When Sardar Mohammad murdered Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, on Tuesday, he created a security and political power void in the volatile southern region of Afghanistan. The reason why Mohammad, a close associate and police commander, killed Karzai remains unclear. While the Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, others have suggested that the motive was more personal; perhaps related to drug money or other criminal activity. 

Whatever the reason, Karzai’s murder represents the latest in a disturbing trend of killing senior Afghan leaders and officials (Kandahar is still reeling over the death of its Provincial Chief of Police Khan Mohammad Mujahid in April). In addition to causing greater instability among Afghans and their government, ISAF and civilian leaders are now in the unenviable position of determining who they can rely on to “get things done” in southern Afghanistan. 


Without doubt, Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK) was a controversial figure (some referred to him as a “thug”) who was accused of being involved in the lucrative opium trade and other criminal activity. However, he was also a feared and respected power broker who commanded influence from his position as the head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council, as well as his close relationship with the President and his family’s affiliation with the powerful Popalzai tribe. Recently, AWK managed to build a solid relationship with ISAF and civilian leadership to stop the spread of the Taliban insurgency and his death leaves a huge power vacuum in the region that is a serious blow to Afghan government and coalition efforts, and one that is especially complicated by regional tribal dynamics. Additionally, the timing of AWK’s death is terrible (General Petraeus and Ambassador Eikenberry both depart next week) and hinders Afghan government and ISAF efforts to consolidate and build on the security gains made during the past winter, while simultaneously expanding governance, local police and economic development programs.

The question of who can fill the political and security void looms large in Kabul and Kandahar City. President Karzai has reportedly appointed another half-brother, Shah Wali Karzai, to assume AWK’s position as the leader of the Popalzai tribe. Unfortunately, Shah Wali Karzai has little political experience and it is far from certain that he can effectively manage the myriad challenges that lie ahead (assuming that he is recognized by the tribal elders for the position). For their part, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and U.S. and other coalition diplomats should work closely with Kandahar’s political and tribal stakeholders as they select their next leader of the provincial council.

Although there is likely to be increased violence until the void is filled, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. While AWK’s death is indeed significant, it need not be a fatal blow to the international community’s efforts in southern Afghanistan. For example, there is no need to change the current ISAF campaign plan, although the Afghan national and local police and other security forces should increase their presence in order to enhance the public’s perception of security (while ISAF forces should be prepared to assist, as required). Additionally, perhaps this tragedy offers an opportunity to introduce greater transparency and inclusion into Kandahar’s political system.  

At his half-brother’s funeral, President Karzai said that “If you want a developed and prosperous Afghanistan, you have to sacrifice.” Unfortunately, Afghans have sacrificed for more than three decades, while U.S. and coalition forces have sacrificed in Afghanistan since 2001. Let’s hope that this country can one day achieve the security and prosperity that will make these sacrifices worth the cost for all.  

Jim Cook is a retired Army officer and a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He recently returned from Afghanistan where he served on the staff for Regional Command – South. The views expressed in this article are his own.