The full details of today’s assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of President Hamid Karzai and head of the provincial council in Kandahar, are not yet known, but his murder was the latest in a series of killings that have targeted officials in Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Earlier this spring, a suicide bomber killed Kandahar’s police chief in his home, and last year two deputy mayors of the city were killed, one murdered in October and another deputy mayor killed while he was praying in a mosque in April.
Kandahar has been the key battleground for many of the additional U.S. troops that the Obama administration sent in 2010. The struggle for the control of Kandahar was a key rationale of the surge of U.S. forces. Just as the additional troops were arriving in Kandahar last year, Rod Nordland of The New York Times reported at that time the Taliban stepped up its attacks and targeted assassinations—a matching surge of sorts. And despite the recent but all-too-vague talk of security gains in recent months, Kandahar remains plagued with violence and poor governance.
Three months ago, a major prison break on the edge of Kandahar that led to the escape of more than 500 inmates including Taliban supporters and militants raised fears that the already tenuous situation in Kandahar would get worse. Around that time and afterwards, my colleagues and I have warned that business as usual won’t work in Afghanistan (or Pakistan for that matter), and that unanswered questions about why we are there still need clarification.
Today’s assassination serves to highlight the important question of who leads Afghanistan and what types of leaders U.S. taxpayers are supporting to the tune of $120 billion this year. The initial reports indicate Ahmed Wali Karzai was gunned down by a close associate, which will raise more questions about what sort of battles over power may be taking place within the power elites of the country. Ahmed Wali Karzai was a controversial figure, serving as a bridge between Afghan officialdom and the commercial, criminal, and drug trafficking networks that seek to control parts of Afghanistan. Media outlets reported in 2009 that Ahmed Wali Karzai was on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency for efforts to help build Afghan paramilitary forces in the southern part of the country.
Although it is too early to assess what impact his assassination will have on the rough-and-tumble politics of Kandahar, Ahmad Wali Karzai’s killing and the role he played in recent years serves as a reminder of how one wields power in Afghanistan and what it means when people talk about sharing power and using terms like reconciliation. In today’s Afghanistan, these words mean who will control the guns and money. And for all of the talk about “smart power” and civilian surges, the big money in Afghanistan today is still wrapped up in running criminal networks, drug trafficking, and controlling the shipping networks.
After President Hamid Karzai won a second term in 2009, I shared my concerns about the lack of partners at various levels in the Afghan government, warning that U.S. efforts would not achieve sustainable results in Afghanistan if the United States and Afghanistan did not share the same goals. But the United States has not brought sufficient clarity to its end goals in Afghanistan, and this provided ample opportunity for a range of leaders in Afghanistan to use the additional resources sent by the United States for their own purposes. In this analysis on “Politics and Power in Kandahar” published by the Institute for the Study of War earlier this spring, Carl Forsberg identified the problems with the power structures in Kandahar and how the political and economic leaders worked at cross purposes to the goals set by the United States and its NATO allies.
Harvard University professor and Foreign Policy analyst Steven M. Walt notes that Ahmed Wali Karzai’s death highlights the futility of trying counterinsurgency with inadequate partners in places like Afghanistan. Last month’s report by the International Crisis Group, the Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland, assessed some of the many flaws of the strategy employed in Afghanistan and its impact on the calculus of Afghanistan’s power brokers, arguing that “since 2009, the flood of Western aid and the surge of U.S. troops have consolidated the nexus between Afghan political elites and businessmen with criminal networks and insurgent commanders.”
Some will use this latest in a string of assassinations to say U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan longer; others will use it to make the opposite case. But the two real questions we should debate are:
- What does it mean to hold and share power in the context of security, politics, and economy of today’s Afghanistan?
- What does a self-sustaining system look like in Afghanistan?
The United States has never clearly defined its end-state objectives in Afghanistan in large part because that end state isn’t pretty and will involve a lot of unsavory elements if it is going to hold together peacefully without staying on the multibillion-dollar dole U.S. taxpayers have provided to the country.
The powerbrokers in today’s Afghanistan include a number of political and economic leaders who have close links to criminal and drug trafficking networks that in turn are linked to transnational criminal networks. A significant share of the assistance provided by U.S. taxpayers to Afghanistan is siphoned off and wasted by these power brokers, and this creates perverse incentives that impact the political economy of Afghanistan and shape security dynamics. As the International Crisis Group noted in its report, “for insurgents, criminal networks and corrupt government officials alike, the financial rewards of insecurity are preferable to a stable security environment in which political power is derived directly from performance and service delivery.”
As Afghanistan moves forward in a period of transition, the Obama administration needs to be clear about what power sharing and reconciliation in the context of Afghanistan means. For years, a range of Afghan leaders have used resources from the United States and other countries to build their power bases and patronage networks. Some of these networks overlap with the very groups we say we want to defeat. Teasing all of this out as the United States starts its inevitable and necessary drawdown of military forces will be a key task—and right now there is no clear roadmap to a political resolution to Afghanistan’s conflict over power.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia.