Worldview: Official's disheartening end

Kandahar's mayor bravely left America to help govern his native land. His death is a reminder that the reality there remains grim.

His family begged him to leave. His son-in-law told him he was crazy to stay.

But when I interviewed the feisty, gray-haired, Afghan American mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, he brushed aside any idea of leaving.

On Wednesday, Hamidi was killed by a suicide bomber who hid explosives in his turban. His death, the latest in a string of assassinations of key Kandahar officials, deals a further blow to American efforts to stabilize southern Afghanistan.

Indeed, Hamidi's life and death reflect the sad mismatch between America's efforts and reality there.

I met the mayor in May at his family home in Sterling, Va., where we shared a splendid meal of eggplant prepared Afghan-style by one of his daughters. Relatives had flocked to see him while he took a vacation from the violence in Kandahar. Children played on the living room floor, but our conversation was deadly serious.

He told me he'd already survived two attempts to kill him, including a roadside bomb that blew up the car in which he was riding. "I have two kinds of enemies," he said, "the Taliban and those who sit with us and say they are friends - but are thieves, warlords, and corrupt drug dealers." His death would come from a combination of both.

Hamidi was born in a small village in Kandahar Province and fled the country as an adult during the Russian occupation. He worked for 20 years as an accountant for a travel agency in Alexandria, Va., where he raised seven children.

He was drawn back to Afghanistan by entreaties from the Karzai family, also originally from Kandahar. "My father was President [Hamid] Karzai's father's friend," he told me, "and our grandfathers were friends, too, and I was a classmate of Qayum," a brother of the president. The Karzais offered Hamidi a job as deputy minister of finance or customs house director, but he asked to work in Kandahar.

Critics would later label him a tool of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and a power broker in the province, who was himself assassinated this month. Hamidi insisted he'd been promised the right to make his own decisions: "I said I didn't want anyone to dictate the situation. They said OK."

What's clear is that the new mayor returned to his native land with ideas shaped by his years abroad, which were more suited to Alexandria than Afghanistan.

He was frustrated by the tribalism that dominated the province but unable to clean up the corrupt police; angry at warlords but dependent on the shady Ahmed Wali Karzai. "I gave President Karzai a list of thieves in Kandahar," he told me. Nothing happened, nor could his U.S. allies help him.

So the mayor chose something he could focus on like a laser: collecting taxes and reclaiming government land that had been illegally seized.

In a move he was proud of, he got President Karzai to give him control of a large parcel of Defense Ministry land in Kandahar that had been illegally seized by a warlord. He then sold the land to investors, including the president's brother Mahmoud, who built a pricey gated community called Ay Nomina, filled with huge homes.

The mayor told me that taxes on Ay Nomina properties provided the city's biggest source of income. "Ay Nomina was the best housing development in Kandahar," he said. Critics said it was an inside deal that made the Karzais richer.

When Hamidi was killed, he was meeting tribal elders from a neighborhood where two children had been accidentally killed by municipal bulldozers razing houses built on government land. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the murder, but it could as well have been the consequence of tribal grievances over government land seizures, or a combination of both.

When I heard the news, I thought how absurd it was that a Virginia accountant had been asked to govern one of the toughest Afghan cities. (Another equally mismatched official, the Afghan Canadian academic and Karzai friend Tooryalai Wesa, remains governor of Kandahar Province.) Note that U.S. surge troops were unable to save Hamidi or his patron, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

I also recalled Hamidi's warning about malign Pakistani influence on Kandahar's Taliban from across the border: "One day after the Americans leave, some Pakistani from ISI [Pakistan's military intelligence agency] will be governor of Kandahar. They will be the power," he told me.

Hamidi's death reminds us that there will be no easy American exit from Afghanistan.


Trudy Rubin can be reached at trubin@phillynews.com.