support of the U.S. forces, former governor Gul Agha Sherzai built a strong following and won some popular backing by bringing reconstruction projects.
Governor of Nangarhar Province Gul Agha Sherzai
Sherzai is also accused of pushing opponents to the insurgent ranks by labeling them Taliban. This exposed them to reprisals from international forces and deprived them of jobs, a role in reconstruction, and lucrative contracts. He was first ousted by the Taliban from Kandahar's governorship in 1994.
During his second stint in governorship Sherzai, however, was accused of promoting fellow Barakzai tribesmen, embezzling government revenues, and colluding with the drug lords.
In 2004 he was removed from the region and appointed the governor of far away Nangarhar. Critics accuse Ahmad Wali Karzai of using the same mold during the next seven years.
Sherzai's mention as a new regional strongman and real replacement for Ahmad Wali Karzai is no surprise to Kandaharis -- the Pashto name for southern Pashtuns.
Haji Amin, who lives in Kandahar's second district, maintains that Sherzai's return to the region will ensure that he attracts a loyal following, which can make a positive difference.
"We are cautiously optimistic that Gul Agha [Sherzai's] return to Kandahar will improve the security situation in the region," he says. "If we get somebody who has no personal influence here; who is unable to call upon his people and lacks strong local backing, then the security situation will deteriorate every day."