Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chaos in Kandahar

An old friend asked me whether or not I might share a few lines on the recent assassination of Wali Karzai. I hesitated to remark on the event until I got a chance to have brunch with a new friend, someone who has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, and Kandahar specifically. In fact, he should be arriving there as I write this. In the interim, another key Kandahar official, Jan Mohammad Khan, also fell to assassins. The sudden power vacuum in the south generates far more questions than answers, and there is no doubt that they way forward remains intensely opaque.

My question to my friend was simple: "What happened to Wali?" Of course, I didn't expect him to point out the guilty party, but his response made me question his otherwise optimistic outlook on the overall stability in Kandahar and Helmand. The fact that the assassin was one of Karzai's own - his bodyguard, Sardar Mohammad - meant that the likelihood of discovering the true motive and intent of the assassination remains low. The Taliban taking responsibility means little, and it is unlikely that the Taliban would have much motivation for killing Karzai. As the most powerful official in Kandahar, there is no doubt that Karzai's sudden wealth stems from his play in the poppy trade, and this could only happen with coordination, and probably a direct buy in from the Talibs. More likely, the killing of Karzai, and subsequently Jan Mohammad, is the result of internecine conflict, which may well have been festering for some time.

It is tempting of course to perceive the moment as a Taliban takeover, an opportunistic venture to create a power vacuum in the south ahead of deeper US and ISAF troop withdrawal. However, it would seem a strategic blunder on the part of the Taliban to play their hand this early, when they have shown so much patience before. I suspect rather, that someone within the establishment - the corrupt and compromised establishment - felt slighted and is making there move to assert their own presence. It may even be from within the Popalzai tribe itself. An excellent Asia Times article provides some crucial background to this, and I highly recommend a read.

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