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Profile: Why Was The Afghan President's Brother Ahmad Wali Karzai So Controversial?

  • RFE/RL

Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, speaks with reporters in Kandahar last year.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, speaks with reporters in Kandahar last year.

In the murky world of Afghan politics, there were few figures murkier -- yet more important -- than Ahmad Wali Karzai.

The younger, half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the 49-year-old Ahmad was universally considered to be the most powerful politician in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-biggest city and the birthplace of the Taliban.

But the source of his power extended far beyond his official position as the head of Kandahar's elected provincial council.

And it was exactly questions over where his immense power and wealth came from that made him both so controversial and difficult to define.

That he was powerful, there is no doubt. Just last month, a delegation of tribal elders from Kandahar went to Kabul to lobby President Karzai to make Ahmad Wali the governor of Kandahar -- a step which would have given him virtually monopoly rule over the province.

One of Ahmad Wali Karzai's supporters, Agha Lalai Dastgiri, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan: "About 20 days ago a delegation representing all the tribes, more than 100 people, went to Kabul. They visited the president and asked him to appoint Ahmad Wali Karzai as Kandahar's governor, because the people think that would decrease and solve their problems."

Dastgiri is a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council and the head of the Kandahar Peace Commission.

One source of Ahmad Wali Karzai's power was undoubtedly his close family ties to his brother. Like the president, Ahmad Wali Karzai was an elder of the powerful Popalzai Pashtun tribe in southern Afghanistan and, with his brother, rose to power with U.S. support in the wake of Washington's 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban.

But while those important familial and regional ties may have helped him get elected to the Kandahar Provincial Council in 2005, he soon proved highly adept at amassing power and money on his own account.

When Ahmad Wali Karzai died on July 12 by an assassin's hand in his own heavily guarded home in the southern city, he was widely considered to be among Afghanistan's 10 richest men.

And the very fact that he had so much money immediately made it difficult to know even what might have motivated his killer -- Sardar Mohammad, a senior bodyguard trusted by the family -- to fatally shoot him in the head and chest before being shot dead by other guards.

Accusations Of Corruption

Among the most persistent charges leveled against Ahmad Wali Karzai -- both by critics and some allies -- were corruption and links to the drug trade.

In Western media, and Western capitals, he was so often portrayed as a symbol of cronyism that he became a lightening rod for criticism of all that is wrong with President Karzai's administration.

"The New York Times" reported last year that senior U.S. officials spent months weighing allegations against Ahmad Wali Karzai, including that he paid off Taliban insurgents, that he laundered money, that he seized government land, and that he reaped enormous profits by facilitating the shipment of opium through his region.

The top-level U.S. review of Ahmad Wali Karzai included a classified briefing presided over by General Stanley McChrystal on March 8, 2010, at NATO headquarters in Kabul.

But, the paper reported, the U.S. review ultimately concluded that the evidence, some compelling, some circumstantial, was not clear enough to persuade President Karzai to dismiss his brother.

And it was considered advisable to leave things in place in Kandahar as the United States itself prepared to launch a major operation to increase security in Kandahar, which began late last year and continues today.

Ahmad Wali Karzai (left) talks with his half-brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right), in Kandahar in October 2010.

Ahmad Wali Karzai consistently denied all allegations against him, saying they were politically motivated.

After "The New York Times" published an article in October 2008 headlined "Reports Link Karzai's Brother to Afghanistan Heroin Trade," he told reporters at a press conference that the accusation was "just a rumor."

He continued: "Up to this minute, nobody is able to prove it. So it is like a ghost. People say there is a ghost but you cannot see it, you cannot touch it, you cannot hear it, and [still] it is [supposedly] there. So all the accusations 'The New York Times' is saying in its report, I am ready to answer one by one."

Ahmad Wali Karzai told Britain's "Financial Times" last year: "It's very difficult to be the president's brother, believe me."

...And CIA Ties

But the late Kandahar kingpin's relations with Washington may have been still more complicated that the consistent criticism of him might suggest.

Just how complicated they could be was hinted at two years ago by a spate of media investigations into persistent rumors he had received regular payments from the CIA for much of the past eight years.

"The New York Times" reported in September 2009 that the U.S. intelligence agency paid him for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force -- the Kandahar Strike Force -- that conducts raids against suspected insurgents at the CIA's direction in and around Kandahar.

Similarly, the paper reported, Washington paid Karzai for allowing CIA and U.S. commandos to rent a large compound outside the city.

Ahmad Wali Karzai subsequently called the newspaper's report "ridiculous." White House spokesman Robert Gibbs refused to comment on any relationship between Karzai and the CIA, as did CIA spokesman George Little.

Power Vacuum In Kandahar

Now, with Ahmad Wali Karzai's assassination in Kandahar, Washington has lost someone who --depending upon which reports one finds credible -- was simultaneously both a partner and a liability for the West.

Just how much of each may become clearer as more details emerge of his death -- and the motives of his assassin. But for now, the bizarre circumstances of his shooting by a trusted associate only shroud his life in greater mystery than ever.

More immediately, Ahmad Wali Karzai's death plunges Kandahar into a power vacuum at a critical time for U.S. hopes to increase security in Kandahar as Washington prepares for an initial withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next year.

Despite the steady criticism of Ahmad Wali Karzai as a polarizing figure in Kandahar who could complicate efforts to win over the population and supplant the Taliban, many U.S. and foreign officials have also at times recognized his huge reach within the city. He was seen as someone with the contacts to get things done, even if one had misgivings about his methods.

"The death is a huge loss, as it happened at a time that the power transition and national reconciliation is in progress," Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament from Kandahar and the first deputy of the lower house in the Afghan parliament, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "In addition, the area is plagued by daily fighting and insecurity. Ahmad Karzai was an influential person in the whole area."

The latest assassination attempt was not the first targeting Ahmad Wali Karzai. There were at least two previous attacks against the provincial-council office in Kandahar that Karzai claimed were directed at him. One was in November 2008, another in April 2009. The attack in 2009, by four suicide bombers, killed 13 people.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, who was married and had five children, was born in Kandahar city in 1961 and moved to the United States in 1982, where he lived in Maryland and Virginia before moving to Chicago to run an Afghan restaurant. He returned to Afghanistan in 1992.

Asked about the secret of his power in Kandahar, he told "The Washington Post" last year that decades of experience in Afghanistan was his only key:

"I know how to talk to the people," Ahmad Wali Karzai said. "I know how to deal with these tribes. I know what their needs are. I know how to address their needs. This is the skill I have learned."

Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent Salih Mohammad Salih and Radio Mashaal's correspondent Hassiba Shaheed contributed to this report
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