U.S. officials believed that Karzai had access to tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars through a slew of enterprises ranging from private security companies to trucking interests to the opium trade — businesses that never bore his name. He insisted that he owned none, and U.S. officials had difficulty proving malfeasance, to the point that the then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, instructed his officers last year to work with Karzai because they lacked proof against him.
For all the rumors of brutal behavior, Karzai often exuded a boisterous charisma. He spoke English with a Chicago accent and greeted his supplicants with a high-speed, foot-tapping energy, interrupting them every few minutes to field cellphone calls. Aspiring politicians, tribal chiefs and indigent farmers all filed into his house each day to seek his handouts or blessings or a ruling in a village dispute.
The home’s first floor often looked like an airport lounge, with dozens of Afghans sitting on the floor waiting for their audience in his second-floor carpeted meeting room, which was ringed with red couches and hung with rose-print drapes. In these meetings, he had the power to free prisoners or destroy political careers.
To foreign visitors, he cast himself as a victim of political smears. He described himself as a misunderstood public servant — he once called himself the “Nancy Pelosi of Kandahar.” But he could not fully mask his bravado about the power and influence he could wield.
In the war against the Taliban, he was a valuable U.S. partner — and a paid CIA asset. He helped recruit a powerful paramilitary group known as the Kandahar Strike Force and served as a font of intelligence about insurgents. “Regardless of how you viewed the guy, [Karzai] deserves some of the credit for the rout of the insurgents in Kandahar,” said Bill Harris, a former senior U.S. civilian in Kandahar.
But Karzai’s influence, from his perch on the provincial council, also badly warped the province’s political institutions. His ostensible superior, provincial governor Toryalai Wesa, commanded a fraction of Karzai’s authority, despite the full force of American money and manpower backing Wesa up.
Karzai’s power earned him innumerable enemies. His Pashtun tribe, the Popalzai, seized top government jobs and the spoils of NATO’s contracting dollars, while other formerly powerful Kandahar tribes were pushed to the margins and many of their young men to the insurgency.
“Ahmed Wali had come to symbolize a pattern of public corruption, abuse of power and impunity,” said one U.S. official with considerable experience in Kandahar. “Now everything has changed. There is at least a possibility for more constructive local leadership to step up.”
Mahmoud Karzai said he and his brother spoke at length Monday night about security in southern Afghanistan, hours before the targeted killing. “The Taliban is defeated. They cannot challenge the Afghan military,” Mahmoud Karzai recalled his brother saying. “All they can do is explode bombs and assassinate people.”
Sieff reported from Kabul. Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Kandahar and special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.