Kandahar: President Hamid Karzai's powerful half brother, a lightning rod for criticism of deep-rooted corruption within the Afghan government, was assassinated on Tuesday by a bodyguard at his home in southern Afghanistan.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot twice — once in the head and once in the chest, according to hospital officials.
The motive of the killing has not been established, but his death served a new blow to U.S.-coalition efforts to curb violence and the government's quest to gain control of this Taliban stronghold.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination. A person who witnessed the killing said a member of Wali Karzai's private security team killed him with an AK-47. The individual, who declined to be identified, said that other bodyguards quickly gunned down the assassin.
Wali Karzai, who was in his 50s, was seen by many as a political liability for the Karzai government after a series of allegations, including that he was on the CIA payroll and involved in drug trafficking. He denied the charges. The president repeatedly challenged his accusers to show him evidence of his sibling's wrongdoing, but said nobody ever could.
Wali Karzai remained a key power broker in the south, helping shore up his family's interests in the Taliban's southern heartland, which has been the site of numerous offensives by U.S., coalition and Afghan troops to root out insurgents. Militants have retaliated by intimidating and killing local government officials or others against the Taliban.
The United Nations said in a quarterly report issued June 23 that more than half of all assassinations across Afghanistan since March had been in Kandahar.
The killing came just hours before the president held a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarzoky.
"This morning my younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was murdered in his home," the Afghan president said. "Such is the life of Afghanistan's people. In the houses of the people of Afghanistan, each of us is suffering and our hope is that, God willing, to remove this suffering from the people of Afghanistan and implement peace and stability."
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the killing in a statement, calling it an "act of cowardice" and offering his condolences to the president.
Ahmed Wali Karzai maneuvered through a murky, dangerous world of intelligence, Afghan politics and tribal intrigue. Members of the international community had urged the president to remove his brother from his powerful provincial position, saying that it was essential if he was to prove to the Afghan people that he was committed to good governance.
Noorolhaq Olomi, a former parliament member from Kandahar, said Wali Karzai was the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan — "more of a governor than the governor" and "everybody's leader in the south, not just Kandahar."
"I cannot say whether this was political or personal or some other matter," Olomi said. "But whoever did it, it shows the weakness of this government. The president needs to change things. He needs to change himself and build a government that is real. Right now, there is no government. It's all a fraud."
Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Mohammadi called Wali Karzai "a loyal and faithful servant of the people of Afghanistan."
"This is truly a sad day for all," he said. "Mr. Karzai will be remembered and honored for his selfless dedication and commitment to peace and stability."
The ministry said the killing was being investigated.
Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, a senior adviser to the president for construction, water, energy and mines, said the death will have a big impact on security in southern Afghanistan.
"My first impression is that in spite of all the negative propaganda against him he managed to be a source of stability in that area," he said. "When it comes to bringing people together in the south, this creates a vacuum. I don't know what will happen now, but something must be done by the local leadership."
Rangina Hamidi, a resident of Kandahar and daughter of the city's mayor, said Wali Karzai is survived by five children — two sons and three daughters. She says his youngest son was born about a month ago.
"It is his 1-month-old child who is never going to see his father that I cry about," she said sobbing on the phone. "How many orphans and widows are we creating in this country?"
Wali Karzai has been the reported target of multiple assassination attempts.
In May 2009, his motorcade was ambushed by insurgents firing rockets and machine guns in eastern Nangarhar province. One of Wali Karzai's bodyguards was killed, but he was not harmed.
That attack came less than two months after four Taliban suicide bombers stormed Kandahar's provincial council office, killing 13 people in an assault that Wali Karzai said was aimed at him. A Taliban spokesman said the attack targeted the general compound. The president's brother had left the building a few minutes before that attack.
Wali Karzai also survived a November 2008 attack on the provincial council offices while the group was inside hearing constituent complaints. A suicide bomber drove an oil tanker up to the council's offices and blew up the vehicle, killing six people and wounding more than 40. Two members of the provincial council were wounded but Wali Karzai was unharmed.