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Assassination of Afghan President's Cousin Leaves Power Vacuum and a Difficult Legacy

Hashmat Khalil Karzai was killed by a suicide bomber on Tuesday. The demise of a controversial figure poses many questions for Afghanistan.

by Ali M Latifi
Jul 30 2014, 9:38pm

Photo via AP/STR

When a young man stepped up to greet Hashmat Khalil Karzai on Tuesday, the cousin of Afghanistan’s president thought little of it and embraced him in the Eid holiday tradition. At that moment, as Karzai reached out to hug the visitor, the young man detonated explosives hidden in his turban. Both Karzai and his attacker were killed instantly.

Karzai, who had risen up the ranks in his family’s home province of Kandahar, leaves behind a complicated legacy as a businessman, politician, and leading powerbroker.

Haji Mohammad Qassam, a former member of the provincial council who considered Karzai a good friend, described him as extremely loyal to his Popalzai tribe and Kandahar as a whole.

“Whenever anyone needed help, they knew they could turn to Hashmat”, Qassam told VICE News. Qassam credits Karzai’s good nature with helping him to build a solid reputation in Kandahar despite having lived in the US for more than 20 years. “People would introduce him and say: ‘This is Hashmat. He is a good man, he can help solve your problems.”

Even his death was evidence of Karzai’s relatable nature.

One Kandahari youth, speaking on condition of anonymity, said even his death was evidence of Karzai’s relatable nature. “The fact that people could openly come to his house and approach him proved that he was able to connect to the average person,” the young man told VICE News.

But, as is often the case with powerful figures, there are two sides to this story. Critics said behind Karzai’s likeable, charismatic exterior lay a gruff, calculating man willing to do anything to maintain power.

One US-based analyst, who did not wish to be named, described Karzai, often pictured with a cigar in hand and his pet lion at his feet, as “essentially a gangster in attitude and approach, frequently threatening people, accusing them of being terrorists, and the like.”

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The analyst, who first met Karzai in 2009, said the 2011 assassination of his cousin Ahmed Wali, half-brother of outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, marked a major turning point for Hashmat.

After Ahmed Wali, then the major powerbroker in Kandahar, was gunned down by his bodyguard in July 2011, sources familiar with the situation said several members of the Karzai clan scrambled to fill the void.

Technically, it was Shah Wali, Ahmed Wali’s brother, who was named head of the Popalzai tribe in Kandahar and given the keys to his deceased relative’s house. But with criticisms of Shah Wali as “weak,” Hashmat moved in.

Several Karzai family members blamed Hashmat for the killing of his 18-year-old cousin Waheed.

“Ahmed Wali’s shoes were too big to fill” by Shah Wali alone, Graeme Smith, senior Kabul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group told VICE News. Hashmat knew someone more authoritative had to serve as the Karzai scion in Kandahar.

Hamid’s brothers Qayoum — a Maryland-based restauranteur — and Mahmood — who was accused of involvement but never tried in the collapse of the nation’s largest private bank — were seen as too American by Kandaharis.

Knowing this, Hashmat used the connections he had built since returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban to cement his place as a major force in the province. But even prior to Ahmed Wali’s death, when Hashmat was known primarily as a local tribal elite and businessman with strong connections in Kabul, his reputation was plagued by accusations of ruthlessness.

In a series of interviews with the New York Times in 2009, several Karzai family members blamed Hashmat for the killing of his 18-year-old cousin Waheed. Some relatives believed that Waheed’s murder was revenge for the killing of Hashmat’s father by Waheed’s father nearly three decades earlier.

Both Hamid and Hashmat denied any involvement and Hashmat was never tried for the death of Waheed, but the Western analyst said this killing created deep divisions within the Karzai family that remain to this day.

This, according to the analyst, only furthered Washington’s belief that Hamid had increasingly become an untrustworthy and corrupt partner who would do anything to protect his own interests.

Domestically, Hamid wasn’t fairing much better. Accusations of widespread fraud in his favor during the 2009 presidential elections only served to further the criticisms of ineffectiveness that were picking up steam among the Afghan people in the years before this.

Then, ongoing night raids into Afghan homes and allegations of abuse at the hands of the US and Afghan soldiers only furthered the hostility of residents towards Hamid and his government in what should have been the Karzai family base.

Yet as Hamid’s standing continued to come under question in Kandahar and among his extended family, Hashmat’s reputation continued to rise, especially as an opponent of his cousin, the president.

For many years Hashmat ran Asia Security Group, a private security contractor. In 2010 Hamid ordered an end to all work by such companies in Afghanistan.

In March, Hashmat sent a not-so subtle dig at his cousin’s leadership style when he said it was the corruption and injustices of the Kabul leadership that has led Afghans to take up arms with the Taliban.

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For his part, Hamid never publicly acknowledged the allegations of personal rift between himself and his cousin. In a statement issued after his death, Hamid strongly condemned the “the terrorist attack” on Hashmat.

This spring, while Qayoum made a brief bid for the presidency and Mahmood went on to support Abdullah Abdullah — the foreign minister who lost to Hamid in the 2009 elections — Hashmat endorsed the other candidate, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Hashmat, who also won a seat in the provincial council by a wide margin in April’s election, was credited with effectively heading Ghani’s campaign in the south of Afghanistan.

In a tweet issued shortly after his death, Ghani, a former finance minister, said Hashmat’s death “has left a void” in the country.

“He was vital to expanding Ghani’s base from the southeast into the Karzais' historic southern base," Smith told VICE News.

No group, including the Taliban, has claimed responsibility for Hashmat’s killing.

But Hashmat did not stop there. Local and international media reports said he was determined to thwart the presidential bid of Zalmai Rassoul, the candidate many believed was Hamid’s personal pick for his successor.

For Afghanistan observers, the biggest question surrounding Hashmat’s death is how it will affect Hamid’s power in Kandahar.

The analyst said Hashmat’s death will be significant in intra-Popalzai politics, but that the president’s influence in Kandahar depends on “a wide array of actors and institutions in the province. I don't foresee a major change in Hamid Karzai's standing in the province.”

Still, Hashmat’s death is likely to leave a power vacuum in Kandahar that many may be eager to fill. Qassam, who saw Hashmat as a “man of the people”, told VICE News he still questions who killed the friend he helped to bury on Tuesday night.

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Despite his power, Qassam said Hashmat “was not one to create enemies in Kandahar.” No group, including the Taliban, has claimed responsibility for Hashmat’s killing. A political source in Kandahar remains dubious of this, however. “Often we see the Taliban avoiding or denying responsibility for an attack even if it was them. In this case it could very likely be them, but I doubt they would ever risk claiming to be behind Hashmat’s death,” the source told VICE News.

Regardless of who manages to take Hashmat’s place, his life and legacy serve as yet another example of the complexities of power in Afghanistan, perhaps best embodied by the president’s own words: “Just like all other Afghans, who are daily targets of terrorist attacks, our family too is no exception and as every other Afghan, we too will have to bear it.”

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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