Matt Aikins on “Who shot Ahmed Wali Karzai?”
CIC: What, generally, do you think the killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, tells us about the state of unrest in southern Afghanistan?
Aikins: Ahmed Wali’s murder, closely followed by the assassination of another key figure in President Hamid Karzai’s network in southern Afghanistan, Jan Mohammed Khan, reminds us how deeply governance in the region is still dependent on personalities and the patronage networks that surround them. This kind of system is highly vulnerable to contingencies like assassinations, and is thus quite unstable.
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?
Aikins: Ahmed Wali was the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan. In Kandahar, appointments for positions like the district governors were primarily decided by him. He held together a number of critical threads – the murky and violent underworld, wealthy contractors, and tribal politics – and was the foundation of President Karzai’s support in the south. President Karzai would have had a much harder time winning re-election in 2009 were it not for his brother, and Ahmed Wali’s killing has struck at the very core of the president’s power in the country.
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?
Aikins: NATO made a decision at the beginning of 2010 to work with, rather than against, powerbrokers like Ahmed Wali who were surrounded by a miasma of corruption. The calculation was a pragmatic one made in order to assure a degree of stability, as well as the political co-operation of the Afghan government, prior to last summer’s big troop surge in the south. The counterargument is that the decision put us firmly on the side of the warlords in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, and entrenched a number of problematic dynamics – for example, corruption and narcotrafficking – that will probably outlast the temporary security gains caused by the influx of foreign troops.
CIC: What lessons should we learn from this that will help us deal with other questionable political figures in the Afghan government?
Aikins: No one has squared the circle of how to deal with Afghan powerbrokers in 2011, and I won’t pretend to. The dilemma that the internationals have never been able to solve is that, despite being unable, or unwilling, to effectively influence Afghan informal politics, our military and financial presence in the country has a direct causal relationship with those informal politics. It’s our fault, in other words, that people like Ahmed Wali became so wealthy and powerful – and yet, despite our outsize role in bringing them to power, we can’t seem to influence them much now.
I used to imagine that we might take a serious stand against the drug dealers and human-rights abusers who are flourishing in the Afghan government, but I’ve lost confidence in our ability to effectively influence politics in this country – half the time our efforts backfire in unexpected ways due to our own clumsiness, timidity, and lack of wit.