July 29, 2014
A suicide bomber Tuesday assassinated a powerful cousin of outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a major blow to the country's ruling clan that risks further destabilizing the volatile south.
Hashmat Karzai was in his fortified home outside Kandahar city greeting visitors on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr when the blast took place. The attacker, a young man who hid the explosives in his headgear, was allowed into the house as a guest, according to local officials. Hashmat Karzai and a bodyguard were killed on the spot.
Hashmat Karzai, who kept a pet lion and often held audiences smoking a cigar, was one of the most influential power brokers in the southern Kandahar province and a key ally of presidential front-runner Ashraf Ghani. It is unclear whether Hashmat Karzai knew his killer.
Hashmat Karzai had other enemies, as well: In 2009, he was accused by a rival branch of the family of ordering the killing of the son of his father's alleged assassin, part of a long-running blood feud. Hashmat Karzai denied any involvement at the time.
Hashmat Karzai, a U.S. passport holder who worked at a car dealership in Virginia before moving back to Afghanistan in the past decade, led a branch of the Karzai family that publicly clashed with the president and his brothers, and had mounted a bid to rival their authority in Kandahar. The region's main opposition leader and the owner of security and construction businesses, Hashmat Karzai was especially influential among the Popolzai tribe, of which the Karzai family is part, and was widely recognized as a tribal elder.
The killing of Hashmat Karzai is of symbolic significance: it happened in the village of Karz, the ancestral home of Hamid Karzai's family. The president's father is buried just a few hundred yards from Hashmat Karzai's home.
Tuesday's attack is part of a recent deterioration in security in the south. Large groups of Taliban fighters have recently launched major offensives in the region. In Zhari district, just a few miles outside Kandahar city, Afghan police and army units have been battling as many as 250 insurgents for three days. The Taliban overran 12 police posts, 10 of which have been reclaimed by Afghan forces, according to a spokesman for Afghanistan's ministry of interior.
"The security situation in Kandahar is bad," says Hajji Ehsan Noorzai, a former chairman of the Kandahar provincial council. A close friend and political ally of Hashmat Karzai, he was on his way to Mr. Karzai's house for Eid greetings when he heard the news of his killing. "Unfortunately the security forces have failed to prevent such incidents."
Hashmat Karzai was an early backer of Mr. Ghani, the former finance minister who won the country's June 14 presidential election, according to initial tallies by the Afghan election commission. That election is now being recounted, following allegations of fraud.
His extensive tribal connections among southern Pashtuns—which extended beyond his fellow Popolzai—helped broaden the support for Mr. Ghani, whose power base is eastern Afghanistan. "His loss has left a void," said Mr. Ghani, who condemned the attack.
Hashmat Karzai's power grew in the region after the killing of another Karzai: the president's half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who effectively ruled much of the south until he was slain by his bodyguard in July 2011. In his home, Hashmat Karzai held regular tribal councils, which became effective forums where local elders presented their grievances and sought resolutions to disputes.
"Hundreds of people would come to his house in Karz on a daily basis," says Mohammad Shah Baha, a tribal elder. "He was capable of solving disputes through talks and dialogue. His killing will have an impact on the work he did for the sake of the unity of the tribes of Kandahar and for the south."
The Taliban typically quickly claim credit for attacks they carry out. Some in Kandahar believe the Taliban aren't behind the attack on Mr. Karzai. "Besides his influence with the tribes and among locals, he knew many Taliban, said Mohammad Omar Sati, a member of the Afghan government's body in charge of peace talks with the insurgency.
"I don't think he was killed by the Taliban," he said. "Based on my understanding, the Taliban are not the ones who would benefit most from his death."