Karzai’s killing now poses a significant setback for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. American officials had been hoping that his newfound willingness to embrace a U.S.-backed village defense program and the reintegration of Taliban fighters would help to cement recent improvements in security across Kandahar province.
In Kabul, senior military officials had remained more skeptical of Karzai than top commanders in the south, because of concerns that Karzai’s greed made him an unreliable and potentially damaging partner. Rather than criticize him publicly, U.S. officials expressed their skepticism about Karzai’s motives privately to senior Afghan counterparts. But they also had come to believe that they had little choice but to work with him.
One civilian adviser to the U.S.-led NATO military command said Karzai “had a very sophisticated and meaningful vision that pointed to what was needed politically to capitalize on the military gains.” The adviser and other sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly about sensitive issues.
In recent months, the adviser said, Karzai had taken his leadership of the Kandahar provincial council far more seriously than he once did, turning it into “a growing political center of gravity that was resolving disputes.”
He traveled to insurgent strongholds with U.S. commanders to encourage residents to support a program that is a key element of the American strategy in Afghanistan: the training of armed villagers to defend their territory. And he was largely responsible for appointing a member of the Ghilzai tribe, a traditionally disenfranchised group that has been sympathetic to the Taliban, as deputy provincial governor.
“He may have been wanting to make a lot of money before, but he seems to be wanting to make his future here, and it changed fundamentally how he’s dealing with the Afghans and us,” a U.S. military official said less than 24 hours before Karzai was killed by a trusted confidant acting on motives that remained unclear.
Over the past six months, U.S. commanders and diplomats had met with Karzai regularly, traveled with him to remote parts of the province and consulted him for guidance.
“It was very useful to have access to his political advice and insight on Kandahar politics,” a civilian U.S. official said.
Karzai’s new attitude also extended to a more open engagement with journalists: He was killed an hour before he was to have lunch at his home with a Washington Post reporter.