x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Patronage state in Afghanistan has weaknesses

It's hard to know what will come after Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar. But his model of governance was never going to endure in any case.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan powerbroker and president's half-brother, once lamented the untimely departure of an influential American general by predicting "a big vacuum" in his absence. A year later, many are saying much the same about Mr Karzai.

The "kingpin" of Kandahar was killed by his own bodyguard on Tuesday for reasons that are still unknown. Taliban leaders have claimed responsibility, although proof is elusive. Mr Karzai certainly had his share of powerful enemies.

And yet the "who" may be less important than the "what now?" What will his death mean for a region overrun with militancy, drugs and ineffectual governance? Will the network of patronage that he controlled be replaced with a better form of government? Or will another kingpin arise?

Mr Karzai's death will be met with mixed feelings in the West at least. He was accused of being both an opium trafficker and a CIA informant, playing both sides of the fence and enriching himself along the way. The general Mr Karzai defended, Stanley McChrystal, was a vocal advocate for him. And as one US official told the Washington Post last year: "If you take out Karzai you don't have good governance, you have no governance."

Many Afghans will not be so conflicted. One notorious allegation was that $30 million (Dh110 million) was being funnelled out of the country every month through Kandahar airport, which was under Mr Karzai's control. In a country starved for development funds, rumours of corruption have poisoned the reputation of his powerful family.

The president Hamid Karzai had come to count on his brother as an intermediary between southern tribes and the central government. But it was strength based largely on patronage, not local loyalties - influential to be sure, but not indispensable.

In the long term, strongmen can hold power only for so long. As an April 2010 survey by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War noted, many southerners viewed the government in Kandahar as "a small oligarchy" that rules "by virtue of its guns and money". By comparison, the Taliban and rival tribes in the area have been seen as a legitimate alternative.

The fear is that Mr Karzai's death will create a power vacuum that his enemies, and Nato's, will fill. That may be so. But his model of governance, like his brother's, was never going to be a permanent solution.