KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The powerful half brother of President Hamid Karzai was gunned down in his heavily fortified home by a close associate Tuesday, setting off a power struggle in southern Afghanistan and raising doubts about stability in a critical area for the U.S.-led war effort.
The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, a wheeler-dealer and the key to his half brother's power in the south, leaves the president without an influential ally to handle the tricky job of balancing the interests of the region's tribal and political leaders, drug runners, insurgents and militias.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but officials immediately cast doubt that they were involved. If they were, it could undercut the president's own effort to talk peace with insurgents as foreign forces begin their exit.
The gunman's motive was unclear. He was identified as Sardar Mohammad, who had provided security for Wali Karzai and members of his family. Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, described Mohammad as a close, "trustworthy" person who had gone to Wali Karzai's house purportedly to get him to sign some papers.
The two men met alone in a room. As Wali Karzai was signing the papers, the assassin "took out a pistol and shot him with two bullets – one in the forehead and one in the chest," Wesa said. Another official, however, said the wounds were to Wali Karzai's head, hand and leg.
Wali Karzai's bodyguards then rushed into the room and gunned down Mohammad.
The assassination took place less than two hours before the president held an outdoor news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Kabul. Before it started, tears welled up in the eyes of Karzai associates. When Karzai arrived, he spoke in a somber voice.
"This morning my younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was murdered in his home," the 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, God willing, to remove this suffering from the people of Afghanistan and implement peace and stability."
Later that evening, the president flew south to Kandahar to be with his slain brother and relatives. A funeral was scheduled for Thursday, and Wali Karzai was to be buried in Karz, the Karzai family village in Kandahar province – the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban movement and the site of recent coalition military offensives.
Wali Karzai, who was in his 50s, was for years a lightning rod for criticism of corruption in the government. He was seen by many as a political liability for Karzai after a series of allegations including that he was 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.
With no concrete evidence to force his ouster, U.S. officials worked to persuade Wali Karzai to align his activities with coalition goals, or at least not impede them.
"Mr. Karzai has been the target of endless accusations about being a drug dealer and many other things," said Bruce Riedel, an ex-CIA officer and former adviser to the White House on Afghan policy. "As far as I know, talking to people in the U.S. government, these are accusations backed up by very little evidence."
The death of Wali Karzai, who helped shore up his family's interests in the Taliban's southern heartland, leaves a void, he said.
"Like him or hate him, he was a key political player in Kandahar and it will be hard to find someone to fill his role," said Riedel, now a senior fellow focusing on counterterrorism for the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Wali Karzai was a controversial figure within the U.S. government. There were allegations that he was on the CIA payroll for years, partly for helping recruit a paramilitary force to rein in the Taliban.
Rustam Shah, former Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan, said Wali Karzai's tribal maneuverings in Kandahar laid the foundation for the president's strength in the south – and created powerful enemies for his brother as well.
"He had created influential rivals and enemies who were sitting on the wrong side of the tribal lines when he was alive but now may come into prominence in the tribal infrastructure of Kandahar," Shah said. "The president will have to be very careful to move quickly to consolidate and maintain his power structure in Kandahar."
Wali Karzai had been the target of multiple assassination attempts, including ones in 2008 and 2009.
His house is hidden behind 8-foot (2.5 meter) blast walls on a Kandahar street barricaded at either end by guards who search vehicles for explosives. Every day, scores of tribal leaders and others from the south arrive in hopes of getting Wali Karzai's help resolving disputes. They gather in a large room on the first floor dominated by an 8-foot painting of Wali Karzai's father.
According to a government official with knowledge of the investigation, Wali Karzai had been meeting in his home with five provincial council members and a number of local village elders, including the assassin. The official said Mohammad was a close friend and had represented Wali Karzai many times in their shared home village of Karz. Mohammad was the village elder of Karz and was his emissary and travel companion throughout Kandahar, the official said.
At about 11:30 a.m., Mohammad asked Wali Karzai to speak with him privately and to sign some papers in an adjoining room, the official said. Three shots rang out and Wali Karzai's bodyguards ran into the room where they found him on the floor with bullet wounds to his head, hand and leg, the official said. The bodyguards then shot and killed the assassin.
In their statement claiming responsibility for the attack, the Taliban said the assassin "was in contact with the mujahideen for a long time" and fired at his victim as he was leaving the bathroom.
Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Razaq said that for more than seven years, Mohammad had been both a security coordinator and close friend of Wali Karzai. Mohammad also provided security for members of the Karzai family, Razaq said, adding that police investigating the death had arrested several security men who were guarding Mohammad's home in Karz.
"Today was not the first time he was armed and with Ahmed Wali Karzai alone," said Razaq. "He had many opportunities before now, so something must have changed."
The White House said the U.S. condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the murder of the president's half brother and would work with Afghan officials to investigate the killing. "Our prayers and sympathies are with the Karzai family during this difficult time," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement, "President Karzai is working to create a stronger, more secure Afghanistan, and for such a tragic event to happen to someone within his own family is unfathomable."
A senior official in the British Foreign Office said the killing was likely to lead to a period of "turbulence" in Kandahar, but insisted it would not affect the process of handing over security to Afghan forces – a transition set to begin in seven areas of the country this month, although not in Kandahar.
Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, an adviser to Karzai, said that he doubted Wali Karzai's death would sway the president from his efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban. "I don't expect Karzai's mind to change about reconciliation," he said.
However, Rahimullah Yusufzai, an analyst and Pakistani journalist who has interviewed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, said the death could alter the president's approach to seeking a political resolution to the nearly decade-long war.
"We don't know if they (Taliban) were involved but I think his death will affect a lot of the president's thinking, particularly about future negotiations with the Taliban," said Yusufzai.
Karzai blames the Taliban for the death of his father in Pakistan in the 1990s.
"If it is determined that the Taliban were behind the killing then the president may wonder at his decision to reconcile with the Taliban," Yusufzai said.
Riechmann reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Amir Shah, Rahim Faiez, Solomon Moore and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, and Kimberly Dozier, Adam Goldman, Ben Nuckols and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.