Afghanistan's volatile southern province of Kandahar--the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency--experienced yet another destabilizing blow today when a suicide bomber hiding explosives in his turban assassinated the 65-year-old mayor, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, inside a heavily fortified government building. The attack comes only two weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai--arguably Kandahar's most powerful man--was assassinated by a confidante. In the last few months, Kandahar has also lost a police chief and the head of a religious council--the latter in a July attack that also involved a suicide bomber hiding explosives in his turban. In 2010, two deputy mayors of Kandahar were also gunned down by militants.
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for all these recent assaults, though some are skeptical about the Taliban's involvement. As the AP points out, the "area is rife with tribal rivalries and criminals and it is not yet certain who is behind" the string of killings. In this particular attack, the Taliban told the AP that Hamidi was assassinated to avenge the death of two children who were killed when local officials demolished illegally constructed homes. Hamidi, a U.S. citizen who once worked in the U.S. financial sector, had launched a campaign against warlords and criminals, according to his son-in law.
What's the larger significance of the recent spate of assassinations in Kandahar--a region dominated by the poppy trade that NATO is trying to place under Afghan control? The New York Times notes that Hamidi's death heightens "concerns that tenuous security gains in the violent south are unraveling despite months of intensified fighting by NATO and Afghan forces." The AP explains that the attack could herald a "surge in violence" amidst the power vacuum left by Ahmed Wali Karzai's death. Matthew Green of The Financial Times puts it more bluntly. "If this pace of assassination goes on in Kandahar it's hard to believe there will be a govt left for Afghan army to defend post transition," he tweets. But Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, believes the assassinations represent a challenge, not a death blow to the U.S.-led war effort. "Assassinations are horrific acts--they are acts of terror and can have major impacts," he declared in the wake of Hamidi's death, according to the AP. "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." He added that if the Taliban was indeed responsible for the attacks, it could be "interpreted as a sign of significant organizational weakness," suggesting the militant group "can no longer conduct large scale operations."