Thousands of people joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday in a dramatic funeral ceremony for his slain half-brother, assassinated the day before in his home by a close associate.
Ahmed Wali Karzai was gunned down Tuesday by one of his closest confidants, an assassin from his own tribe and hometown, whom he travelled with and worked beside for seven years.
The slaying left a dangerous power vacuum in the south as the Afghan government pursues peace talks with insurgents ahead of a U.S. troop withdrawal.
The international military coalition has few friends of stature in the province and none with the sweeping influence of Wali Karzai, considered a master operator and the uncrowned king of Kandahar.
Without his sibling, the president will struggle to find an ally resourceful and ruthless enough to balance alliances with tribal and political leaders, drug runners, and militias in a province where the Taliban still hold much sway.
Who was Ahmed Wali Karzai?
- Headed the Kandahar provincial council.
- In 2009, was on the Central Intelligence Agency's payroll for the previous eight years, the New York Times reported.
- Helped the CIA operate a paramilitary group, the Kandahar Strike Force, used for raids against suspected insurgents and terrorists.
- Also paid for allowing CIA and American Special Operations troops to rent a large compound outside the city, which also is the base of the Kandahar Strike Force. Karzai also helped the CIA communicate with, and sometimes meet with, Afghans loyal to the Taliban.
- A suspected player in the country's illegal opium trade, he had created deep divisions within the Obama administration.
- A central figure in the south of the country where the Taliban is dominant, he undermined the U.S. push to develop an effective central government that could maintain law and order and eventually allow the U.S. to withdraw.
- Karzai denied all of the allegations.
The president, tribal leaders, government officials and others attended first a morning prayer service in the provincial capital, Kandahar, and then travelled to the family's ancestral home village of Karz for the funeral.
The sea of mourners surged toward the grave as a large wooden casket, adorned with red flowers and carrying Wali Karzai's body was brought forward. Helicopters circled overhead and the casket was lowered into the earth.
The president, surrounded by a ring of security men, appeared on the fringe of the throng and began to move toward the grave, his sorrow and tears evident to the thousands of mourners.
Karzai stopped at the side of the grave, then climbed into it, disappearing from view. He stayed there for at least a minute, his wailing overwhelming thousands of other voices and prayers, until his relatives and guards tried to coax him out. He refused, and finally two men forcefully pulled him out by his shoulders.
As Karzai left, mourners cast fistfuls of earth on the casket.
Shortly after the funeral in Karz, the president held a solemn press conference in the provincial capital.
"My message for them [the Taliban] is that my countrymen, my brothers, should stop killing their own people," said Karzai. "It is easy to kill and everyone can do it, but the real man is the one who can save people's lives."
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for Wali Karzai's killing, but Afghan officials said it's not clear whether he was killed by insurgents or died as the result of an internal dispute.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement Wednesday saying that insurgent fighters killed Wali Karzai because he co-operated with U.S., British and Canadian forces in the south.
"He was aligned with foreign occupiers," who bombed Afghan villages, Mujahid said.
Wali Karzai a 'puppet'
The Taliban spokesman called Wali Karzai a "puppet" of the West and alleged that he was on the CIA payroll and profited from the illegal seizure of government and private land.
Ahmed Karzai had denied working for the CIA or being involved in shady business dealings.
Mujahid warned that if other Afghan officials fail to support the insurgency and befriend those aligned with the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition, they will face the same fate as the slain Karzai.
Two members of the Afghan intelligence service travelling to Karzai's funeral with Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal were injured when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Kandahar's Maiwand district, said Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand.
Rustam Shah, former Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan, said Wali Karzai's death exposed the fragility of the security infrastructure in the southern provinces, particularly Kandahar where the Americans have boasted of progress in wresting territory from the Taliban.
"It will be a big blow to the government's image in the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan," he said.
"The president will have to be very careful to move quickly to consolidate and maintain his power structure in Kandahar."