When personalities trump institutions: Two assassinations in Afghanistan

As southern Afghanistan was still reeling from the assassination of local heavyweight Ahmed Wali Karzai, gunmen on Sunday struck down Jan Muhammad Khan, one of the most notorious powerbrokers in southern Afghanistan. JMK, as he is known to the Americans, was the governor of Uruzgan province until 2006, when his policies proved so divisive that he was removed and given a titular role in Kabul. “He was so hated, even when there was a drought we’d blame him,” an Uruzgani farmer told me once.

In style, JMK and Ahmed Wali couldn’t have been more different — Jan Muhammad was an unpolished, old-guard mujahed, evoking images of the rough-and-tumble life of the Afghan frontier, while AWK was an English speaking, business-minded powerbroker. But both are products of the modern way of war, men of enormous power born of contracting dollars and access to U.S. officials. They leave behind lucrative political and financial networks, and what becomes of these networks will play a big role in determining the shape of things to come in southern Afghanistan. Who, then, is likely to take their place?

To know where we’re headed, it helps to understand how we got here. In Kandahar, it was not AWK but Gul Agha Sherzai who had initially dominated the province. Sherzai used contracting money and military ties to U.S. forces to accrue massive wealth in the early years after 2001, and used his access to the presidential palace as governor to cloak himself in legitimacy. U.S. forces relied on him for everything from maintaining their bases to convoy security, from counterterrorism operations to development efforts. From this starting point, he managed to exert control over customs, earning millions, and extended his reach into construction, land, mining, and transportation — in effect, every sphere of the economy. But in doing so, he alienated swathes of the population: whole tribes were marginalized, sections of the economy were essentially closed off to competition, and provincial government was stacked with his relatives and tribesmen. Sherzai’s purview eventually proved so narrow that he even lost the backing of most of Kandahar’s elite, leading ultimately to his removal in 2005.

Enter Ahmed Wali. He too had been busy developing a vast patronage network, also touching all corners of local society. He developed sizable interests in all realms licit and illicit, from real estate and foreign contracts to poppies. The policies of both men left them deeply unpopular among ordinary Kandaharis. Sherzai’s men were notorious for corruption and using the foreign forces to settle scores. Ahmed Wali ruled like a mafia don, spawning a culture of fear where few dared to criticize him openly. Yet there were major differences — where Sherzai wielded a hammer, Ahmed Wali chiseled his way to power. He understood the subtleties of civil politics. Unlike Sherzai, he forged alliances with all sections of the ruling elite. Whereas, for instance, the Alikozai tribal leadership was persistently at odds with Sherzai, Ahmed Wali expertly brought them into the fold. He maintained ties with certain key Noorzais, a group that had been completely alienated under Sherzai. In doing so, he transformed himself into the key node through which most political and financial networks passed.

Can anyone replicate his success? It’s hard to say, but there appears to be a dearth of options. Power in southern Afghanistan has little to do with elections or shuras. Rather, there are two kingmakers — the foreign forces and Afghan president Hamid Karzai — and in Kandahar, Ahmed Wali enjoyed an unrivaled blend of access to both. None of the contenders to take his place — Sherzai, Chief of Police Abdul Razzak, old-time mujahedeen commanders like Amir Lalai, and so on — seem to be similarly positioned. Nor is it likely they would be able to corral support from a broad spectrum of Kandahar’s elite. Instead, the node that Ahmed Wali represented will most probably fissure, leaving a number of competing networks, redolent of Kandahar in the early years after 2001.

In Uruzgan, since his removal in 2006 Jan Muhammad’s networks have been steadily eclipsed by his nephew, strongman Matiullah Khan. The dynamic here is similar to Kandahar: JMK strove crudely to dominate the province, earning enemies within the Uruzgani elite and popular society. Matiullah has taken a more sophisticated approach, even copying some of AWK’s methods, like establishing “reform shuras” to bring over marginalized Ghilzai elite. Like AWK, he has co-opted many tribal elders, dominated the local economy and kept most of the province in fear. (Uruzgan is far more fractured than Kandahar, however, and he has had less success than AWK in these endeavors). Over the years, JMK had been clinging to a loyal network, particularly within a section of his Popalzai tribe, but this seems certain to fall to Matiullah, further strengthening him.

Whatever the end result, southern Afghanistan’s problems run deep. The international community — and in particular the foreign forces — have helped create a system where it’s personalities that matter, not institutions. While much has been said about cleaning up the Afghan government, Afghans I speak to point out that the U.S. has repeatedly undermined the process from the very beginning. As the Afghan army and police were brought into formation, foreign forces funded an array of private militias that regularly acted outside the law (members of the Kandahar Strike Force, a militia Ahmed Wali contracted to the CIA, shot dead Kandahar’s police chief in 2009, amongst other crimes). They encouraged corruption by pouring vast amounts of money, with little oversight, into the coffers of a few key players. They’ve relied on intelligence from these same key players, in essence becoming unwitting allies in complex local rivalries. They’ve backed the creation of armies of private security contractors who answer only to their own commanders, not the Afghan government. In effect, they’ve created a perverse incentive structure, where it pays to be perpetually on the edge of chaos.

Ahmed Wali and JMK may be gone, but the system that created them is still in place. “Even when we win,” a Kandahari elder told me, “we lose.”

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