Karzai’s death, the adviser said, will be perhaps the most wrenching test of the resiliency of the Afghan government. “How long will it take for them to recover from this? And what does that do to our plans?”
The recent shift in the U.S. relationship with Karzai was a full circle of sorts. Through late 2008, he was viewed as a valuable source of intelligence about Taliban activity, and his cooperation was rewarded with payments from the CIA, according to U.S. officials. All the while, he sought to amass power — both economic and political — to fend off a host of rivals, including Sherzai.
Western intelligence officials believe he and his associates profited handsomely from construction and private-security contracts to support the growing international military presence in the south.
By mid-2009, several influential U.S. military and civilian officials wanted Karzai to be sacked as provincial council leader because of allegations that he was corrupt and involved in drug smuggling. He was also accused of helping to stuff ballot boxes in favor of his brother in that year’s presidential election.
In 2010, after failing to uncover clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing, the United States switched course. Diplomats and military officers sought to constrain him. They set down red lines that they warned him not to cross, including an admonition not to meddle in parliamentary elections. He largely complied, U.S. officials said, but he remained a tainted figure and was not openly embraced.
This year, the relationship changed again. Leaders of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division took over command at the NATO headquarters in southern Afghanistan, and they set out to more actively engage with Karzai, who also served as the president’s representative to southern Afghanistan.
U.S. officials believe that overture, coupled with two other factors — significant improvements in security across the south and encouragement from relatives — led him to change course. “He concluded that this was perhaps the last, best opportunity to build a new Afghanistan,” the civilian U.S. official said.
Some U.S. military strategists and analysts in Kabul and Washington take a different view, questioning the extent and sincerity of his transformation. They say Karzai remained a divisive figure in Kandahar, and they believe his death could accelerate the stabilization of southern Afghanistan.
But military and civilian officials in southern Afghanistan surmised that as the war effort has evolved, he concluded that his interests would be best served by pursuing a new style of leadership that was more in sync with U.S. and NATO objectives — that sharing some power now would pay off in the future.
The civilian official called him “a tenacious defender of personal and family interests,” but of late, there was “an overlap between his interests and those of the people and the province.”
Karzai’s death now creates a power vacuum in the most important province for the U.S. military campaign. It also leaves the president’s tribe, the Popalzai, without a leader.
U.S. officials fear the selection of successors for the council and tribal posts could be a protracted, potentially destabilizing process that the Taliban could exploit. The killing will almost certainly set in motion a series of events that will complicate the U.S. mission.
“This was a strategic strike,” the military adviser said. “Those who are celebrating are making a mistake.”
Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.