Assassin Nation

After more than three decades of targeted killings, is there anyone left alive who can actually run Afghanistan?

Mamoon Durrani/AFP/Getty Images
Mamoon Durrani/AFP/Getty Images

In the late summer of 2001, I traveled to northern Afghanistan on assignment for National Geographic to meet with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and the last remaining opposition figure of any significance to the Taliban. I had known Massoud since 1981 and was hoping to interview him in depth about why he had persevered through more than 20 years of fighting, first against the Soviets, then Islamic extremists, and now the Taliban. But no one knew where he was or when he would arrive. The desert winds were too strong for his helicopter to come in, I was told.

I settled in at Massoud’s main commander base, in the dusty northern town of Khoja Bahauddin. I wasn’t the only reporter Massoud kept waiting; in the room next to mine at Massoud’s official guest house were two young Tunisian men who described themselves as TV journalists for a Middle Eastern network. I often tried to chat with them, but they were not very talkative and kept to themselves. They, too, wanted to interview Massoud, one of them told me in French.

After nearly a week in Khoja Bahauddin I gave up and returned to Europe. The Tunisians, however, opted to wait, and paid the young Foreign Ministry official responsible for keeping Massoud’s schedule $2,000 to ensure a meeting. Their persistence paid off, and on Sept. 9 they were finally granted an audience with the commander — at which point they detonated the explosives concealed in their camera and battery pack, killing one of themselves, Massoud, and the man whom they had bribed into arranging the interview. 

The attack, orchestrated by al Qaeda as a kind of thank-you gift to its Taliban hosts two days before the 9/11 attacks, was a portent of the next chapter in Afghanistan’s modern tragedy. But Massoud was hardly alone in his misfortune. Assassinations have been a mainstay of Afghan politics for all of the more than three decades I have been reporting on the country. In the past week the tactic has resurfaced with a vengeance, beginning with the shooting of Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother and a power broker of legendary stature in Kandahar province, by a bodyguard on July 12. Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal narrowly escaped assassination himself en route to Karzai’s funeral, and more than a dozen people — including an influential local cleric — died in a suicide bombing at a subsequent memorial service at a Kandahar mosque. And on July 17, Jan Mohammed Khan, an important ally of President Karzai, was shot dead in his home in Kabul.

These were only the latest and most high profile of dozens of assassinations in the past two years of pro-government leaders, warlords, tribal chiefs, and commanders, killings that threaten to undermine what’s left of the nearly decade-old recovery process in Afghanistan. Unable to trust its own Afghan security forces, the leadership in Kabul has embraced a stifling compound mentality, building ever-higher security walls and developing a debilitating overreliance on private military contractors and mercenaries for protection. This steady alienation from realities on the ground and what ordinary Afghans think is proving one of the most serious drawbacks to Western-backed recovery efforts, which have had only limited impact on the country. Fearful of assassination, President Karzai — who has survived at least three known attempts against his life since taking office in 2002 — is increasingly isolating himself in the name of security from a population that, disaffected by unending war and corruption, badly needs a visible and confidence-inspiring leader.

But though Karzai’s paranoia may be politically disastrous, it is certainly justified by recent Afghan history. Three former Afghan presidents and prime ministers — Mohammed Daoud Khan, Nur Muhammad Taraki, and Hafizullah Amin — were killed under brutal circumstances in the late 1970s. During the Soviet war of the 1980s, both the Afghan resistance and the pro-Moscow forces indulged in mutual assassination of guerrilla commanders, government officials, and tribal leaders. Getting rid of prominent commanders or public figures in this manner was often considered more effective than actually facing one’s enemies in battle.

The KGB and, later, the Afghan secret police under President Mohammad Najibullah of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) sought to assassinate Massoud on at least three occasions with hired killers; it was only Massoud’s thorough infiltration of the senior echelons of the Kabul-based communist administration and armed forces that kept him alive by always remaining one or two steps ahead of the Soviets. Another leading guerrilla commander, Abdul Haq, specialized in urban warfare in and around the capital, including the assassination of pro-government figures. Much of Haq’s intelligence was provided by collaborators working with the Soviets and PDPA forces.

The spy-versus-spy killings of the Soviet years informed the strategies of the civil wars and insurgencies that followed. The Taliban employed similar tactics during the 1990s, surreptitiously paying Northern Alliance commanders to kill or otherwise undermine their fellow fighters. Several of Massoud’s key commanders in the western part of the country changed sides or disappeared with their pockets full of cash to Dubai or Abu Dhabi after being bought off. Others were simply shot dead by hired assassins. Such targeted killings and the mistrust they engendered were far more effective in subverting Massoud’s opposition than actually confronting the seasoned guerrilla leader in combat.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an American- and Pakistani-supported mujahed leader who murdered hundreds of political opponents and commanders in the 1980s (and killed tens of thousands in his indiscriminate shelling of Kabul in the 1990s) is believed to have been behind many of the bombs and assassinations over the past seven or eight years. His cohorts have thoroughly infiltrated the Afghan administration, including the military, police, and armed militia, ensuring that full loyalty toward the Karzai government or the coalition forces can never be assumed.

But beyond inducing near-universal paranoia among prominent Afghans, the country’s 30-odd years of war-by-assassination have left an even more problematic legacy: They have robbed the country of virtually anyone who might be able to guide it out of its troubles.

By the time of his death in 2001, Massoud, an ethnic Tajik from the north, was one of few Afghans left with a proven ability to lead his country, a devout Muslim and a political moderate with a firm vision for the future based on democracy and equal rights for women. Most who followed in his wake were considerably lesser talents. When the U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2001, Hamid Karzai — himself the son of an assassinated tribal leader — could claim little political experience beyond his tenure as a PR representative for an ex-resistance politician. But the only other viable candidate for president, Abdul Haq, was killed in October 2001 when he crossed over from Pakistan to Afghanistan on a mission to try to negotiate with the Taliban. (Haq’s brother, an important Karzai aide, met a similar fate three years later.)

A decade later, the Taliban’s own leadership has been decimated by the U.S.-led campaign of drone strikes and Special Forces raids. Ironically, the highly successful effort to kill off midlevel commanders has managed to wipe out the very people who need to be engaged in any future negotiated peace process. Such figures, whether Taliban or local insurgent leaders, some of whom have already indicated that they are tired of conflict, are now being replaced by a far younger and more radical swell of commanders, many of them in their early 20s. Often born or trained on the Pakistani side of the border with little sense of Pashtunwali, the traditional Pashtun tribal code of honor, they are proving far more hard-line and ruthless than their predecessors.

In Afghanistan, assassination is not always a political affair, though the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami, the Haqqani network, and other insurgents are often quick to claim responsibility. The killings often emerge from a far more complicated web of tribal vendettas; local grievances; disputes over narcotics, timber trafficking, and access to lucrative Western contracts; and, in at least a few cases, spats within the government itself.

Whatever the assassins’ motives, the deaths are taking their toll on Karzai’s regime, even in areas once thought to be relatively stable. The recent spate of assassinations has claimed the lives of northern security chief Mohammed Daoud Daoud and Takhar province’s police chief, two key Karzai allies based in areas where the insurgents have previously operated only on a limited basis. Meanwhile, the steady rise in the assassination of tribal leaders, who serve as the eyes and the ears of the Kabul government, is now denying the authorities a sense of what is happening on the ground.

The killings suggest that the Afghan president commands slim chances for long-term survival. Every time he ventures out in public, Karzai risks his life by making himself a target for the next assassin or suicide bomber. Traveling to Kandahar for his half brother’s funeral may have been courageous, but it also required shutting down half the city — and even so, the mosque bombing could easily have killed him had he been in attendance.

But cowering behind the walls of the presidential palace is not an option. Karzai’s political survival depends on making himself available to all Afghans in a culture where personal ties remain paramount. If he is to bring an end to Afghanistan’s interminable wars, Karzai needs to be able to break bread with an array of armed opponents, not all of whom can simply be branded as "the Taliban." To hide would only be a sign of weakness in a country that extols physical bravery.

If Karzai seems fatalistic in considering this dilemma, he is hardly the first. When I last met with Abdul Haq in the late 1990s, several years before his death, the Taliban were sweeping across the country. Disillusioned, Haq had put down his rifle and left Afghanistan to start an import-export business in the Persian Gulf. Meeting him across the border in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, I asked Haq whether he ever planned to return to his country. Laughing, Haq told me that he would have no problem doing so — but that he would probably be killed when he did. "I have killed too many people myself," he told me, "and Afghans don’t forget this."

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