KABUL, Afghanistan — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai and one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan, was assassinated Tuesday at his residence in Kandahar, the family's hometown.
President Karzai confirmed the killing, which officials in Kandahar said was carried out by a Karzai family associate who ran several checkpoints around Ahmed Wali Karzai's home.
The killing sent shock waves through the Afghan political system and renewed questions about how secure a country the U.S.-led mission will leave behind. It also amounted to a major blow to President Karzai himself, who relied heavily on his half-brother as the key power broker in insurgent- and drug-riddled southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the Taliban.
The younger Karzai was a highly controversial figure, long accused of being a major player in the Afghan drug trade, and had survived several previous assassination attempts. He provided the family muscle in Kandahar, the most politically important province outside Kabul, and his death was likely to create a major power struggle that could result in more violence.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The motive for the assassination wasn't immediately clear. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the killing, calling the assailant "our infiltrator," but some observers cast doubt on the claim.
President Karzai announced his half-brother's death at the beginning of a news conference in Kabul with French President Nicolas Sarkozy."This is the life of Afghan people. This sorrow is in every Afghan home. Every one of us has this sorrow," said Karzai, who traveled later Tuesday to Kandahar later Tuesday to attend his half-brother's funeral, accompanied by other government officials.
The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, extended his "personal sympathy and condolences" to President Karzai in a statement issued by the International Security Assistance Force.
"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," Petraeus said. "I strongly condemn the actions by anyone who played a role in this murder. ISAF will support the Afghan government in every possible way to bring to justice those involved in the murder of Ahmed Wali Karzai."
Ahmed Wali Karzai, often known by his initials, was the head of the Kandahar provincial council, but he wielded much more power than that title indicates. He often was accused of corruption and being a major drug trafficker, charges he dismissed as "politically motivated." In a recent interview with the BBC, he said "no one has produced any evidence" to back allegations of drug smuggling.
In 2009, he threatened a McClatchy reporter who questioned him in Kandahar about the drug allegations, saying, "Get the (expletive) out before I kick your (expletive)."
He also was said to have long been on the CIA payroll, which caused friction within Washington, as the State Department was critical of his links to criminal activity. His personal militia, the Kandahar Strike Force, was implicated in the assassination of a former Kandahar police chief and prosecutor.
Gen. Abdul Razik, the police chief in Kandahar, said at a news conference that the killer was "one of (Ahmed Wali Karzai's) trusted men" and had been working with him for the past seven years.
"His friends and comrades have been arrested and we will interrogate them," said Razik, who alleged that "some foreign hands were involved in the assassination plot."
Haji Agha Lalai, a member of the Kandahar provincial council who was with the younger Karzai at the time of his killing, told McClatchy that it happened at 11 a.m. in Karzai's own house, where he was receiving business, political and personal contacts as he regularly did.
"He (Karzai) entered another room. He and the killer were the only ones in that room. I heard firing," Lalai said. "The killer was one of his security guys."
According to Lalai, the assassin was 25 years old and from Dand district, just outside Kandahar city. Unconfirmed news reports identified him as Sardar Mohammed and said that he'd worked previously as a bodyguard for President Karzai's older brother, Qayum Karzai.
A doctor at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar said that Ahmed Wali Karzai had been shot twice at point-blank range, once in the chest and once in the skull. He was dead on arrival at the hospital, said the doctor, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the news media.
Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, whose power paled in comparison with Ahmed Wali Karzai's, said at a news conference, "He was serving the people of Kandahar. He didn't spare any efforts in bringing security and stability to Kandahar."
(Zohori and Shah are McClatchy special correspondents. Shah reported from Islamabad. Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.