As Nato prepares to pull out, the Taliban is positioning itself to step into the vacuum
A suicide bomber has killed the mayor of Kandahar City, depriving the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, of yet another ally in southern Afghanistan just as Nato troops start pulling out of the insurgency-wracked country.
The murder of Ghulam Haider Hamidi, a childhood friend of the Karzai family and a naturalised US citizen, who had returned to Afghanistan at the President’s personal request, comes just two weeks after a trusted bodyguard gunned down Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President’s half-brother.
The hit eliminates one of the leading contenders to become Kandahar’s next governor, leaving the way open for Gul Agha Sherzai, a bear of a man who dispenses patronage like one of Afghanistan’s kings of old. A nominal Karzai ally, Mr Sherzai will almost certainly consolidate lucrative Nato contracts and drugs revenues for his own family if he gets the nod, diminishing Mr Karzai’s influence in the south. Read the rest of this entry »
The second high-profile assassination of an Afghan politician in a week, the killing of Hamid Karzai’s long-time adviser Jan Mohammad Khan has Afghans worrying that anyone close to the President is a target
Gunfire rang out again Sunday night in Kabul, first as single shots and then in stuttering bursts, as two gunmen stormed the villa of President Hamid Karzai’s long-standing confidante Jan Mohammad Khan. Armed with AK-47s and grenades, the attackers shot their way into the compound in a leafy quarter of Kabul called Kart-e-Sey, at around 8 p.m. They knocked out Khan’s son with the butt of a rifle and killed a guard, according to an officer on the scene with Kabul’s criminal-investigations department. Then they shot Khan as he sat on a couch, chatting with a member of parliament who had come to visit.
Khan and the MP Mohammad Hashem Watanwal died instantly, but what followed ran for eight and a half hours as the attackers took hostages and holed up inside the villa. A rapid-reaction force from the Afghan police and intelligence services slowly closed the net, killing one assailant with a direct shot and freeing the last of the hostages shortly before midnight. As dawn broke, and the house burned after the gunmen threw 13 grenades according to one police source, counter-terrorism officers and their foreign advisers ended the siege, blowing apart the wall of the bathroom in which the last surviving attacker was concealed, killing him.
That was the easy part. Khan’s death is the second high-profile assassination of an Afghan politician in a week, and will almost certainly add to the shivers of uncertainty rippling across Afghanistan. His peach-colored compound may hardly have been Fort Knox (Khan apparently sent all but one of his guards home each evening) and the Uruzgan strongman may not have been the power that once he was. But taken in conjunction with the assassinations of President Karzai’s half-brother on July 12, and the police chief for northern Afghanistan, General Daud Daud, earlier this summer, Khan’s killing plays right into the Taliban narrative that no one, no matter how close to Karzai, is safe from their assassination campaign. Read the rest of this entry »
After the President buried his half-brother, he appointed another sibling to lead their tribe. But will that prevent a rebalancing of power in the troubled province?
They came to bury Ahmed Wali Karzai from Afghanistan and beyond, flying in on charter planes and arriving in armored convoys to pay their last respects to the man dubbed the “King of Kandahar.” Family and friends joined a funeral cortege of thousands as it made its way, under the watchful guard of helicopter gunships, from Kandahar City to the small village 12 miles away, where the Afghan President’s half-brother was born in 1961. Among the mourners were government ministers, parliamentarians and provincial governors, some dabbing their eyes with the silk of their turbans. Shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai slipped off his moccasins and stepped into his half-brother’s grave to bid the Kandahar strongman a last goodbye. Their relationship may not always have been easy, but those close to Karzai say it ran deep, and that the President has been devastated by Ahmed Wali’s murder.
Then the King of Kandahar’s brother was off from the village grave, whisked away in a motorcade of black SUVs before anyone could make another attempt against the Karzai family. (One guest had been less lucky but still fortunate, saved from a Taliban bomb blast as he traveled to the funeral by the reinforced armor of his car.)
Back in Kandahar City at a fortress-like mansion, Karzai’s first task was to anoint a successor to Ahmed Wali as de facto leader of the Popalzai tribe, from which the Karzai family hails. It was from his role as a tribal leader that Ahmed Wali drew much of his power, and Karzai chose another half-brother, Shah Wali Karzai, crowning him with a turban in front of the assembled chieftans. “Tribal leaders have proposed for me to replace martyred Ahmed Wali Karzai with Shah Wali Karzai as your tribal elder,” Karzai intoned. It was the President’s first move to repair the vast tear in Kandahar’s political fabric that Ahmed Wali’s death has left. Read the rest of this entry »
Politician was vital to Hamid Karzai’s fight against Taliban
Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother to the Afghan President and one of the country’s most powerful politicians, was assassinated by a bodyguard yesterday, leaving a power vacuum in a crucial province as foreign powers prepare to start withdrawing troops.
Mr Karzai was shot in the head and the chest as he met constituents at his home in Kandahar. Witnesses told The Independent that the assailant, a bodyguard and long-term family friend called Sardar Mohammad, interrupted a meeting between Mr Karzai and two other local politicians.
Waving a file and citing personal business, Mohammad asked to speak privately with his boss. Moments after they stepped next door, shots rang out. Guards shot Mohammad and rushed Mr Karzai to hospital but he was dead on arrival. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s an excellent piece in The Guardian by Jon Boone about the Kabul bank saga that’s a good read for many reasons, not least this description of “the man accused of rivalling only the Taliban in terms of the damage he has done to Afghanistan”:
Khalilullah Ferozi, supposedly under house arrest, settles into a seat and orders a shisha and several plates of rice and kebab. On his wrist sits a diamond-studded watch. As he talks, getting animated, a steady spray of half-masticated kebab flies across the table.
Almost as quickly as the international community rushed to praise Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, complaints of widespread irregularities began pouring in, echoing the protracted wrangle over vote-rigging that returned President Hamid Karzai to power last year.
Representatives from the US, UN and EU hailed the bravery of Afghans for heading to the polls on Saturday despite pre-election violence and Taliban attacks on polling day that killed 18 people. However evidence was mounting yesterday of polling stations opening late, intimidation of voters, and the widespread use of fake voting cards. There were also reports that there were not enough ballot papers and that children had cast ballots.
President Hamid Karzai praised “the courage of the people” in voting, saying it was “a positive and major step for strengthening democracy in this country”. Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, applauded voters for turning out “despite the violence carried out by those attempting to deny the people’s most basic democratic right”. But the courage of many ordinary Afghans notwithstanding, what the evidence suggests so far is that power is disbursed across Afghanistan not by universal suffrage but through coercion, bullying, bribery, cronyism, patronage and fear. Read the rest of this entry »
Deputy Mayor’s assassination is latest in series of bloody attacks in city by Taliban as Nato prepares offensive
Assassins killed the deputy mayor of Kandahar yesterday as violence in Afghanistan’s second city continued to spiral out of control before a planned Nato offensive.
Gunmen entered a mosque where Azizullah Yarmal was bowing his head in prayer and shot him at point-blank range, according to a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar.
It was the latest of a string of attacks in Kandahar City which has killed dozens of government employees. Hours earlier, a donkey laden with explosives was remotely detonated, killing three children from a prominent pro-government family. Read the rest of this entry »
US and Afghan troops moved towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and mine fields. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.
Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Talibanstronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated.
US Marines raised an Afghan flag inside the town limits but pockets of Taliban militants dug in, with some veterans comparing the intensity of the fighting to that encountered when they stormed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2005.
“In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we’re coming in from different locations and working toward the centre, so we’re taking fire from all angles,” Captain Ryan Sparks told Reuters.
The operation to clear Taliban insurgency from their biggest stronghold in Helmand province looks increasingly like an acid test of Western military and political strategy in Afghanistan, with the outcome likely to deal a powerful propaganda blow one way or the other.
With US General Stanley McChrystal’s reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign placing the emphasis on protecting communities rather than killing militants, the first measure of success for the thousands of US, NATO, and Afghan troops involved in Operation Moshtarak (the Dari word for ‘together’) will be avoiding civilian casualties.
The vast majority of Marjah’s civilian inhabitants, of whom there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, have stayed put after a NATO information campaign entreated them to “keep your heads down” and the Taliban mined all approaches to the town.
Afghan officials say the involvement of Afghan forces in unprecedented numbers – 60 percent of the front-line forces are said to be Afghan – will help alleviate the threat because Afghan soldiers are better able to distinguish between “terrorists and farmers.”
Civilian casualties a key metric
So far this advantage and the coalition’s tactics of attacking in overwhelming numbers but with a restrained use of its overwhelming firepower has largely worked, with civilian casualties limited to 12 killed when a rocket landed 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from its target, and seven wounded in separate incidents.
In an indication of how important the issue of civilian casualties may prove to be, General McChrystal promptly offered his apologies to President Hamid Karzai and launched an investigation into the incident. Mr. Karzai only signed off on the operation hours before it began and senior members of his administration reportedly had reservations about advising inhabitants to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing Marjah.
Ghafar Jan, a 32-year old farm laborer living in Marjah, reached by telephone, said that powerful explosions had cast a pall of dust and smoke over the town, and that the “lightning” of rockets was visible from his house.
“The Taliban will fight until the last minute because the attack is coming from all directions so I don’t think they can fall backward to safety,” Jan said. “I don’t know what will happen. God knows what will happen.”
The top Taliban commander in Marjah, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, insisted that his fighters had pushed back the NATO and Afghan allies who were, he claimed, involved in a face-saving operation masking their defeat in Afganistan.
“Tens of foreign soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs and we have also destroyed many vehicles. By the grace of God we have had few casualties,” he said.
He was contradicted by NATO reports that two of its troops — one American, one British – had been killed in the fighting.
Meanwhile, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said that a government-in-waiting is ready to sweep in once coalition forces have cleared the town of Taliban, bringing with them up to 2,000 Afghan police to provide security. Civil servants and development specialists will organize the local administration. Previous town officials were killed, co-opted by the insurgents, or forced to flee. With a new administration, in theory, will come schools, hospitals, and jobs.
“The most important thing will be the aftermath,” says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst in Kabul. “How quickly will the coalition countries fix the town? How quickly will the Afghan government provide services to people? And how quickly will they be able to provide justice and security?”
Mir notes that in the past some police officers had pursued vendettas against people they accused of colluding with the Taliban.
North of Marjah, coalition forces are also battling Taliban militants in Nad-i-Ali district, supposedly an area under government control. Although fighting there has been less intense than some of the battles raging in Marjah, it is an indication of the difficulty of holding ground, let alone building on it.
Of particular importance in any area restored to government control will be providing alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers: central Helmand is a drugs-producing hub with many locals complicit in the narcotics industry.
“I’m sure they are well-prepared for that,” says Mir.
“All we want is peace,” said Ghafar Jan, the farm labourer. “People are tired of fighting, people are hungry now, and there is no medicine for the sick. I don’t care who is in control. I want those who can bring peace, justice and Sharia law.”
Cautious interest as Afghan government seeks to draw all parties to the table
The Taliban fighter sitting in the front of the car was expressive, engaging, and dismissive of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s pleas for men like him to lay down their guns. Omar Khel, a tribal militant from Wardak province outside Kabul, is exactly the kind of reluctant rebel the Afghan government and the international community want to bring in from the cold.
“I am not in favour of fighting,” Mr Khel, a chubby man with strong features and grey-flecked hair, said. “I don’t have enmity with the Americans. I have enmity with Fahim, with Khalili, with Dostum. We are fighting them.” He had named the three most notorious warlords in the new Afghan government.
Mr Khel’s views are not representative of all insurgents, but they do illustrate one of the problems Mr Karzai’s “big tent” style of government creates: the inclusion of some individuals inevitably alienates others. And unfortunately for the architects of the reintegration and reconciliation programme outlined in London last week, other insurgents may be harder to woo.
Abdul Rahmad, a Taliban commander from the volatile southern province of Kandahar, told The Independent that he was ready to enter peace talks with Mr Karzai, but only if the existing Taliban demands are met. These include the withdrawal of the foreign troops supporting the fragile Afghan government, and changes to the constitution implementing sharia law as interpreted by the Islamists. Although he admitted that the insurgents included “bad and corrupt people”, he said he would fight on because “We have no sharia law, no sharia justice.”
It is possible he was being disingenuous: the insurgents have little to gain by publicly agreeing to talks and would actually weaken their position by appearing ready to consider peace. Their strongest hand is running down the clock on the international community.
Acknowledging as much in an interview with The New York Times, the Afghan official in charge of reconciliation said the government had been discussing ways of ending the war with the Taliban for some time. Mohammad Massoum Stanikzai said Taliban denials of talks were a PR strategy. “They are continuing to say this, it’s something they say in the media, but this is not a fact,” he said.
And although past efforts at reintegrating rebel fighters have lacked the political will, resources or organisation to succeed there is a sense of optimism among Western diplomats in Kabul that last week’s conference in London has changed this. One said: “What’s different is that for the first time you have the infrastructure to not only make promises and agreements but to follow through and make sure they’re enforced.”
Against this are a series of challenges that Afghan and international officials are just beginning to address with specific proposals. One difficulty is ensuring incentives offered to genuine fighters are not seen by others as reason to become temporary insurgents. Sorting bona fide insurgents from opportunists will be hard for an intelligence community recently lambasted by Major-General Michael Flynn, US and Nato deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, as ignorant of the Afghan people.
Another concern is that reconciliation with the senior Taliban leadership can proceed only after offensives, beginning with the imminent assault on the insurgent stronghold of Marja in Helmand, start rolling the enemy back.
And women’s rights groups and non-Pashtun ethnic groups opposed to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban have to be persuaded they are safe working with their traditional foes. A Western diplomat said these “different groups are looking at reconciliation-reintegration policy with great concern”.
Yesterday Mr Karzai arrived in Saudi Arabia to seek help in drawing Taliban representatives to a loya jirga peace council. Saudi was among three countries to recognise the Taliban when it was in power.
The names of Taliban interviewees have been changed