They came to bury Ahmed Wali Karzai from Afghanistan and beyond, flying in on charter planes and arriving in armored convoys to pay their last respects to the man dubbed the "King of Kandahar." Family and friends joined a funeral cortege of thousands as it made its way, under the watchful guard of helicopter gunships, from Kandahar City to the small village 12 miles away, where the Afghan President's half-brother was born in 1961. Among the mourners were government ministers, parliamentarians and provincial governors, some dabbing their eyes with the silk of their turbans. Shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai slipped off his moccasins and stepped into his half-brother's grave to bid the Kandahar strongman a last goodbye. Their relationship may not always have been easy, but those close to Karzai say it ran deep, and that the President has been devastated by Ahmed Wali's murder.
Then the King of Kandahar's brother was off from the village grave, whisked away in a motorcade of black SUVs before anyone could make another attempt against the Karzai family. (One guest had been less lucky but still fortunate, saved from a Taliban bomb blast as he traveled to the funeral by the reinforced armor of his car.)
Back in Kandahar City at a fortress-like mansion, Karzai's first task was to anoint a successor to Ahmed Wali as de facto leader of the Popalzai tribe, from which the Karzai family hails. It was from his role as a tribal leader that Ahmed Wali drew much of his power, and Karzai chose another half-brother, Shah Wali Karzai, crowning him with a turban in front of the assembled chieftans. "Tribal leaders have proposed for me to replace martyred Ahmed Wali Karzai with Shah Wali Karzai as your tribal elder," Karzai intoned. It was the President's first move to repair the vast tear in Kandahar's political fabric that Ahmed Wali's death has left.
Yet although thousands turned out to mourn the late chairman of the provincial council, Ahmed Wali was a deeply divisive figure, responsible for alienating large swathes of Kandahari society. As recently as April last year, top NATO officials were publicly comparing Ahmed Wali with Don Corleone, the mafia boss in The Godfather movies. Many Kandaharis had bitterly denounced what they saw as an unfair distribution of resources, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of Ahmed Wali and pro-Karzai cronies. Run-of-the-mill citizens were too frightened to mention him by name when speaking to reporters, and even Ahmed Wali accepted that intimidation and violence (although not by him, he claimed) were part of political life in Kandahar. "This terrorizing people is always in the air," he told this reporter in 2009 in the room next to the one where he would die Tuesday. "People breathe it. There will be attacks. The fear is there."
That's why, despite concern in some quarters of a looming power struggle to fill Ahmed Wali's shoes, some Western diplomats and NATO officials say privately that his departure might turn out to be an important break. "If you're a believer in what we're trying to do, good governance and so on, then it's an opportunity it has to be," says one NATO official. "The more of these old-school, warlord-type people we can get rid of, the better... It doesn't turn the place into a Jeffersonian democracy overnight. There are still lots of unsavory characters around... But if we're serious about what we're trying to doing [this has to be good]."
How things will go next are uncertain, although few expect Shah Wali Karzai to wield anything like his late brother's influence. True, his appointment as the leader of the Popalzai tribe, and the presidential backing he'll receive, will undoubtedly bolster his credentials. But elders say that he lacks the personal relationships that made Ahmed Wali so trusted among his own. The fact that Shah Wali's wife and children live abroad also dents his credibility. "The power will lie with the governorship from now on," says Abdul Khaliq Balakarzai, a Member of Parliament rom Kandahar. He says it will not be concentrated in the hands of a man who, for all his actual power, had a comparatively lowly job chairing Kandahar's provincial council.
Candidates are already lining up to replace the incumbent governor, a mild-mannered technocrat from Canada said to covet a ministerial job in Kabul. The most prominent among them is Gul Agha Sherzai, a scion of Kandahar's second-most powerful family and himself a former Kandahar governor. Sherzai called Karzai within minutes of Ahmed Wali's death and flew immediately to Kandahar to attend the funeral, in what may have been a convenient cover to rally supporters. But there are other figures in the wings, too Aref Noorzai, for example, a confidante of the President and linked to the Karzais by marriage. None is a standout candidate.
The uncertainties of the succession coupled with the U.S. troop drawdown that began on Wednesday have some worrying that internecine rivalry could push Kandahar into the abyss. Indeed, the Taliban have a track record of exploiting the deaths of powerful tribal leaders, and their rise in Kandahar can be linked in part to the death of one such man, Mullah Naqibullah, in 2007. But while no one should be surprised at a short-term spike in political violence in Kandahar, predictions of all-out warfare have proved unfounded in the past. "I think it's a valid point to say there may be a vacuum, and now all these contenders will [emerge]," says one diplomat. "But come on, it's not like Kandahar was particularly stable." And while they won't necessarily celebrate Ahmed Wali's death, some candidates for the governorship may see it as a chance to repair ties with those groups that Ahmed Wali pushed toward the insurgency. Only so far, though. As long as Afghan politics rests on a patronage system, there will always be have-nots.