In Afghanistan, targeted attacks on leaders an ominous trend
Los Angeles Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — Tamim Nuristani used to own a pizza chain in California. Now he’s a marked man in Afghanistan.
This month, insurgents ambushed the provincial governor’s convoy in northeastern Afghanistan, sparking a fierce battle that pinned down his entourage for the night. When the motorcade tried to move in the morning, the assailants struck again. Miraculously, all those in the convoy survived.
It was not the first attempt on Nuristani’s life; he did not expect it to be the last. Not long ago, security forces discovered and defused a remote-controlled explosive device apparently meant for him, and a defecting Taliban fighter told officials that he had been personally tasked with assassinating the Nuristan governor.
“Based on the intelligence reports we receive, myself, the police chief, the provincial head of intelligence and a lawmaker from Nuristan are high on the list of targets,” Nuristani said. “But I will do my best to keep serving my country.”
Taliban and other insurgent groups have long targeted Afghan government officials and community leaders. But this month has seen an extraordinary spate of assassinations and attempted assassinations of public figures, raising the specter of many more such killings as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force here begins its troop drawdown in earnest.
Over a span of four days beginning July 13, a provincial women’s affairs chief in eastern Afghanistan was killed by a car bomb; the mayor of a western town was gunned down on the way home from evening prayers; a prominent member of parliament was slain in a suicide attack that also killed 18 others at festivities for his daughter’s wedding; a district police chief in Kandahar was killed in a drive-by shooting; a Cabinet minister and another provincial governor escaped uninjured when their motorcade was bombed; and a district chief in northern Kunduz province hopped out of his vehicle to shop — just before the car blew up.
The latest jolt came Sunday, when the governor of Chak district in Wardak province, Mohammad Ismail Wafa, was shot to death by assailants. His young son died with him. And the Muslim holy month of Ramadan proved no protection for a prominent imam in Oruzgan province: He was killed Monday by a bomb outside his mosque.
Authorities are uncertain whether the recent drumbeat of attacks represents a coordinated campaign by a single group or if the strikes were unrelated actions by disparate militant organizations — or even whether internal power struggles were at play.
Either way, the seeming open season on Afghan public servants represents an ominous trend as the NATO force hands over more security responsibilities to the Afghan police and army, while simultaneously trying to build public confidence in all levels of the Afghan government.
“What better way to undermine government power than by killing the Afghan leadership?” asked Brig. Roger Noble, an Australian serving as a senior military operations officer with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. At a recent shura, or consultative session with tribal elders, he said, the most urgent request was for more support for vulnerable district officials.
Ramadan, which began Friday, could prove particularly perilous, because politicians and dignitaries are expected to mingle with crowds of constituents at the daily iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daytime fast observed by devout Muslims. And the Taliban has vowed no letup in violence during the time of fasting and prayer.
The latest series of killings and attacks was unusual in that it was largely concentrated in Afghanistan’s north, a region that is mainly populated by ethnic minorities with a more pronounced grassroots distaste for the Taliban than is seen in the predominantly Pashtun south and east, historically the war’s main battlegrounds.
Some non-Taliban insurgent groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Pakistani-based organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have made inroads in the north in recent years. And the security situation is complicated by internecine tensions among some former comrades in arms from the Northern Alliance, the U.S.-backed militia that helped drive the Taliban from power.
Some northern strongmen have reportedly been stockpiling weapons in advance of a potential power vacuum when Western combat troops depart, or in the event of a peace pact with the Taliban, which most of them strongly oppose.
The wedding hall blast in Samangan province that killed the father of the bride, well-connected lawmaker Ahmad Khan Samangani, swiftly gave rise to a rash of conspiracy theories about his rivalries with other northern power brokers.
But the Samangan police chief, Gen. Khalil Andarabi, blamed what he described as an al-Qaida-linked faction assembled by the late Mullah Amir Gul, a onetime Taliban shadow governor in the province who also once served in the Afghan army.
The Taliban movement, made up of sometimes-quarreling factions and with fluid and shifting alliances with other militant organizations, has claimed responsibility for some of the recent attacks, including the one against Nuristani. But its leadership has disavowed responsibility for others, such as the July 13 car bombing that killed Hanifa Safi, a respected women’s rights advocate in Laghman province.
Although Taliban fighters have repeatedly targeted and threatened women’s activists, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid — disingenuously, perhaps — suggested that “personal enmity” might lie behind Safi’s murder. No arrests have yet been made in her death, which brought an outpouring of grief and anger from the community, including many conservative male tribal elders.
“The people who commit these despicable acts are enemies of peace and security,” said a Laghman provincial spokesman, Sarhadi Zewak. “They don’t care who they kill — men or women, tribal elders or government officials. Their targets are simply anyone who is working for the betterment of this country.”
Los Angeles Times special correspondents Hashmat Baktash and Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.