KABUL Ahmad Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, was killed by a close associate on Tuesday.
His death leaves a dangerous power vacuum in southern Kandahar province, birthplace of the Taliban and focus of recent efforts by a surge of U.S. troops to turn the tide against the insurgency.
Below are questions and answers about Ahmad Wali Karzai and his role in southern Afghanistan.
Q: WHY DID HE MATTER?
A: Ahmad Wali Karzai was arguably the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, who acted as a regent and enforcer for his brother across the volatile region. His influence belied his modest official title, as head of the provincial council.
Critics said he was tainted by brutality and corruption that helped drive ordinary Afghans into the arms of insurgents. He was reported variously to have ties to the opium trade, private militias and the CIA -- all charges he strongly denied.
But even enemies admitted he also brought a degree of ruthless control to a violent area through his unrivalled network of tribal and family connections and the personal fortune he was rumored to have amassed and used deftly for political ends.
Short-term there is almost certain to be infighting among rivals to his crown; longer term the political structure of the south is likely to be irrevocably changed.
Q: WILL HIS DEATH HURT PRESIDENT KARZAI?
A: Analysts say Ahmad Wali Karzai all but won two presidential elections for his brother through his patronage and security networks, and ensured some continued, if not always enthusiastic, support for his rule.
Another Karzai brother has been chosen to succeed him as a senior elder of the Popalzai tribe, in what is likely an early bid by Karzai to curb the extent of the coming power struggle.
Shah Wali Karzai is respected but relatively unknown; he may eventually be able to build up a power base that matches his younger brother's, but for now President Karzai is likely to be diminished in an area that should be his natural heartland.
Q: WILL HIS DEATH HAVE A WIDER IMPACT ON SECURITY?
A: His death will almost certainly cause a short-term deterioration in the already fragile security situation in Kandahar, by fraying or shattering the complex patronage networks he presided over.
Kandahar City already saw over half of all assassinations nationwide in the second quarter of the year.
If fighting for a share of his power or wealth is protracted, it may sap energy from the battle against Taliban insurgents or further alienate locals exhausted and disillusioned by years of violence and corruption.
This could threaten recent security gains made by foreign forces around the city, particularly at a time when they are preparing to start a gradual, years-long security handover to the Afghan police and army.
In Kabul, senior officials warned that the psychological impact could be as significant as the actual impact, because the death of someone as powerful and well protected as Ahmad Wali Karzai implies no one can really be safe.
Q: WHO WILL REPLACE HIM?
A: Ahmad Wali Karzai had several roles, and his official title as head of the provincial council was the least important. Normally a consultative position, it may return to that status if a low-key successor is chosen.
Another Karzai brother has been anointed to fill a second role, as a leading elder of the Popalzai tribe and presumably as Karzai's unofficial representative in southern Afghanistan.
Shah Wali Karzai is a businessman and trained engineer, two years older than his murdered brother, who used to travel frequently between Dubai and Kandahar and kept a much lower profile. He may struggle to entirely fill his brother's shoes.
So Ahmad Wali Karzai's title as the uncrowned "King of Kandahar" may still be available for other ambitious and powerful leaders like Gul Agha Sherzai, currently governor of eastern Nangahar province but once Kandahar governor.
His transfer in 2004 allowed Ahmad Wali Karzai to consolidate his power, but Sherzai is reportedly interested in returning to his former base, and as a sometime ally of President Karzai might be favored for the post.
Another powerful Kandahar player is the recently appointed Kandahar police chief Abdul Razeq.
Q: WHAT WERE HIS TIES WITH THE WEST LIKE?
A: Perturbed by the persistent reports of corruption and drug and militia links, some Western diplomats and soldiers dealing with Kandahar had misgivings about his role.
Ultimately though they seem to have decided that his influence was so ubiquitous, and his hold over politicians, officials and tribal leaders so strong that they were better working with him than against him.
Western ambivalence about him was summed up last year by British Major General Nick Carter, then the commanding officer for southern Afghanistan, at a news conference.
"It's also my sense that, in relation to Ahmad Wali Karzai, he would tell you -- and he's either a candidate for an Oscar or he's the most maligned man in Afghanistan -- that he is trying to help his country, that he's trying to help us and he's trying to help his people," he said.
(Editing by Michelle Nichols)