Standing in the cold rain on a rocky hillside cemetery outside Kabul, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai watched grimly as the body of his assassinated minister, Abdul Rahman, was lowered into the ground. "We will capture his killers," Karzai vowed, "and we will punish them."
Grabbing the culprits may be the easy part. Punishing them is a different matter. The suspects include senior military and intelligence officials in Karzai's fragile coalition government who belong to the Northern Alliance, an Afghan faction that didn't want Karzai in the first place. By going after the killers, the country's interim leader is headed for a showdown with the powerful warlords who control Afghanistan's foreign affairs, military and security forces--and even his own palace guards. His green-striped cape sodden with rain during the funeral ceremony, Karzai never looked so alone.
The death of Rahman, the tourism and aviation minister, is a tragically classic Afghan murder drama. And it raises fears that Karzai's coalition, welded in part by foreign aid and B-52 bombers, might be falling apart. Karzai's aides claim the minister's killers tried to mask the assassination by making it seem spontaneous. It occurred last Thursday at Kabul's airport, where for two days, 800 pilgrims on their way to the hajj had been stranded, hungry, thirsty and freezing in their white cotton robes and sandals. Their plight was largely a result of Rahman's incompetence: his staff had failed to fill out the necessary paperwork for two Saudi jumbo jets to land at Kabul and whisk the pilgrims off to Mecca.
Rahman, meanwhile, had gassed up an Antonov turboprop belonging to Ariana, the national carrier, for a private jaunt to India with friends. When the shivering pilgrims saw Rahman and his fur-clad pals climb aboard, it was easy for the assassins, mingling with the hajis, to roust the crowd into action. Several people charged the runway and threw themselves in front of the turboprop's wheels. The pilot stopped, and Rahman made the mistake that cost him his life: he opened the hatch to shoo away the pilgrims.
Then the assassins stormed the plane. Whipping out knives, they stabbed and beat Rahman to death. Neither the police nor international security forces, which patrol a different part of the airport, intervened. Later that night, when the Saudi charter jets showed up to transport the pilgrims, several of the suspected killers flew with them. Karzai has asked the Saudis to hand over General Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, a military intelligence chief, and General Kalandar Beg, a deputy defense minister, along with other suspects. The Saudis have agreed to help. In all, says a Karzai aide, more than 20 Afghan officials were involved in Rahman's murder.
As he presides over a nation still seeking a semblance of normality, Karzai is struggling to contain the damage. He claims that the motives for Rahman's death were "personal, not political." But Rahman, like Karzai, was a royalist, and some diplomats believe the killing was the Northern Alliance's way of demonstrating opposition to the planned return to Afghanistan this spring of Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, the exiled monarch. An Afghan patriarch was heard muttering at the funeral: "This killing is a clear warning to Zahir Shah's people."