The goal of the attack on Tirinkot on 31 July, said the Taleban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, was ‘to make the government collapse.’ Those actually killed by the Taleban were not ‘the government’ but mainly civilians, including three women and the BBC/Pajhwok journalist, Ahmed Omaid Khpalwak. But the attack could easily have resulted in the killing of yet another senior figure, Matiullah, nephew of the recently assassinated former governor Jan Mohammad and another Karzai loyalist, strongman and ‘friend’ of the western military. Senior AAN analyst, Kate Clark looks at the impact on government and politics of the targeted killing of senior Afghans over the last few months (with additional reporting from Enayat Najafizada in Mazar-e Sharif).
Like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the power of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf far outweighs his, rather minor, official role as one of Kabul’s MPs. Ustad Sayyaf is one of the president’s most trusted advisors and has huge influence among former jihadi commanders, the judiciary and the security sector. A series of credible threats in recent months following an attempt on his life last year, has meant that for the last two months, he has only rarely been out of his home in Paghman. He has stopped coming to the parliament, to his private university, Pohantun-e Dawat, in west Kabul, has stopped appearing on his private TV channel, TV Dawat and, locals say, has even stopped attending Friday prayers. Visitors are being tightly screened by his own beefed up security guard and fewer are being allowed to attend on him.
We asked Sayyaf’s office for a comment on whether this was affecting his capacity to do politics, but none was forthcoming. Locals, however, say he is adapting and that senior figures are now trekking out to Paghman to see him. Those coming to see the Ustad, they say, include MPs, ministers and even the president.
In a country where politics and business is overwhelmingly a face to face activity, patrons and leaders need to meet their supporters and supplicants. Ahmed Wali Karzai, in one of his last broadcast, interviews (with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet – listen to her report here), defended this way of doing business, with the patron intervening on behalf of clients with whomever mattered – in his case, from the president and the Americans downwards. ‘This is always the way the tradition is, that always between people and the government, there is someone who can connect them… This is the way our culture is, this is the way it is happening… when my brother was head of the tribe, and before him my father and before him, my grandfather…’
Doucet described how Ahmed Wali, the ‘King of Kandahar, ‘lives and works behind layers and layers of concrete blast walls, sandbags, and a private army of bodyguards,’ and how delegations arrive at his home. ‘Every problem,’ said Doucet, ‘comes through these doors. And this is the voice of the man they believe can solve their problems.’
Reducing the number of those coming with complaints or problems is one way to reduce the threat, but Ahmad Wali was not killed by a supplicant or stranger, but by one of his most trusted aides and that is frightening for the powerful: who among the inner circle can be trusted?
At the other end of the country, in Mazar-e Sharif, Wakil Mohmmad Ibrahim, an elder from Balkh district of Balkh province said he is no longer meeting Governor Atta as he used to. ‘We can’t see Governor Atta to discuss with him the problems in our villages. We heard he escaped many attempts on his life recently and that might be a reason why he is no longer seeing elders who have complaints which need solving.’
Two months ago, Ustad Atta’s old comrade and ally, General Daud, then head of police for the northern region, was assassinated. The killing was claimed by the Taleban – although like many claims, it could have been opportunistic. What matters is that it proved how even in a reasonably secure province like Takhar, nowhere is safe. Since then, locals say, the governor is rarely attending ceremonies and programmes in town, has reduced his meetings with ordinary people and is only rarely giving interviews to journalists. His spokesperson denied any change: ‘The Balkh Governor is meeting officials and local people as usual, but for sure we have tightened our security in order to prevent any possible threat… As you know there are threats for Governor but it doesn’t mean [they] affect his work…’ Not everyone is convinced: ‘If a governor can’t see someone,’ said Ibrahim, ‘then there is no government.’
Not every Afghan leader is staying at home. Last week, on 30 July, a major political meeting drew Yunes Qanuni, Amrullah Saleh, General Ulumi, Sima Samar and Ahmad Wali Massud among others to the many times bombed Safi Landmark hotel in Kabul. Nevertheless, the killings in recent months of Ahmed Wali Karzai, Jan Mohammad Khan, General Daud, General Seyyedkhel and the most recently killed, the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haidar Hamidi, have made some question how well protected they are and whether it can any longer be ‘business as normal.’
The Taleban’s campaign is reaching, not just the major figures – the loyal supporters of the president in the south and those actively fighting the Taleban in the north, but also deep into society. For the most part, those being assassinated by the Taleban are not so famous; they are tribal elders, intellectuals, mullahs, district administrators and workers who have far less capacity to protect themselves than Sayyaf or Atta and are deemed in some way to be against the Emirate. Beyond the killings themselves, this is a campaign to intimidate and terrorise.
The AIHRC registered some 400 assassinations countrywide in 2010. In Kandahar City alone, between early January and the end of April 2011, there were 40 targeted attacks against local dignitaries. 26 of them resulted in the death of at least one victim while in 14 other incidents, victims were wounded. Between 1 May and mid-July, 18 more such attacks were registered with 12 fatalities and six injuries. This is just the most recent phase of a 2 year long assassination campaign in the city, largely it is presumed, carried out by the Taleban, but other state and non-state actors, locals say, are also involved. As one Kandahari said, ‘you never know when someone calls if it will be bad news. It’s the uncertainty of these killings which is so difficult to live with. I’d rather the Taliban and the Americans just drew up frontlines across the city – at least the fighting would be out in the open between them.’
If the aim of the international forces’ tactic of Kill/Capture is to ‘degrade’ the Taleban, the mirror image of this tactic in what feels like a permanently escalating stalemate* is the Taleban’s own targeted killing campaigns which aim to damage and degrade the capacity of society to function and the state to rule.
*The phrase is ANSO’s: found in their latest quarterly report which can be accessed here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020