/ 22 July 2011

New concerns over Afghan stability

The assassination of a close ally and mentor of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai a week after the killing of his powerful half-brother has raised new questions about whether the country’s precarious power structure could collapse even before the departure of Western troops in 2014.

Jan Muhammad Khan was killed when two gunmen stormed his walled compound in Kabul on July 17, holding off Afghan security forces until the following morning. The attackers also gunned down an MP from Khan’s home province, Uruzgan, before being killed themselves.

The assassination of the two powerful warlords, who once seemed unassailable, has caused widespread shock. Ahmed Shan Behsad, an Uruzgan MP, said: “These killings show the weakness of failure of Karzai’s politics. The situation is a crisis. Karzai has lost control.”

The Taliban said it had carried out the killing, but that could not be confirmed. It is also unclear whether it was behind the death last week of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother, who was shot by his own security chief at his home in Kandahar.

The two targets had much in common. Ahmed Wali was the president’s closest sibling and the mainstay of his support in Kandahar. Khan was described by some as a surrogate father to the Karzai brothers and held similar sway over Uruzgan. Both men were warlords who had built their power on force and were reported to have amassed fortunes from the drug trade. In the absence of more legitimate institutions, Western forces had relied on them to help fight the Taliban. Ahmed Wali ran a paramilitary group called the Kandahar Strike Force, which co-operated with Nato special forces and the CIA.

Khan had left Uruzgan in 2006 on the insistence of Dutch troops unhappy with his drug-running, but his influence persisted. His nephew, Matiullah, runs a private army in Uruzgan that protects Nato convoys for cash. Khan was believed to have helped the United States target suspected Taliban fighters — and his rivals.

Two months ago a key Karzai ally in the north, police chief Muhammad Daoud Daoud, was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber. Cumulatively, observers say, the killings have sapped Hamid Karzai’s political strength and undermined his ability to withstand a Taliban onslaught when Western troops leave. Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat in Afghanistan, said: “The targets are really the linchpins of the post-2001 security settlement and they are being pulled out one by one. So it’s even more serious than it looks. Afghanistan has been built on building blocks like these.”

Khan’s killing coincided with the July 18 departure of General David Petraeus, the architect of Nato’s military strategy in Afghanistan, to become CIA director in Washington, and came a few hours after a ceremony on July 17 to mark the start of transition from Nato to Afghan-run security in the first Afghan province, Bamiyan. A similar handover will soon be marked in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, where seven Afghan policemen were killed at a checkpoint on July 18.

The transition is due to be completed by the end of 2014, when all Western combat troops are supposed to have left. But several observers said that the spate of killings raised doubts that the president’s authority would hold up that long. “The biggest thing is the psychological impact on Karzai of losing two people very close to him and to the family,” said Thomas Ruttig of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network.

“That he is not able to protect his closest allies will have consequences. People will hedge their bets, in case the Taliban comes back one day. With the first Western soldiers leaving there is an atmosphere of concern and fear. People are sending their sons out of the country to study or giving money so smugglers can take them abroad … They don’t trust that the institutions are sustainable enough to survive.” —