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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.