What We Lost With Ahmed Wali Karzai

The Afghan president's brother wasn't the only thing buried yesterday


The funeral yesterday for President Hamid Karzai's murdered brother was as dramatic as funerals get in Afghanistan -- the president threw himself on his dead brother's grave, Helmand governor Gulab Mangal narrowly escaped a roadside bomb on his way to show his respect, and there was lots of wailing and rending of garments. But beyond the personal grief for the president, and the somewhat obvious question of what comes next, there is a deeper loss to contemplate in Kandahar.

Within 36 hours of one brother being killed, Hamid Karzai appointed another one to take his place. It had all the usual trappings of a traditional ceremony: the old political rivals like Gul Agha Sherzai wrapping Shah Wali Karzai's head in a turban, intonations to unity and condolence, and so forth. And it is, indeed, traditional to have a son or a brother take up the duty of a murdered relative.

If the ultimate goal of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is a working government that can safeguard national interests, then solidifying one family's control over the province is not how you do it.

The problem with such an arrangement is that it demonstrates just how hollow the American mission in the south really is. Beyond the narrow mission of defeating al Qaeda, President Obama has defined success in Afghanistan as, in part, strengthening "the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future." In a way, appointing Ahmed Wali's brother to take up his post is a very Afghan thing to do. But it's not a terribly sustainable thing to do.

Ahmed Wali was on his way to becoming the next governor of Kandahar. Even the Sherzai family, which has traditionally competed with the Karzai's for influence in the province, were petitioning President Karzai to appoint Ahmed Wali as the next governor. There were very good reasons for this move: since his election to head the provincial council in 2005 (Ahmed Wali is the most popular leader in Southern Afghanistan, one of the few in the country who can be said to have achieved his post through legitimate popular voting), Ahmed Wali has solidified his position as the King of Kandahar with American assistance. It makes sense that he should have transitioned from being the most powerful man in the province to being its official ruler.

The problem with the reliance on Ahmed Wali, however, is that it is deeply against any normal traditions of government. Even the "bottom-up" governance projects the military has undertaken rely, even if vaguely, on pantomimes to institutions, laws, and process. While Afghans intuitively accept hereditary inheritance of positions of power, there's no real legal structure to make them official, aside from the President appointing a replacement (which brings us back to the interesting question of whether Shah Wali will be able to command the same electoral popularity Ahmed Wali did).

If the ultimate goal of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and for that sake Hamid Karzai's survival strategy, is a working government that can safeguard national interests, then solidifying one family's control over the province is not how you do it. In 2004, Gul Agha Sherzai, the abusive thug who ran Kandahar into such disarray in the mid-90s that the Taliban emerged as a popular resistance movement, was transferred from his governorship in Kandahar to the governorship in Nangarhar. He was meant to replace Haji Din Muhammed, an old mujahideen commander who was widely believed to be corrupt and ineffective.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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