The South Asia Channel
Meet Afghanistan’s new intel boss
The appointment of a new head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS, the country’s intelligence agency) has come with a lot less fanfare than the departure of the old one, Amrullah Saleh, who resigned after deep disagreements with the president over policy towards the Taliban. The acting director, Engineer Ibrahim Spinzada, has returned to ...
The appointment of a new head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS, the country’s intelligence agency) has come with a lot less fanfare than the departure of the old one, Amrullah Saleh, who resigned after deep disagreements with the president over policy towards the Taliban. The acting director, Engineer Ibrahim Spinzada, has returned to the shadows and his day job as deputy head of the National Security Council (NSC), leaving one of his protégés, Engineer Rahmatullah Nabeel, in charge of Afghanistan’s intelligence apparatus.
Engineer Nabeel is from Wardak and, according to Pajhwok News Agency, was born in 1968. He went to primary school in Kabul, then, after the Soviet invasion, to secondary school in exile in Peshawar. He also studied for a degree in engineering in Peshawar from a private university and then worked as an engineer with NGOs (reportedly in Peshawar and Jalalabad). By the late 1990s, he was working in Kabul for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while Engineer Ibrahim was with UNHCR in Kandahar.
In late 2002, Nabeel went from being an engineer working on projects around Kabul to security officer at the Presidential Palace. He was one of a number of UNHCR staff who followed Engineer Ibrahim to the Palace (Ibrahim and Karzai know each other from Quetta — there are family connections). The new recruitment was part of an attempt to create a professional, Afghan security apparatus at the Palace which would be unwaveringly loyal to Karzai.
Before then, the Afghan leader had been protected by three rings of security. The outer ring was staffed by guards who came exclusively from former president Ustad Rabbani’s home village, Yaftal. Next came Shura-e Nazar soldiers, deployed by General Fahim (then Defense Minister) and finally, there was an inner circle of security men who had served under Dr. Najib. Karzai’s initial decision in December 2001 not to bring his own tribesmen as guards, but to trust his predecessors’ reportedly went down well with General Fahim; Karzai had argued that all Afghans were ‘his people.’ Nevertheless, as the year wore on, just as his predecessors had done, he eventually decided to set up his own security system. In the summer of 2002, Washington drafted a detail of its soldiers as bodyguards for the Afghan leader. It also took charge of improving security at the Palace. Nabeel was part of the group which was given high-level, American training in order to guard Karzai. He went on to become head of the presidential special guards unit. After eight years at the Palace, during which time he became a general and, it’s rumored, a two-star general, Nabeel has now become the head of the Afghan intelligence agency.
For Karzai’s new policy towards the Taliban the NDS is crucial. It is the organization which deals with security prisoners and gathers intelligence on the insurgency, including trying to prevent attacks. It is a nationwide network which answers directly to the president (unlike the police whose chain of command goes through the Ministry of Interior or the army who go through the Ministry of Defense).
Is Nabeel up to the job? "He’s certainly clever," was the conclusion of those AAN spoke to who knew him in the 1980s and 1990s. "He’s not a bad man," was another comment on the man’s character. He has received top-level security training from the Americans, has eight years of experience at the Palace and speaks the languages needed to deal not just with Afghans (Pashto and Dari), but also foreigners (English and Urdu). Crucially, he is a Karzai and Engineer Ibrahim partisan, promoted through their support. This is a very different background from Amrullah Saleh who was a protégé of Ahmad Shah Massoud and had risen up through the ranks of the Shura-e Nazar/Islamic State of Afghanistan intelligence agency. Indeed, one of Saleh’s friends told to AAN, "President Karzai never trusted him regarding his personal security." Most importantly, the power behind the NDS throne — as he is also at the NSC — remains Engineer Ibrahim. Even though he apparently took a demotion, he has merely stepped back out of the limelight. This new appointment strengthens his hand considerably.
The man Nabeel will be working most closely with is his newly appointed deputy, General Hassamuddin Hassam, a Panjshiri who was working as a security advisor to the First Vice President, Marshal Fahim. Before that, Hassam was in charge of the military affairs department (riyasat-e ummur-e nezami) at the Ministry of Defense. He’s from the pro-Fahim, rather than the pro-Dr Abdullah faction of Shura-e Nazar. General Hassam has replaced Qayyum Katawazai, who had only been in the job since April. Katawazai, who is from Paktika and is reportedly former PDPA, had been the governor of Paktika and before that, head of NDS in Kandahar and Ghazni (he had followed the now Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs, Assadullah Khaled, as he moved about the country taking different governorships).
The appointment of General Hassam means that the Panjshiris — who have strong historic ties with NDS — have not lost out completely and should still be protected under the new regime. Their ties date back to 1992, when the mujahedin captured Kabul and General Fahim, who had run Shura-e Nazar’s intelligence arm during the jihad, was appointed head of the Islamic State of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. Fahim had appointed many of his people to posts in the agency, and although they fled with their comrades when the Taliban took power in 1996, they took back their old posts in 2001. Shura-e Nazar had led the Northern Alliance capture of Kabul and took control, not just of NDS (Engineer Arif, with Amrullah Saleh as his deputy), but both security ministries, Defense (General Fahim) and Interior (Yunus Qanuni), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Dr. Abdullah) and the Office for Administrative Affairs, the quasi-prime ministry, without a prime minister.
The appointment of Engineer Nabeel means that, apart from the four years of the Taliban regime, this is the first time in almost two decades that a Panjshiri from Shura-e Nazar has not been in charge of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.
Kate Clark is a senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published.