A suicide bomber has killed the mayor of Kandahar City, depriving the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, of yet another ally in southern Afghanistan just as Nato troops start pulling out of the insurgency-wracked country.
The murder of Ghulam Haider Hamidi, a childhood friend of the Karzai family and a naturalised US citizen, who had returned to Afghanistan at the President's personal request, comes just two weeks after a trusted bodyguard gunned down Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's half-brother.
The hit eliminates one of the leading contenders to become Kandahar's next governor, leaving the way open for Gul Agha Sherzai, a bear of a man who dispenses patronage like one of Afghanistan's kings of old. A nominal Karzai ally, Mr Sherzai will almost certainly consolidate lucrative Nato contracts and drugs revenues for his own family if he gets the nod, diminishing Mr Karzai's influence in the south.
The bombing took place shortly before 11am as Mr Hamidi met with elders protesting against the demolition of homes built unlawfully on Kandahar City's northern fringe. The previous day, clashes had erupted as bulldozers went into the largely pro-Taliban area to knock down the illegal housing. Yesterday, as the elders petitioned Mr Hamidi outside his office, one stepped forward, took his hand and detonated the bomb hidden in his turban. At nearby Mirwais hospital, Mr Hamidi was announced dead on arrival. One bystander was wounded.
There have been some instances in Kandahar of local power brokers killing off their rivals and blaming it on the Taliban – a practice that Mr Hamidi, a sprightly sexagenarian who often spoke out against corruption, had lambasted. But, this time, the Taliban claim of responsibility rang true. They said it was retaliation after police killed three children during Tuesday's clashes and the consensus in Kandahar City yesterday was that they were telling the truth. "It was the Taliban and al-Qa'ida who killed him," Haji Agha Lalai, a member of the provincial council, told The Independent.
The latest killing plays into the Taliban narrative that no one, no matter how close to Mr Karzai, is safe from their assassination campaign. Last week, gunmen killed a confidant and erstwhile mentor of the President as he sat down for dinner at his villa in Kabul; on 12 July a trusted lieutenant apparently turned by the insurgents gunned down Ahmed Wali Karzai; and in May the police commander for northern Afghanistan was killed in a blast. Analysts say the Taliban intent is to mirror the intensity of Nato's own "kill/capture" raids against mid-level insurgent commanders.
But Mr Hamidi's death will resonate more powerfully. A shiver of uncertainty is rippling across Afghanistan as Nato prepares to withdraw, the Taliban steps up its campaign and the Karzai administration staggers from crisis to crisis. More than that, "it's about local power relations, about who in the future is going to be controlling economic assets in an area, and who's going to be able to go after whom," said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul think-tank.
"There's a lot of positioning going on that is less about what is happening now and more about what is going to happen after transition – and I think there's going to be a lot of violence. Who is going to come out on top? It's often quite localised [and it is these] localised power politics that are matching up with this Taliban tactic of 'who can we get rid of?'" For many in Afghanistan, there are too many answers to that question for comfort.
The demise of all the president's men
Khan Mohammad Mujahid
The police chief of Kandahar was killed in April when a suicide bomber managed to get past security at his headquarters and detonated the explosives strapped to his body. The former mujahideen commander, a veteran of campaigns against both Soviet forces and the Taliban, had survived two previous attempts on his life.
General Mohammad Daud Daud
The police commander for northern Afghanistan was one of those killed in suicide bomb attack in May on a provincial governor's compound.The charismatic general was the former military commander of the Northern Alliance which fought the Taliban. He also worked with the British military as a deputy minister of the interior with responsibility for tackling the drugs trade.
Ahmed Wali Karzai
The half-brother of President Hamid Karzai was killed by his long-serving head of security in July in Kandahar. Mr Karzai was a powerful figure in the south of the country and his brother's representative in an area that was also the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. The Taliban celebrated the killing as their biggest achievement in a decade of conflict. He was a deeply controversial figure, accused of corruption and involvement in the drugs trade.
Jan Mohammad Khan
The tribal elder and senior aide to Hamid Karzai was killed within a week of the slaying of the President's half-brother, and had had travelled to Kandahar to attend the funeral. He was killed when gunmen stormed his home in the capital Kabul while he was eating with an Afghan MP.