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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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