The daylight murder in Kabul yesterday of Abdul Qadir, one of Afghanistan's three vice-presidents, plunged the country into its worst political crisis since the West intervened to throw out the Taliban regime.
President Hamid Karzai called his Cabinet into emergency session and declared Tuesday a day of national mourning for Mr Qadir, his most senior Pashtun ally in the government. But in Mr Qadir's home city of Jalalabad, where he will be buried today, it was suggested that the list of potential suspects in his killing was almost limitless.
Asked yesterday whether terrorists were responsible, President George Bush replied: "Could be that, could be drug lords, could be long-time rivals." The complexities do not stop there, however; the killers could have come from within the Pashtun community, from one of the smaller ethnic groups or from Mr Qadir's many business rivals. A millionaire trader from one of Afghanistan's most prosperous opium-growing areas, he set up his own airline at one stage to carry goods between Afghanistan, central Asia and Pakistan.
Mr Qadir was the second cabinet minister assassinated since the Taliban collapsed last year. In February, Abdul Rahman, the civil aviation and tourism minister, was killed at Kabul airport in what the government called a conspiracy involving members of his own police and intelligence services – although no one has been charged or arrested.
The older brother of Abdul Haq, a mujahedin leader who was executed by the Taliban, Mr Qadir was governor of the eastern province of Nangahar and welcomed Osama bin Laden when he set up his base there in the early 1990s. But when the Taliban seized power, he became one of the few prominent Pashtuns to join the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance, which ousted the Taliban with the West's help last year.
Whoever was responsible for his assassination, it is bad news for Mr Karzai, just weeks after a loya jirga, or grand assembly, of Afghan leaders approved a cabinet to prepare the country for elections in 18 months. The US-led alliance that backed Mr Karzai will be equally concerned. Thousands of American and other foreign troops are still trying to hunt down Mr bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former head of the Taliban regime. They can ill afford instability in Nangahar, which borders Pakistan and is thought to harbour anti-Kabul elements.
Mr Karzai is already struggling to hold the balance between the ethnic groups and the warlords who still control large areas of the country. Not only does Mr Qadir's assassination deprive the President of a key ally, it threatens to set Pashtuns against the rest of the Afghan population.
In such a confrontation the West would never be able to send in enough forces to rescue Mr Karzai.Reuse content