Hamid Karzai's brother shot dead at his house

Ahmad Wali Karzai's alleged corruption was embarrassing for Nato, but his assassination is a big boo

The half-brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai was shot dead at his home in Kandahar this morning.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, a powerful figure in Afghan politics, is thought to have been killed by his bodyguard although the exact circumstances are still unclear.

"My younger brother was martyred in his house today," said Hamid Karzai at a press conference. "This is the life of all Afghan people. I hope these miseries which every Afghan family faces will one day end."

As head of the provincial council in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second biggest city, Karzai wielded considerable influence. He was a deeply controversial figure, widely suspected of having links to the opium trade, and to private security firms and the CIA -- all allegations which he denied. However, as a figure trusted by the president and with considerable influence over him, he did provide stability in the region, which is wracked by insurgency. There are now fears that a power and security vacuum will ensue.

The Taliban has already claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Sardar Mohammad, the guard accused of the murder, was working for them. "This is one of our biggest achievements since the (spring) operation began," said a statement. "We assigned Sardar Mohammad to kill him recently and Sardar Mohammad is also martyred."

Subsequent reports suggest that Mohammad may have been an ex-bodyguard rather than a serving one. According to AFP, a senior official with Afghanistan's spy agency said that Mohammad was not searched on arrival because of his close friendship with Karzai.

General David Petraeus, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, offered his condolences to the Afghan president, saying: "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."

However, the US's relationship with Ahmad Wali Karzai was ambivalent at best. The Wikileaks cables showed one US official writing after a meeting: "While we must deal with AWK as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker."

The official added: "The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan. How to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt. Given AWK's reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism."

While his corruption was an embarrassment to the US and its allies, however, Karzai was simultaneously an important ally because of the influence he wielded over the local Pashtun population. In the web of personal alliances and in-fighting that makes up Afghan politics, his position as the head of the second largest city was crucial. If Hamid Karzai cannot find a replacement that he trusts, Nato strategy will be seriously thrown off course ahead of the planned withdrawal of troops.

Whether or not the Taliban was responsible for the assassination (analysts have pointed out that Karzai had any number of enemies who could have been responsible), this will give them a significant boost.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.