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.

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.

The Sherzai family had been prominent in Kandahar for years, and, despite disruption by the Taliban for a few years, continued to exert a lot of influence and control over province-wide politics. By removing Gul Agha to a province hundreds of miles away, Hamid Karzai cleared the way for his own half-brother to ascend to prominence in the city. Ahmed Wali's association with his half-brother President allowed him to become the main power broker in Kandahar, controlling literally billions of dollars in ISAF programs over the years and acting as a veto authority on all appointments and official actions.

At the same time, Ahmed Wali was charismatic, devastatingly charming in person, and skilled at doling out money, resources, access, and favors to make a huge number of Kandaharis either dependent or grateful. In some ways, Ahmed Wali's method of rule was Afghan politics -- reliant on personality, favors, patronage, occasional acts of intimidation or violence, lots of shady business deals to secure a personal fortune. But it was also antithetical to the rule of law, sustainable governance, and even long-term security.

Despite the appointment of Shah Wali Karzai, there is a brewing contest over who will control Kandahar moving forward. Not only the Sherzai family, but a constellation of second-order gangsters, thugs, and strongmen will be vying to secure what's left of Ahmed Wali's business and political empire. For the last five years, the International Community, rather than trying to put into place the fundamentals for a government based on the rule of law( actual laws that literate people can read, a functioning police force that isn't just a lightly armed backup for the Army, bureaucrats, services, taxation, land registries, functioning courts, and so on), they chose instead to rely on Ahmed Wali to get things done on their artificially short, politically expedient time frames. And for a while, it worked.

Now that Ahmed Wali Karzai is dead and buried, however, the same fundamental challenge that faced the international community in 2002 is still there, looking menacing and looming over any hope of a sensible, peaceful withdrawal: an ineffective government, ignorance by the western technocrats in charge of crafting the international response, and a persistent laziness that waves its hands at the complexity of Kandahar's power relationships and wishes, earnestly, for the brown people to sort it out themselves hopefully without too much bloodshed.

To come back to this blog's main theme, our mission in southern Kandahar started out painfully ignorant of the region's politics. And in the many long years since we arrived, we've not advanced our understanding to any real degree. And so, Kandahar's normal life of rule-by-thug looks set to continue against the backdrop of an America in retreat, wondering what it really accomplished.

Image Credit: Ahmad Nadeem / Reuters