WASHINGTON — In the end, Ahmed Wali Karzai personified America's dearth of good options in Afghanistan.
He was a corrupt politico who became the kingpin of volatile southern Afghanistan through kickbacks, violence, family ties, and working both sides of the war — the Taliban and the West. He promised the U.S.-led military coalition that dealing with him would promote security, but it brought mixed results at best.
More often, his corrupt and self-serving methods ran counter to the kind of government the coalition wanted to leave behind, fueling resentment and earning recruits for the Taliban in their southern heartland.
His assassination Tuesday by a close family associate leaves the United States, even as it begins to draw down 33,000 surge troops, facing the very question that has bedeviled it since the war began: How to leave behind a southern Afghanistan stable enough not to become a breeding ground for the Taliban and other anti-American extremist groups.
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In the short term, his death jeopardizes the ability of his elder half-brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, to hold onto the key region. Experts said that a tussle among family members and others was likely to ensue, possibly producing more violence in and around the provincial capital of Kandahar, where Ahmed Wali Karzai was killed in his home.
"His death clearly will create a power vacuum," said Robert Lamb, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There will be a struggle that arises in that power vacuum."
At the Pentagon, some U.S. military officials muttered privately that Karzai's death could improve security and reduce corruption. Of everyone in southern Afghanistan, experts said, Karzai reaped the most from the status quo, deftly both charming and stoking fear throughout a region plagued by insurgents and drugs.
Those within Karzai's patronage system benefited; those outside his circle did not. Officially, he was head of the provincial council of Kandahar, but in reality he governed nearly all of the province of the same name. For some years he was on the payroll of the CIA, and his personal militia, the Kandahar Strike Force, carried out a variety of services, including raids on the Taliban.
At one point, U.S. military commanders charged that Karzai was a key figure in the Afghan drug trade, an accusation he vehemently denied. In 2009, he threatened a McClatchy reporter who questioned him about the drug allegations, saying, "Get the (expletive) out before I kick your (expletive)."
He survived previous assassination attempts, including a 2009 ambush of his convoy. While the Taliban claimed responsibility for his death, Afghan officials said that it was the work of a longtime family associate, Sardar Mohammed, who ran checkpoints around Karzai's home.
Nevertheless, some U.S. officials felt they had no choice but to work with the man sometimes called the King of Kandahar.
"There was a disconnect between the U.S. words and actions," Lamb said.
Others worried about short-term instability in the region just as the U.S. is beginning to draw down its surge troops, many stationed in the south. The younger Karzai played a huge role in security in the region, appointing hundreds of members of the police.
"The United States condemns this murder in the strongest terms," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "We join President Karzai in his prayer for peace and stability in Afghanistan and remain committed to supporting the government and people of Afghanistan in their struggle for peace."
The death was a major blow to President Karzai himself, agreed Afghans, U.S. military officials and experts. The president relied heavily on him as the key power broker in the region, maintaining a complex series of relationships between businessmen, tribal leaders and politicians.
One of his greatest assets "was the fact the he was the brother of the president," said Khaled Pashtun, a member of the Afghan parliament who often clashed with Karzai. "His brother trusted him a lot and he was serving as bridge between the people and the president. Without him the connection between the tribal leaders and the government will be no longer as strong as it used to be."
Pashtun said that Karzai's influence went beyond Kandahar into neighboring provinces, and he suggested that his death could lead other political figures to drop their support for his brother's government.
The struggle to fill the void left by Karzai could include two controversial figures in Kandahar — Abdul Razek, the provincial chief of police who was a close Karzai ally, and Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of eastern Nangarhar province who has cut deals with the Taliban and is a member of a tribe that rivals Karzai's.
(Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and special correspondent Habib Zohori in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.)
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