Another two deaths in Afghanistan . . . but ones that have a personal meaning for me.
Thanks to great help from a fantastic NGO, The Liaison Office, I was able to meet Jan Mohammed Khan. This week he died, at the place where I last saw him.
This piece tries to encapsulate some of the questions his assassination raises . . .
A mess of ambition and destruction
The drive out to suburb of Karti Char, in western Kabul, doesn't take long – but it's an entire world away from the well-defended Embassy belt in the centre of town. Back there, Western diplomats seem to make sense as they expound their strategies for reconstruction over a coffee in the international zone; it's a very different matter, however, when you're sipping green tea in the outer edge of the capital surrounded by guards armed with AK-47s.
When, back in 2001, the US decided to invade Afghanistan it found a local ally in the warlord Jan Mohammed Khan. He was smart, armed to the teeth, and understood exactly which way the wind was blowing. He'd long been an associate of Hamid Karzai, the man America had, early on, decided to throw its weight behind. Based in Uruzgan, Khan mobilised his forces and was clever enough to ensure that, while other rebels attacked minor targets, he was the one to capture the governor's compound. He swiftly established himself as the new authority in the province. There were stories about how he managed to make sure no one challenged the new ruler, too., Like the one about how he tied the bodies of captured Taliban to the back of his pick-up and drove it round and rounduntil the bloody mess that remained was finally cut down and left for dead in the centre of Tarin Khot. There are other stories too, but perhaps it's better not to go there.
No one dared to cross him. But then, in 2005, the Dutch came. By 2007 Khan was still an important person in the province – his nephew is still in charge of the roads throughout the province – but he'd lost some of his direct power. He'd been ousted from the governorship, although he was weaving new spells in the quickly changing political climate of Kabul. Although he didn't hold any official positions, that didn't mean that he was irrelevant. It quickly became obvious to any observers that it was going to be impossible to find a solution to the insurgency in Uruzgan without his involvement.
That's why, a couple of months ago, I set out to meet the warlord. By the time we turned off the main highway out of Kabul we were bumping along on the badly rutted road at less than 5 km an hour. The tottering remains of apartment blocks, built back in the Soviet time, flanked the roads. The decaying concrete was barely being held together by fragile rods of iron; it might have snapped at any minute. Finally, we pulled up in front of our destination.
To describe it as a mansion doesn't do it justice. Eight soaring Corinthian columns, flecked with gold capitals, adorned the facade. A marble staircase led up to the double door, and a wide corridor opened to a receiving room that could have doubled as a ballroom. It was a huge “Poppy Palace", built out of aid money that had been siphoned off by corrupt officials and then given as offerings to the warlord. There was, of course, a ritual to undergo before we were admitted to Khan's presence.
The car had pulled up under the nose of a heavy machine gun, which followed myself and my translator as we exited the car. Then we were frisked, quickly, by the security detail sitting in the sandbagged bunker at the front of the building. But unlike some searches, however, this seemed to be a cursory, almost casual examination. Almost as if to demonstrate that although Khan possessed his share of enemies, he also possessed enough power to make sure they would not dare to attack him.
Then, after the audience was over, Khan accompanied me back to the car, his single eye twinkling in the spring sun. He thrust into my hand a note containing eleven names written in Arabic. “These people" he whispered hoarsely, while stroking my hand, “these people are the shadows. They are the leaders of the insurgency. Unless they are removed NATO will never win this insurgency." I nodded and drove off. The names glowed from the torn page. I had no doubt they were all enemies of Khan: people he wanted removed. That didn't mean, of course, that they were Taliban. The trouble was as soon as you left the clean lines marked out by the international forces, allegiance meant nothing. These Afghans just wanted to survive. We thought we were speaking the same language, but the words possessed very different meanings.
Two days ago, on that very same patch of dusty road, two heavily-armed assassins attacked. It appears Khan had left the house, just as he had done with me, to farewell another significant Uruzgan lawmaker, Mohammed Ashim Watanwal. Both men died quickly in a flurry of bullets as their attackers charged forwards. The suddenly surprised guards killed one. His mission achieved, the other quickly fled up the stairs and through the reception room, barricading himself at the top of the mansion. It took hours before he finally detonated his suicide belt.
The front page of The Australian yesterday asserted that Khan's death was “a boost for Taliban". That's a brave call. Experts in Afghanistan aren't at all sure if that claim is true. Khan had been as much a thorn in the side of the NATO forces as he had been of assistance to them and that, of course, is the problem: the frontline is so mixed up and muddied that it is well nigh impossible to determine who is fighting who, let alone why. Was Khan targeted because his security had slipped, making him vulnerable? Or was he killed simply to make sure that everyone realised Karzai can't even control the streets of the capital?
We’ve all heard how the Western forces have adapted end I’m now using new strategies to defeat the insurgency. Unfortunately, the Taliban have also adapted their tactics. Yesterday, former army commander Lieutenant General (now Professor) Peter Leahy, urged a rethink of our deployment to Afghanistan. Khan’s death shows we can’t put this off any longer.