KABUL, Afghanistan — Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim of Afghanistan, a formidable power broker and former warlord who played a crucial role in ousting the Taliban and shaping the political order that followed, died Sunday, less than a month before Afghans elect a new leader.
Mr. Fahim, who was said to be either 56 or 57, died of a heart attack, according to a close friend and political ally, Maulavi Ata ul Rahman Salim.
His sudden death created a rift at the center of the Afghan political power structure, removing a crucial player from the factional and ethnic landscape as well as cabinet politics.
Mr. Fahim was a foremost leader of the country’s ethnic Tajik minority and a powerful and early voice in bringing the support of northern warlords to President Hamid Karzai and helping keep peace with Afghan Pashtuns.
“It is with deep sadness that we learn of the passing away of Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim,” Mr. Karzai’s office said in declaring three days of national mourning.
On the brink of new presidential elections, Afghan leaders had been looking to Mr. Fahim as a potential peacemaker amid a critical leadership transition in wartime.
But his legacy is controversial and his Western backers and other former allies distanced themselves from Mr. Fahim in recent years amid accusations of corruption and human rights abuses.
Like many in Afghanistan, Mr. Fahim was catapulted to power by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
He came to lead the Northern Alliance, a group of militias struggling against the Taliban, just before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and after assassins for al-Qaeda killed the coalition’s founder, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
A statement from Mr. Karzai’s office said Mr. Fahim had died of an unspecified “illness.” Mr. Salim said the vice president, a diabetic, had been experiencing chest pains for the last three days and had been in declining health after heart surgery a few years ago.
“He died of his heart disease; it was a heart attack,” Mr. Salim said.
His death raised questions about the politics surrounding the presidential election and the country’s leadership as Afghans prepare to face the Taliban insurgency without the help of U.S. troops.