Foreign Policy Blogs

Afghanistan’s Politics in Turmoil After String of Assassinations

Afghanistan's  Politics in Turmoil After String of Assassinations

Afghanistan seems to be sinking- that is, whatever there is left to sink. Earlier this month, the King of Kandahar, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was assassinated and predictable political exchange immediately ground to a halt. The powerful thorn on the side of Afghan pols, General David Petraeus, left to take up his new role as CIA Director in Langley, Virgina. General John Allen took over command of the Afghan war, a move that still remains something of a question mark. To top it all, the powerful Mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi was assassinated on July 27th by a suicide bomber. All this threatens to disrupt whatever predictability and coherence there was in Afghan politics.

Kandahar- until recently the hub of the Taliban insurgency and the opium trade- is the political heart of Southern Afghanistan. It is kept in check by a few powerful warlords who are close to President Karzai, and who serve as the coalition that keeps him entrenched in power. Now much of that coalition has fallen apart as Kandahar’s political leaders have been handicapped by one political assassination after another.

Only two weeks ago, Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, was killed by a close family associate. Appointed the head of a powerless Provincial Council, Ahmed Wali nevertheless rose to become the most powerful man in Kandahar. He embodied power: he had the ability and knew the right people to get things done, even if he did not hold a notable official position. Ahmed Wali’s death shot off a round of infighting and jostling to take his ground in the South. The man considered most likely to emerge victorious in the struggle was the Mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi. He was killed in a suicide attack only a day or so ago. Add to this news, ruinous to Afghan pols, the fact that President Karzai’s adviser and close personal friend Jan Muhammed Khan was also killed a few days ago, and politics in Kandahar might seem to have come unchained.

Indeed whether true or not, the Taliban have already taken credit for each one of these murders. The last month has been a public relations bonanza for the insurgents. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will succeed in pushing forth an offensive against NATO’s ISAF troops in the midst of this power vacuum, where Afghanistan’s international allies have been hobbled by the complete absence of anyone who can get anything done anytime soon. (No doubt the Taliban are even now mounting just such an offensive to drive back into Kandahar. Certainly their recent high profile attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul will burnish the image of their strike capabilities.)

Further consider General David Petraeus’ departure from Afghanistan to lead the CIA at the request of U.S. President Barack Obama. General John Allen, Petraeus’ replacement in the field, has yet to be militarily tested on Afghan terrain, even if the task set before him is much more difficult than the one that was given to his predecessor. Put all this together and note that there’s been no real correction to put upright Afghanistan’s lilting, sinking ship.

Sink or float, it can’t help that though Afghanistan’s politics are extremely centralized, its governance is highly decentralized. A handful of far flung warlords friendly to President Hamid Karzai rule Afghanistan as if it were a geo-polity barely stitched together with the indistinguishable thread of opium dollars. Until recently, both the central government based in Kabul, run by the deeply flawed President Karzai, and its international NATO allies could reliably count on politics as usual to chug along precisely, perfectly corrupt as usual. The greased palm conducted the politics of the day. To avoid international investigation, warlords helped NATO and ISAF’s logistical effort to secure a foothold in Southern Afghanistan.

With men like Ahmed Wali and Ghulam Haider Hamidi gone, the most troubling issue roiling Afghanistan is that there may now be fewer than a handful of men in Kandahar or elsewhere who might pull politics and mutual exchange into their hands and thereby make a restive pet out of a snarling monster. For good or for ill, if Afghanistan is to remain stable politically, even if pitifully weak and corruptible, those men must be seated with crowns as the nepotistic warlords might then be given incentive to marshal their assets to aid NATO’s counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist effort.

If President Karzai is to hold onto effective power until his term expires in 2014 he will need to put his approved stamp of privilege and access into the hands of men in whom he has confidence, and maybe even trust. And here’s the thick mud to mire it all: Ahmed Wali Karzai and Ghulam Hamidi were killed at close range by men who were allowed into their presence and confidence: the former was killed by gunshot wounds to the head, the other killed by a suicide bomber who hid his lethal bounty under his turban.

The test of President Karzai’s political strength will be to choose men to support him and who, against the threat of assassination, have the temerity to stand up and stabilize Afghanistan before the international drawdown’s 2014 deadline. The test of  NATO allies’ strength and endurance will be to countenance the corruption and malfeasance that will surely break out while those men go about their business.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

Great Decisions Discussion group