Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother to the Afghan President and one of the country's most powerful politicians, was assassinated by a bodyguard yesterday, leaving a power vacuum in a crucial province as foreign powers prepare to start withdrawing troops.
Mr Karzai was shot in the head and the chest as he met constituents at his home in Kandahar. Witnesses told The Independent that the assailant, a bodyguard and long-term family friend called Sardar Mohammad, interrupted a meeting between Mr Karzai and two other local politicians.
Waving a file and citing personal business, Mohammad asked to speak privately with his boss. Moments after they stepped next door, shots rang out. Guards shot Mohammad and rushed Mr Karzai to hospital but he was dead on arrival.
"Some of us carried his body in a sheet but it never looked as though he could survive," said Haji Agha Lalai, one of Mr Karzai's deputies on the provincial council. Mohammad's body was later seen hanging near Kandahar's main square.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying they had recruited Mohammad six months earlier. But the movement's inability to get Mohammad's name correct in different statements – and the long-term friendship between the Karzai and Mohammad families – has led many Kandaharis to conclude the killing was personal. "We think it was a personal matter but none of us knows," Mr Lalai said.
Mr Karzai had also been widely accused of links to the lucrative opium trade – claims he and his brother, President Hamid Karzai, repeatedly denied.
The killing coincided with a visit to Kabul by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose announcement that France would withdraw 1,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year was overshadowed by a sombre-looking President Karzai.
"My younger brother was martyred in his house today," he said. "This is the life of all Afghan people. I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end."
Since the early days of his regime, the President has relied on his half-brother to maintain control in Kandahar, the capital of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group; and to deliver their allegiance. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his powerful network of allies and supplicants, Ahmed Karzai was a deeply divisive figure. Not even Nato could decide whether to join forces or try to topple him, with diplomats comparing him to a mafia boss.
Many Kandaharis saw Ahmed Karzai's rapacious appetite for Nato contracts, his alleged narcotics trafficking and his cosy links with the CIA as an essential part of southern Afghanistan's problems.
Now the question is who, if anyone, is capable of filling his shoes and holding Kandahar together, especially as the US and other foreign powers have vowed to withdraw thousands of troops before the year's end. Tribal elders have pointed to two other Karzai brothers as potential successors.
Ahmed Wali Karzai – according to Wikileaks
* "As the kingpin of Kandahar, the President's younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK) dominates access to economic resources, patronage, and protection. Much of the real business of running Kandahar takes place out of public sight, where AWK operates, parallel to formal government structures, through a network of political clans that use state institutions to... enable... illicit enterprises."
* "AWK is widely unpopular in Kandahar, because he rules exclusively rather than inclusively; he is not perceived as caring about the population, but rather as a traditional Pashtun Khan using his power to 'feed his tribe'."
* "While he presented himself as a partner to the US... he also demonstrated that he will dissemble when it suits his needs. He appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities, and that the coalition views many of his activities as malign."
US embassy cables, 6 September 2006