A suicide bomber who hid explosives inside his turban killed Kandahar's mayor, an affable, hard-working 65-year-old who was a dual American-Afghan citizen and the third major figure in the southern Afghan city to be assassinated in the past two-and-a-half weeks.
Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who died Wednesday morning, was praised by Afghan and American colleagues as an able administrator who chose to stay and help the city of half a million rather than return to a home he kept in Virginia, where he had worked as an accountant for 20 years.
His death is one of the highest profile examples in a wave of assassinations across Afghanistan, nowhere more obvious than Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and the number one priority of the U.S. surge in 2010. U.S. officials say the tens of thousands of soldiers who arrived in Kandahar province helped eliminate traditional Taliban safe havens. But Afghan officials say they have never felt more vulnerable to assassination than today. In 2011, at least 10 Kandahar officials have been assassinated each month; that number was five last year and one in 2009, according to a tally by the Brookings Institution.
"This guy was the real deal," says a Western official who has worked with Hamidi. "He was committed to a brighter future for Kandahar."
According to Afghan officials, the bombing occurred while Mayor Hamidi was meeting with a delegation from a Kandahar neighborhood about illegal construction of houses on government land. The neighborhood's residents were angry because Hamidi had ordered the demolition of homes that he said were illegally constructed. During the demolition, two children were accidentally killed by a bulldozer.
A young man who walked in with the angry locals detonated a bomb in his turban as Hamidi walked past. The explosion also killed a bystander and wounded Hamidi's bodyguard.
It's not known whether Hamidi was killed by someone seeking revenge for the children's death, or by the Taliban, which claimed credit – or if he died as part of a factional power struggle for the future of the province.
Regardless, the assassination is part of a worrying trend. Two weeks ago, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, Ahmed Wali Karzai -- who headed the Kandahar provincial council -- was killed by a longtime associate. At a memorial service for Ahmed Wali Karzai, the province's top religious leader was killed by a suicide bomber who also hid explosives in his turban. And in April, the city's police chief was assassinated by his own bodyguard.
The assassinations threaten one of the main U.S. goals in Afghanistan: building local governments robust enough to protect and respond to its citizens as U.S. soldiers begin to leave. As the assassinations have increased, Afghan officials say they have had a harder time filling vacant positions. And the Western official noted "there was no bench" in Kandahar -- no group of officials qualified to step in.
"There are no replacements in the pipeline, or the replacements don't measure up," the Western official said. "That's pretty obvious to us, and it's pretty obvious to the Taliban."
Western officials in Kandahar described Hamidi as more allied with the U.S.-led effort than any other recent victim of assassination. With a staff of 70, he was responsible for overseeing the only major urban area in southern Afghanistan, where the U.S. and its allies have nearly 70,000 troops and have spent tens of billions of dollars in the last two years. Western officials say he was able to pave roads, increase education levels and hire local Kandaharis through job fairs – a more positive description than most U.S. officials have for the Afghans they work with.
"Mayor Hamidi was a strong leader and voice for a terror-free and progressive Afghanistan," said Rear Adm. Vic Beck, the director of NATO public affairs in Afghanistan, "and we extend our sympathies to his family and friends at this sorrowful time."
Taliban Takes Credit For Assassination
In Kabul, in his first press conference, newly appointed ambassador Ryan Crocker disputed the argument that the increased number of assassinations threatened the U.S. effort in Kandahar.
"Assassinations are horrific acts -- they are acts of terror and can have major impacts," said Crocker, who became ambassador on Monday. "But I don't think you can chart a straight line that says that three assassinations guarantees a total unraveling either of international support or Afghan confidence. It could very well go the other way."
The Taliban took credit for the assassination, but the first reporters who called the Taliban's spokesman said he was initially unaware of Hamidi's death.
It is unclear who is responsible for Hamidi's death -- or any of the other assassinations in Kandahar.
Since Ahmed Wali Karzai's killing, the province has become extremely susceptible to power brokers who are willing to use violence to secure control. Hamidi was seen as an ally of Ahmed Wali Karzai and a possible future governor, and could have been targeted in Kandahar's succession struggle.
Whoever killed him, Western and Afghan officials said Hamidi's death is a huge loss to the region.
"He was struggling with all the powerful people in Kandahar - the land grabbers and people who were breaking the law," Kandahar's governor said in a statement. "That's why the militants targeted him."