Mark Sedra on "Who Shot Ahmed Wali Karzai?"

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August 3, 2011

CIC: What, generally, do you think the killing of Ahmed WaliKarzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, tells us about the state of unrest in southern Afghanistan?

Sedra: It demonstrates that, contrary to the pronouncements of NATO and the U.S. government, the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency has not been broken. Political assassinations have been a frequent occurrence in southern Afghanistan over the past few years, but Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK) is a “big fish.” He is the government’s envoy to the south, one of the international community’s principal interlocutors in the region, and an extension of President Hamid Karzai’s personal powerbase. Although AWK has been the target of numerous assassination attempts, he was one of the best-protected people in the country. Penetrating his internal security was a major coup for the Taliban.

Given that AWK was at the centre of overlapping tribal, security, and governance networks, he will not be easy to replace. It is also telling that the Taliban assassinated another key ally of Karzai, Jan Muhammad Khan (the former governor of Uruzgan Province) only days after AWK. Even as NATO has been able to make some headway in denying the Taliban control of territory in the south due to the U.S. troop surge, the Taliban has effectively shifted their approach to high-profile assassinations and terrorist attacks. Coupled with the recent brazen attack on the landmark Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, the Taliban are showing the Afghan people and the world that they can strike anywhere at anytime. This will only further erode public confidence in the state and drive more Afghans to the fence in the “hearts and minds” war.

CIC: For better or worse, Canada has invested a considerable amount of political capital in Karzai's governance structure. To what degree has this assassination, in addition to the Kabul Bank and election-fraud standoff, weakened its ability to govern?

Sedra: Few Afghans have much confidence in the Karzai government, and many are in turn losing faith in the western-backed reconstruction and democratization project. I think it is telling that many Afghan elites who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation and Taliban period are now looking to leave the country. Afghan expatriates who returned to their homeland after the fall of the Taliban to help rebuild are also leaving. In many ways, poor governance in Afghanistan, marked by corruption and mismanagement, has been as corrosive and damaging to Afghanistan’s transition as the Taliban-led insurgency.

Many Afghans, particularly in rural areas, are inherently skeptical of central state authority. The high levels of corruption and cronyism, not to mention the government’s inability to provide basic public goods like security, has deepened that mistrust. The international community put all its eggs in the Karzai basket from the outset of the reconstruction process, overlooking some of his shortcomings, and it is now suffering the consequences.

CIC: Canada has long argued that effective civilian governance must accompany our military security objectives. Despite the control he yielded, did our support for AWK ultimately weaken our ability to stabilize Afghanistan?

Sedra: AWK was certainly not a “good guy” by most standards. He was almost certainly involved in the drug trade and other forms of criminality, and operated like a feudal chieftain (or warlord). However, there are few suitable partners for the Afghan government and international community in the volatile south that aren’t “dirty,” or that don’t have blood on their hands to some degree. It is a messy environment, and Canada and other donors have been forced to enter into some uncomfortable alliances with local strongmen. While working with AWK, and others like him, may have been odious for many donors, the alternative that we are now facing – a potential power vacuum – could be worse. We should also remember that AWK had a constituency and a powerbase in the south, and was the head of the Kandahar Provincial Council. Sidelining him was not a really credible option.

CIC: What lessons should we learn from this that will help us deal with other questionable political figures in the Afghan government?

Sedra: They have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, taking broader political dynamics and conditions into consideration. It is important for donors like Canada to remain cognizant of the reality that they are not responsible for choosing Afghanistan’s leaders, and that they may have to work with people they don’t like. That doesn’t mean wholly turning a blind eye to corruption and abuses of power; there are many tools and forms of leverage that the international community can employ to advance its goals and interests. It requires a nuanced, politically sensitive approach. In the end, it is the Afghan government and people who must choose their leaders and set standards for their behaviour. Our role is to provide them with the tools and capability to do this in a fair, transparent, and effective manner.