President Karzai's Brother Shot Dead

One of the most powerful figures in the Afghan government has been assassinated. Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the president, was shot dead, apparently by one of his own security men in the southern city of Kandahar where he headed the provincial council.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Afghanistan is bracing for the repercussions of an assassination today. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother, was shot to death this morning. He was the head of Kandahar's provincial council, and he was widely acknowledged as the most powerful man in that province. He had a hand in security, reconstruction and allegedly Kandahar's massive opium trade, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Ahmad Wali Karzai rose from relative obscurity to become one of the most feared men in southern Afghanistan. His ascent in the politics of Kandahar in 2005 almost immediately drew allegations of links to the billion-dollar opium trade there and in neighboring Helmand.

American diplomats and military commanders repeatedly pressured President Hamid Karzai to remove his brother or rotate him to a less influential post. They feared that corruption in Kandahar was fueling the discontent that sustains the Taliban insurgency.

President Karzai repeatedly defended his brother, claiming there was no solid evidence of corruption. Ahmed Wali Karzai himself denied any wrongdoing in repeated interviews, like this one with NPR.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. AHMED WALI KARZAI: And if anyone has any evidence of corruption or whatever you call it, please, they should bring it over.

LAWRENCE: Leaked diplomatic cables indicate that the international community was never convinced Ahmed Wali Karzai was clean, but as the U.S.-led troop surge pushed into southern Afghanistan, he was deemed to be a necessary strongman who could help keep order in the heartland of the insurgency.

Today, President Karzai had scheduled a joint press conference with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he went through with despite just having heard the news.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: A somber President Karzai first apologized to the French president for not greeting him with a smile. Then he said simply that his younger brother was dead.

Karzai said that every home in Afghanistan has its sorrows, and he wished that the country's troubles would end soon.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing in a statement, but many in Kandahar doubted that assertion. The alleged killer, Sardar Muhammad, was a long-time associate of Mr. Karzai who had free access to his huge fortified home in Kandahar.

Ahmad Wali Karzai was no doubt on the top of the Taliban hit list, but sources in Kandahar say there was also a long list of business rivals, tribal vendettas and individuals personally offended by Mr. Karzai's brash and often profane manner.

That's almost the same list of people who are now planning what to do about the power vacuum created by Ahmad Wali Karzai's death, which authorities fear could beget more violence.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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