South Asia

Deadly week overshadows Afghan handover

Afghan army soldiers carry coffin of Mohammed Ashim Watanwal who was killed by armed gunmen during Sunday"s attack, during his funeral procession in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 18, 2011
Image caption President Karzai has lost two crucial allies and a lawmaker in Uruzgan province in the past 10 days

It has been a turbulent week for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As Nato begins handing over parts of the country to local security forces, high-profile killings have continued to claim the lives of crucial allies.

Late on Sunday militants raided the Kabul home of Jan Mohmmad Khan and killed him along with a lawmaker from the province of Uruzgan.

Not only was Mr Khan a valuable and wealthy ally who owned a private security firm and used his vast resources to fight the Taliban, he also delivered important votes for the president in his native province.

Just days earlier, President Karzai was weeping at the grave of his younger half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who had been gunned down by his own head of security.

The city of Kandahar is yet to recover from the shock of losing Ahmed Wali Karzai who, many say, ruled like a king in Kandahar. He was the backbone of the president's power base in the crucial southern city.

The motives for his killing remain unclear, but there is one chilling similarity with Mr Khan's death: Both men were killed in their own homes in heavily guarded parts of the cities they lived in.

'Gift from God'

For many ordinary Afghans, that level of insecurity is intolerable. In Kandahar, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban and a province where insurgents remain active, the fear, grief and uncertainty following Mr Karzai's death is palpable.

I was told that on the day of his killing Ahmed Wali Karzai was holding court at his residence and there were dozens of visitors at his house.

Most had come to seek help. Mohammad Jan, a police officer from Kandahar, was among the crowd. He needed money to go to India for medical treatment.

"He gave me several thousand dollars," Jan said. "He also called the police and asked them to issue me a passport, and said, 'I will call the Indian consulate to issue you a visa'," a weeping Mr Jan said.

"For us poor people, he was a gift from God."

Haji Agha Lalai, a deputy of Mr Karzai, described how a persistent Sardar Mohammad, Mr Karzai's head of security, took Mr Karzai aside saying there was something which couldn't wait.

Minutes later, gunshots broke through the growing noise of the restless crowd.

"I rushed inside on hearing the shots," Mr Lalai said. "He was breathing when I entered the room. Soon others came and we all carried Mr Karzai to a vehicle."

Image caption Ahmed Wali Karzai was revered and feared in Kandahar

But Mr Karzai died on his way to the hospital. Angry bodyguards shot dead Sardar Mohammad on the spot. His bullet-riddled body was later put on display in a public square as hundreds of people watched in horror.

His body is now at a local hospital and none of his friends or family have dared to come forward to claim it.

In fact the police say their investigation can progress no further now he is dead.

Bodyguard 'thug'

But the spotlight is now on the kind of man Sardar Mohammad was and what it reveals about the nature of power and patronage in Afghanistan's southern city, which is notoriously full of entrenched interests and loyalties.

Mohammad was a close confidante and friend of Ahmed Wali Karzai Karzai. He commanded a guard of 200 fighters. Mr Karzai had registered his force with the police and gave his bodyguard whatever he asked for.

"Mr Karzai had financed several of Sardar's trips to India where he went for psychiatric treatment," a family friend of the Karzais said.

Sardar Mohammad was given the task of protecting the ancestral graveyard of the Karzais, their family home in Karz and the road leading to it, several family members and friends of Mr Karzai said.

Now Mr Karzai lies in the same graveyard, alongside his father, Abdul Ahad Khan, who was shot dead in 1998 in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Image caption Mr Khan was killed in his own home in a shoot-out that lasted for hours

Afghan intelligence officials say Sardar Mohammad often went to the CIA base in Kandahar to meet US intelligence and army officials.

"Mohammad was treated like family by Mr Karzai," a cousin of Mr Karzai said. "He had the right to enter the house whenever he pleased, he often played with the little son and daughters of Mr Karzai."

But senior Afghan officials describe Sardar Mohammad as a thug, someone who broke the law.

"He had a private prison," said a police officer who had served in Kandahar. "He used to torture people with dogs. I could take no action against him because of his proximity to Mr Karzai."

"He was accused of several murders but I could not arrest him," another said.

Southern power

Ahmed Wali Karzai, Sardar Mohammed's patron, was the backbone of President Hamid Karzai's power base in southern Afghanistan. He used his wealth, his private army and vast network of tribal elders to fight the Taliban.

During the 2009 presidential elections, he headed President Karzai's campaign in southern Afghanistan. He was accused of rigging the vote and filling ballot boxes for his elder brother. There are more serious charges against Mr Karzai - his alleged involvement in the drug trade.

But Mr Karzai was also important because he brought all the tribes in Kandahar together, a senior source close to President Karzai said.

President Karzai has now chosen Shah Wali Karzai, an engineer by profession, to head the important Popalzai tribe in Kandahar. But many there say Shah Wali does not have the credentials of his predecessor.

Sources close to the president told the BBC, he was looking for a strong governor for the province.

Image caption President Karzai was distraught at his brother's death

It is an indication of just how important personal relationships can be for the stability of an entire province.

The killings of the past week have cast a shadow over another handover as Gen David Petraeus transfers the command of international forces in Afghanistan to Gen John Allen.

At the transition ceremony on Monday the new commander warned of tough times ahead.

"Even as we note the hard-fought progress of the past year and commence the transition process, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges ahead," Gen Allen said.

The deaths of Mr Karzai's two power-brokers in the insurgency-wracked provinces of Kandahar and Uruzgan are a major blow, if not to Nato's immediate interests then, certainly, to the president's ambitions to pursue stability in the precarious jigsaw puzzle that is Afghanistan.