Dozens of people have been killed and injured in a suicide attack on a wedding party in Samangan province. Among those killed was the father of the bride, the MP and former commander, Ahmad Khan Samangani, at least one of his sons and at least four other senior security and political officials. As this blog was posted, there had yet been no credible claim of responsibility. However, says AAN’s Kate Clark, Ahmad Khan’s background – as one of the most significant northern commanders fighting the Taleban during the late 1990s and early 2000s and as someone who still had clout in the province – made him, at the least, a potential attractive target for insurgents.
It appears that Ahmad Khan Samangani was greeting wedding guests when one of them, at the moment of embracing the father of the bride, detonated a bomb. The suicide attacker, apparently acting alone, killed more than a dozen people and injured more than forty (according to this statement from the president’s office). Among the other notables killed were the provincial head of the intelligence service, the NDS, Engineer (corrected from ‘General, 16 July 2012) Muhammad Khan, the police commander for western Afghanistan (606 Ansar Regional Command), Sayed Ahmad Sameh(1) and the head of training for the Afghan National Army in Balkh province Muhammadullah. One of the Balkh MPs, Eshaq Rahgozar, was wounded, as was the former Sar-e Pul governor, Sayed Iqbal Munib. According to reports, Balkh’s governor Atta Muhammad was on the way to the wedding, too, but escaped because he was late.
To kill so many senior officials with a single attack is rare, particularly in the north. To compare this with similar operations in the north one would have to look back to the killing of General Daud, security commander for the northern zone, in 2011, and the suicide attack on the sugar factory in Baghlan in 2007, in which six parliamentarians were killed and dozens of school children were injured. This then was a significant attack.
A Taleban denial only appears to have been carried on one news agency, Reuters. Their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, in a widely-carried quote said, ‘Ahmad Khan was a former commander of the mujahedin, he was notorious and many people could have had problems with him.’ AAN found Mujahed’s phone switched off and the lack of even one other independent source makes this denial unsafe.
Moreover, even if the denial firms up, it is not uncommon for the Taleban to deny attacks on such a soft target where many innocent people are killed – attacks which blatantly contravene the movement’s own code of conduct and could easily result in adverse political fall-out. (For other examples, see earlier AAN reporting here and here [pp 19-20]). This (single source) denial cannot yet be taken, therefore, at face value.
What is clear is that Samangani in his own right and regardless of his high profile guests would have been a significant enough target for insurgents. After 9/11, commanders in their droves claimed to have been fighting the Taleban. Samangani was one of those whose claim was accurate. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as a Jombesh commander, he fought the Taleban tenaciously and against the odds. He was based in Darra-e Suf district of Samangan, which was then partly occupied by the Taleban and suffered aerial bombing by the their air-force, which attacked military and civilian targets alike, destroying much of Darra-e Suf town and even bombing civilians who had fled into the mountains. The conditions were incredibly difficult; there was severe drought in the final two years of the conflict, a Taleban blockade of humanitarian supplies (which eased only occasionally) and with everyone rightly fearing civilian massacres if the Taleban seized ground.
Like everyone else, Samangani’s forces were hard-pressed and short of ammunition and weapons but the accusation at the time was that there was also deliberate starving of materiel by the Northern Alliance command because of a rift between Samangani and the better connected, and also prominent and militarily active, Jamiat commander, Ustad Atta Muhammad Nur – who is now the governor of Balkh.
By this point in the conflict, Samangani had been fighting for two decades. He was the son of a prominent feudal family and, in 1979, was serving as a conscript in the Afghan army when the Soviet Union invaded. One friend said he was on duty at the Darulaman Palace in west Kabul when Soviet commandos attacked and murdered the then communist president, Hafizullah Amin. The story is that Samangani fought the commandos, survived but was arrested and when he was eventually released, went home to join the jihad. He started off with Jamiat, only switching to Jombesh, along with most other Uzbek commanders, in the early 1990s when the Afghan war became ethnicised.
After 2001, Samangani’s career became more chequered. Up until at least 2004, he was still the major player, after Dostum and Atta and Mohaqqeq, in the north. As the star of his party boss, Dostum, waned in the years after 2001, he fell into the Karzai orbit and positioned himself against Dostum. In May 2007, he suffered an ambush of his car and assassination attempt, which left his body guard and driver dead, but which he survived. Samangani denounced Dostum and various local pro-Dostum Jombeshis – in fact, the six members of the provincial Third Party Congress organising committee. The six were immediately arrested. But they were subsequently released and it remained unclear who had killed Samangani’s body guard and driver. Many concluded the ambush had been staged by Samangani himself to try to frame Dostum.
In 2008, after, it seems, being pro-Karzai had brought few benefits, there was a ‘grand reconciliation’ between Dostum and Samangani and other estranged Jombesh figures. In 2009, after campaigning for Karzai first, Samangani backed Dr Abdullah in the presidential elections. According to Jombesh Deputy Chairman and former MP, Faizullah Zaki, Samangani and Dostum had met only recently and the two had goodwill for each other.
Samangani was himself ‘voted’ into parliament twice, the second time, like most other MPs, under such opaque circumstances that few conclusions can be drawn about his local popularity or not. (For reporting on the machinations, see here, here and here.
Not everyone was complimentary about Samangani following his death today. His fellow Samangan MP, Makhdum Abdulillah Muhammadi, was scathing, telling AAN that he was uneducated and that there were ‘murder cases against him at the Attorney General’s office, but that he was so powerful the Attorney General could not touch him.’ The background to these allegations lies in the bitter and ugly intra-mujahedin conflicts during the jihad in the north which pitched Jamiat against Harakat and Uzbeks against Hazaras and during which many fighters were indeed killed. Later, there was also the Jamiat-Jombesh rift. After 2001, during the settling of scores, there are credible allegations that Samangani ordered targeted killings of a number of rival commanders whom he felt had stood against him during the Taleban period.
The gravity of these allegations should not be minimised. But it is also important to put them in context. The commander network, for example of his critic and fellow MP Muhammadi who, in 2009, inherited the parliamentary seat of his more famous father, Mawlawi Islam (who had been assassinated himself in January 2007 in Kabul), killed teachers, engineers and school students and forcibly married widows and other women during the jihad, served with the Taleban when they were in power, with Mawlawi Islam becoming a provincial governor and, post-2001, closed schools and kidnapped teachers (in 2002), detained locals in a private prison and were involved in one prominent case of gang rape (in 2005). In other words, Samangani was a long way from being the most notorious commander in the north.
Yet, like almost all of the commanders who were or positioned themselves in 2001 as anti-Taleban and pro-the US intervention, Samangani did well in the post-Taleban era. He remained a powerful political figure with an undoubted capacity to mobilise armed men – if and when that would ever have been deemed necessary.
(amendment on 15 July): The assassination of Ahmad Khan Samangani was preceded by three other incidents targeting government officials, and another case appened on the same day: on 12 July, Hanifa Safi, head of the women’s affairs department of Laghman province was killed by a car bomb (which also injured her husband and daughter and six other civilians in Mehtarlam city). The following day, the mayor of Shindand, in Herat province, Abdul Salam was assassinated, reportedly, by a motorcyclist who shot him while he was on his way home from the mosque after evening prayers. On 14 July, the police chief of Kandahar’s district 14 was killed by, reportedly, another drive-by shooting. On 9 July, Ghazni’s provincial chief prosecutor Sayed Sahar Gul was killed. And on 15 July, Obaidullah Obaid, the minister of education, survived an IED attack against his convoy (in which also Baghlan’s governor Munshi Majid was traveling) when driving from Baghlan to Kunduz.
(1) In the presidential statement Sameh was recorded as injured. The deputy provincial police commander told AAN he subsequently died of his injuries.
Photo by Khaama Press.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020