The gunning down of Ahmed Wali Karzai by his long-term head of security and confidant, Sardar Muhammed, is a significant blow to Afghanistan’s political stability in the South and exposes the fragility of NATO’s wider Afghanistan strategy.
Kandahar is often referred to as the ‘spiritual home’ of the Taliban movement. A status derived from the fact that it was the first significant city to come under Taliban control as the movement rolled out across the south in 1994. Indeed, Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, preferred to govern Afghanistan from Kandahar rather than Kabul when the Taliban took power in 1996.
Aware of this, NATO has prioritized Kandahar as a strategic prize not only due to its role as a conduit for fighters from the south, but also as a result of its symbolic status for the Taliban movement.
Under the ‘surge strategy’ outlined by General McChrystal, Kandahar was given priority status, with the aim of seizing the province, breaking the Taliban’s momentum in the south, and bolstering the legitimacy of the national government through establishing firm control. NATO is equally aware that as ‘transition’ to Afghan control of security begins to become the dominant narrative in the Afghanistan strategy, key cities such as Kandahar must be under government control.
The power vacuum that will be left by the killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai will threaten this.
Karzai was not a governor of Kandahar, but as head of the Provincial Council he was a key political figure and power broker. He became in effect President Karzai’s representative in Kandahar and despite serious allegations over his links with narcotraffickers and other criminal elements (including the Taliban themselves), it was widely perceived that NATO had reached a modus Vivendi with him.
His strength derived from his relationship with the President, his status as a tribal leader within the province, and his ability to disburse patronage to local actors in return for their political acquiescence.
It is this more informal role that Ahmed Wali Karzai fulfilled which will be hardest to replace and exposes the frailties of NATO’s strategy.
Counter-insurgency is an inherently political process, its success is generally determined by the ability of the government to establish its authority in contested areas.
This has required NATO to work with the political grain of Afghanistan. It cannot, nor should not dictate its preference in terms political leadership, unless it wishes to immediately undermine the authority of those it proposes.
In the south, this leaves NATO at the mercy of what Britain’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles refers to as the ‘roiling sea’ of regional politics. Local leaders are not simply under threat from the Taliban, but from a multitude of interest groups. The cross cutting grievances such groups hold come from an array of local and regional pressures.
Narcotics, certainly have a part to play, but disenfrancisement over historically-rooted land disputes; political patronage; and indeed aid disbursement originating from the international presence itself also provoke rivalries.
Indeed, those closest to Ahmed Wali Karzai’s assassin expressed a profound skepticism over the Taliban’s claims that they had turned him. This state of affairs, resembling at times more of a civil war than an insurgency, is something that the Taliban continue to exploit.