Although he was dogged by allegations of corruption, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of Afghanistan's president, Hamid, and head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, was the undisputed power broker in the southern region, the homeland of the Taliban and the focus of recent US-led campaigns to turn the tide against the insurgents. Karzai was shot dead by his long-time friend and head of security, Mohammed Sadar, who was himself killed by security forces.
The murder was the latest and most high-profile in a series of assassinations of politicians and security commanders. The president, who has lost a key political fixer, repeatedly defended him, denouncing accusations that his brother was involved in criminal activities in the restive south.
Born in the village of Karz, Kandahar Province, in 1961, Ahmed Wali Karzai had six brothers, including his half-brother Hamid, and a sister. His father was a senior leader of the Popalzai tribe and a politician who was killed in exile by the Taliban in 1999. In his teens, Karzai was forced to leave his homeland due the Soviet invasion and the ensuing occupation and civil war. He fled to Pakistan and then to Chicago, where he worked in the family-owned Afghan restaurant.
Karzai returned to Afghanistan following the removal of the Taliban government after the Nato-led invasion of 2001. While his brother consolidated power in Kabul, Ahmed, an elder of the Popalzai Pashtun tribe, Afghanistan's main ethnic group, became a major player in the family's heartland of Kandahar; he was elected to the Provincial Council in 2005 and later served as its chairman. He became arguably the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, an enforcer for his brother. Coalition generals came to see Karzai as the "go-to" man in the region; his influence belied his modest official title.
Critics claimed that Karzai was tainted by the brutality and corruption that helped drive ordinary Afghans into the arms of insurgents. He was at the centre of a number of controversies. In 2009, the New York Times reported that he had been on the CIA payroll for nine years, operating a paramilitary force to conduct raids on the Taliban, as well as giving information about insurgents. There were repeated calls for his removal from Kandahar, while one US ambassador called for him to be given an ambassadorial post overseas, but this was rejected.
The brothers always vehemently denied all allegations. Karzai said, "I don't know anyone under the name of the CIA. I have never received any money from any organisation. I help, definitely. I help other Americans wherever I can. This is my duty as an Afghan." However, his close association with a heroin kingpin, Haji Azizullah (in whose house he lived rent-free from 2001) was never properly explained.
But even his enemies admitted that he had a talent for bringing different tribes together and solving disputes; he brought a degree of ruthless control to a violent area through his unrivalled network of tribal and family connections and the fortune he was rumoured to have amassed and used adroitly for political ends. Effectively the governor of Kandahar province, Karzai exerted considerable influence on neighbouring provinces.
Analysts believe that the articulate and charming Ahmed all but won two presidential elections for his brother through his patronage and security networks, and ensured continued, if not always enthusiastic, support for his rule. He was later accused of orchestrating voter fraud in the August 2009 elections. Karzai had been the target of a number of assassination attempts, the most recent a rocket and machine-gun attack in May 2009 as his convoy was travelling towards Kabul. A year earlier, he was chairing a meeting in a government building when a bomb-filled fuel tanker exploded close by, killing six and wounding 40. The Taliban were blamed.
By 2010, attempts to freeze Karzai out appeared to have ground to a halt. In October 2009, US Senator John Kerry said, "I have requested from our intelligence sources and law enforcement folks the smoking gun, the evidence... and nobody has [produced it]." In March 2010, a senior US military official declared that Karzai could be targeted for killing or capture if it were proven that he provided arms or assistance to insurgent groups. By this July that evidence was still not forthcoming and Karzai remained a key player in the complicated power politics of Afghanistan. Short-term, there is almost certain to be in-fighting among rivals for his crown; longer-term, the political structure of the south is likely to be irrevocably changed.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, politician: born Karz, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan 1961; married (two sons, three daughters); died Kandahar 12 July 2011.