Tale of the Taliban Bomber: Behind the Plot to Kill Afghanistan’s Spy Chief

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SHAH MARAI / AFP / Getty Images

An Afghan policeman stands guard near the site of a Taliban suicide bomber attack at a spy agency guesthouse in Kabul on Dec. 6, 2012.

For Asadullah Khalid, the morning of Dec. 6 — the day the Taliban tried to kill him — was as routine as any other. Dressed in an embroidered beige shirt, Kabul’s recently-appointed intelligence chief signed papers and reviewed the interior design of the new office he intended to occupy. Then, he left for a lunch meeting in one of his agency’s guesthouses in the Afghan capital. But during the meeting he was critically wounded by his Taliban interlocutor, who had been carrying about 2.5 kgs of explosives in his underwear. Khalid was flown to the U.S. air base in Bagram a few hours after the attack. He regained consciousness the next day, but requires several additional operations after suffering serious abdominal injuries.

At a fraught moment, dark questions circle. Afghan officials claim the attack was planned across the border in Pakistan; the Pakistanis have retorted, saying Afghanistan needs to do a better job resolving its perennial security woes. A cloud now hangs over scheduled meetings this week in Ankara between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart President Asif Zardari—Khalid, indeed, had been slated to fly to Turkey to attend the talks.

Asadullah Khalid during a press conference in Kandahar, Afghanistan on 17 Sept. 2005.

BANARAS KHAN / AFP / Getty Images

Asadullah Khalid during a press conference in Kandahar, Afghanistan on 17 Sept. 2005.

In hindsight, Khalid was a prime target for the Taliban, whose leadership has long been ensconced across the border in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Unlike many of his peers who have fought the Islamist militants, Khalid is an ethnic Pashtun who commands considerable stature and support in the southern Pashtun heartlands where the Taliban hold the most sway. Further north, he has the respect and backing of many other factions in Afghanistan’s fractious political landscape. Charismatic with a savvy military mind, Khalid was known, not uncontroversially, to do things his way during eight years as governor of two key Afghan provinces — Ghazni and Kandahar — and then as a cabinet minister in Karzai’s government. Some say it was his self-confidence bordering on recklessness that nearly got him killed on Dec. 6.

What else explains why Afghanistan’s intelligence chief would make himself so vulnerable to a Taliban attack? Despite having a reputation of being vehemently anti-Taliban, Khalid, as Karzai’s intelligence chief, had to show support for the government’s policy of prioritizing peace with the militant group.

Moreover, an approach from an emissary of the Taliban in Quetta would have seemed to him personal vindication of his supposed recent efforts to target the Taliban leadership. Mullah Sayyid Ahmad Shahid Khel, a senior Taliban official believed to be responsible for planning the suicide bomb-assassination of Afghanistan’s deputy intelligence chief in 2009, was gunned down in Quetta in November. Karzai rejected media reports then implicating Khalid in the killing across the border.

Despite being new to his post, Khalid has been directly overseeing the security of southern Afghanistan and the borderlands with Pakistan for over a year and half now. And his vast network there dates even further — when he was governor of Kandahar, between 2005 and 2008. As governor, he often personally participated in battles against the Taliban, which led U.S. diplomats to write in cables leaked by Wikileaks that Khalid had a “tendency to focus on security at the cost of governance and development issues.” The success of his reign in the insurgency’s heartland did not lie in his ability to build roads or protect schools, but in the enemy body counts he amassed — or, at least, claimed credit for. One day in May 2007, Khalid called reporters to his gubernatorial palace in Kandahar and displayed the body of the Taliban’s fearsome deputy. Laid out on a stretcher and covered in pink sheets, the one-legged Mullah Dadullah — still wearing a shoe on his intact leg — had been killed in neighboring Helmand province. The fact that the body was displayed triumphantly instead by Khalid spoke volumes of how his rule and reach extended far beyond official bounds—and with the blessing of the president, who had grown increasingly close to him over the years.

During his governorship, Canadian diplomats also accused him of torturing prisoners and running a dungeon under his private residence. Khalid has denied these accusations. The Afghan Human Rights commission also exonerated him before his parliamentary confirmation, saying there was no evidence behind the allegations of torture.

Even after taking over the intelligence agency, Khalid frequently drove around without bodyguards. While the streets to the houses of two former security ministers are both barricaded, there was still no check post in front of Khalid’s home three months into his assignment. Visitors would simply knock on the door. On a recent trip two-hour drive to an eastern province to check out the scene where nine suicide bombers had blown themselves up, Khalid was accompanied by only two bodyguards. In October, after a suicide attack killed 41 in northern Faryab province, Khalid was dispatched to secure the area for the president to visit the victims. Late in the night, he was told that General Dostum, a fearsome northern strongman, was approaching the city with some 200 of his armed guards. Khalid, with only one aide at his side, drove to Dostum and convinced him not to enter the city.

According to sources close to Khalid, the man who tried to kill him sported a thick dark beard and shaggy hair. He was given a new set of clothes to change into in a bathroom manned with surveillance cameras – a precautionary measure to detect explosives or weapons on his body. The loophole, some suggest, could be that social mores meant the camera only filmed from above shoulder height. Others say it was a sign of a larger systemic problem.

“They had no file on the guy [the Taliban emissary] and his background, yet they convinced the highest intelligence official that he was so important only he should talk to him,” says a former security official. The emissary should have been kept under surveillance “in an exhaustive environment” so that his secret intentions would have become clear before he could take any lives.

Khalid was accompanied in the room by a close confidant of his. Conflicting narratives suggest that both men – Khalid and his confidant – had left the room at least once during the meeting. The confidant, who received less-threatening injuries, had walked out to answer a call, while Khalid had followed an aide who was returning lunch dishes to the kitchen. The assassin was most likely not sure which one of the two individuals in the room was the intelligence chief, sources say. They had only spoken on the phone before. Khalid and his confidant both have similar builds and speak a similar accent of Pashto, several sources who have met both men say. When the confidant returned from his phone call and announced that he had to leave, Khalid got up to convince him he should stay a few minutes and they can leave together. The assassin got nervous that he might miss his target and detonated his explosives. Khalid lives, but his aura of invulnerability went up in smoke.