CIA links add to riddle over killing of ‘King of Kandahar’
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the half-brother of the Afghan president, lived under constant fear of assassination. His death last week was the latest of 10 attempts to kill him.
“The seventh bomb to target me was so big that hundreds of cats fed on human flesh for days afterwards,” he told me last July.
The man who finally killed Karzai was someone he trusted with his life. Not only was Sardar Mohammed a close confidant, but he also worked as an informant for the CIA, according to relatives, Karzai’s friends and the Afghan intelligence agency.
Mohammed, who shot dead Karzai, 49, at his home on Tuesday, ran a network of spies who passed information to the CIA, according to Mohammed’s brothers-in-law, two of whom work for the CIA.
Karzai, known as the “King of Kandahar” for the iron fist with which he ruled the southern province, was himself working for the CIA, according to his brother Mahmoud.
Karzai, likened to the gangster Al Capone by US officials for his alleged links to the drug trade, helped the US spy agency run a clandestine paramilitary unit called the Kandahar Strike Force. The CIA uses the unit to conduct covert counterterrorism operations in the city. Some members of the strike force are in prison in Kabul for shooting dead Kandahar’s police chief in 2009. Critics say that Karzai used the militia to kill off his rivals.
“If there was something Sardar could do that the Americans couldn’t, then they would ask him to do it,” said Abdul Malik, one of Mohammed’s brothers-in-law. “The Americans were very happy with his performance.”
One of Malik’s brothers carried an identity card with the words “Qandahar Strike Force” emblazoned in red ink on the back.
Afghan intelligence officials confirmed they knew of Mohammed’s links to the CIA, but insisted there was no evidence that the agency had ordered the hit on Karzai.
“It would be crazy to think the Americans could do this to my brother,” said Mahmoud Karzai, another Karzai brother who is under investigation for tax evasion in the US, where he used to live. Karzai’s family believe Mohammed’s Taliban informants may have persuaded Mohammed to switch sides.
Ahmad Wali Karzai had no shortage of enemies in the city. His foes accused him of assassinating and imprisoning his rivals, exploiting American military contracts and running drugs. His supporters said his powerful oratory and deft political skills held the south together.
Mohammed’s motive continues to baffle the police, the Afghan intelligence service and the government’s national security council. All three agencies have launched investigations into the murder.
At the heart of the mystery is the close relationship between Karzai and Mohammed — the men had been allies and friends for seven years.
“When the brothers wanted to travel to Karz [Karzai’s home village], Mohammed was responsible for their security,” said Brigadier-General Abdul Razeq, Kandahar’s police chief. “Their lives were in his hands.”
A former melon farmer, Mohammed, 35, was entrusted by Karzai to secure the family’s home soon after his half-brother, Hamid, became president. Mohammed would regularly entertain Karzai, and even his mother, at his sprawling house in Zakir Sharif.
Just hours before his death, Karzai had sent one of his staff to buy Mohammed a new mobile phone from a shop in Kandahar City. Two weeks ago, Karzai had even asked the Americans to increase the amount of men under Mohammed’s command.
Yet, despite this trust, the killing seemed coldly premeditated. At 10.45am on Tuesday, Karzai entered his office. He met Haji Agha Lalai, a friend and provincial councillor. Karzai asked Lalai to wait for him in another room while he went to the bathroom.
Mohammed walked up the stairs, flanked by two of Karzai’s bodyguards. Lalai nodded at him. “May you never be tired,” Lalai said, using a traditional Pashtun salutation.
Impatiently, Mohammed tried to enter Karzai’s office but he was blocked by one of Karzai’s assistants because he was still in the bathroom. On hearing the door close, Mohammed entered the room and walked over to Karzai, who was seated on a chair.
He handed him a file bearing the names of the 200 policemen he commanded in the villages south of the city. As Karzai opened it, Mohammed drew his pistol and shot him in the face at point blank range. The bullet entered his right cheek and exited behind his right ear, according to his death certificate. The second bullet tore into Karzai’s ribcage.
Hearing the shots, the bodyguards burst through the outer door. Mohammed fired at them, but missed. They returned fire with their pistols, hitting him in the chest. He crumpled to the floor, still conscious.
Karzai’s friends rushed into the room to wails of “His Excellency is dead”. They found Karzai’s body slumped in his chair, his head lolling to one side. His killer lay at his feet, bleeding but still conscious.
As friends wrapped Karzai’s body in a blanket, a bodyguard again opened fire at Mohammed. “I shouted at him to stop. I said we need him alive to know why he did this,” said Lalai. “But they didn’t listen. They were too emotional.”
Enraged at the death of his master, the head of office security, Abdul Khaliq, dragged Mohammed’s body down the stairs and into the lane outside. He stood over the body and emptied 11 rounds into it before dumping the corpse in the back of a police pick-up truck.
Khaliq and several other guards then drove the body into the centre of the city where they hanged it from two buildings and an arch outside the governor’s compound. At each place Mohammed’s body was left to swing from the neck for half an hour before it was returned to the morgue. Shopkeepers fled in terror.
Mohammed’s body, which was seen by The Sunday Times, was badly battered and his neck bore the bruising from the rope.
There are several theories to explain Mohammed’s motive. Karzai’s brother, Mahmoud, blamed Pakistani influences. He said Mohammed had travelled to Pakistan within the past three months to meet the Taliban in the city of Quetta.
The police and the Afghan intelligence are also investigating whether Mohammed may have been a longtime Taliban sleeper.
The claim is vehemently denied by Mohammed’s family, who said he had been anti- Taliban all his life. They also said he had not visited Pakistan for 20 years.
Another theory the police are examining is that Karzai was the latest victim of a family blood feud. In March, US special forces killed President Hamid Karzai’s second cousin, Haji Yar Mohammad Karzai.
At the time, Mahmoud said he feared that someone inside the Karzai family had fed the Americans false information about Yar Mohammad’s links to the insurgency.
Highlighting the growing rift within the family, Mahmoud said last week that his brother Hamid behaved like a “Mugabe-style dictator”.
“The fact that all this is going on in Karz and that Sardar Mohammed ran security in the area means that it could all be related,” said a police official with knowledge of the investigation. “We’re certainly looking at that.”
Police are also investigating reports that Mohammed took drugs and drank alcohol in the weeks before the killing. In recent weeks, he had also displayed signs of increasingly erratic and paranoid behaviour, according to the testimony given to police by five cousins arrested hours after the murder. He would regularly change his telephone Sim cards and wake up in the middle of the night to move between rooms in his house, according to their statements.
Whatever the outcome of the investigations, the murder of such a high-profile figure by a man with links to the CIA highlights how much of a gamble is the US policy of placing power in the hands of warlords.
Last year, the Americans toyed with persuading the president to remove his divisive half-brother from Kandahar by posting him abroad, perhaps as ambassador to Britain. But they dropped the idea, fearing that his departure could further destabilise the south and undermine the troop surge.
The tears shed by the president at his brother’s grave on Wednesday morning were a symbol of how much the government relied on Ahmad Wali to maintain order in the south.
But perhaps a more fitting tribute to a man who was regularly accused of running drugs, pocketing aid money and monopolising military contracts occurred less than an hour after his death.
As Karzai’s body lay on a hospital bed, surrounded by tearful friends and relatives, a cleaner sneaked up and stole his Rolex watch.
“At least some of the money intended for our people finally reached one of us,” said a doctor.