Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh survived yet another assassination attempt early morning on September 9 when a roadside bomb targeted his convoy while he was on way to his office in Kabul. Mr Saleh escaped with slight burns on his hand. A couple of his guards were injured. But nearly a dozen people were killed in the bomb blast. With the Taliban quick to deny any involvement in the attack, the needle of suspicion is falling on the Haqqani Network which, notwithstanding the propaganda space given to it’s leader by the New York Times, remains not just a “veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency” but also maintains close links with the Al Qaeda.
The timing of the attack on Mr Saleh is critical. Coming as it does on the eve of the much anticipated intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha, the attack appears to be aimed at removing from the scene a man who is seen as a big obstacle to the Taliban using the talks to march into untrammelled power in Kabul. Interestingly, nineteen years ago to the day – September 9, 2001 – the Lion of Panjsher, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was leading the last remaining resistance to the Taliban capture of Afghanistan was assassinated by two Al Qaeda assassins. Two days later, 9/11 happened and the world changed. After nearly two decades another opponent of the Taliban has been targeted, but this time unsuccessfully.
The attack appears to be aimed at removing from the scene a man who is seen as a big obstacle to the Taliban using the talks to march into untrammelled power in Kabul.
This is of course not the first time Mr Saleh has faced an assassination attempt. Last year, when he was standing for elections as the running mate of President Ashraf Ghani, a massive car bomb exploded outside his political headquarters. A squad of suicide attackers then stormed the office but Mr Saleh and his men fought back and eliminated the terrorists in the fire-fight that followed. Clearly, his enemies are quite desperate to get rid of him at any cost. The Pakistanis in particular froth at the mouth every time anyone so much as mentions Mr Saleh’s name. In fact his removal as the chief of the Afghan intelligence agency NDS in 2010 – ostensibly he resigned taking responsibility for a security breach, but the resignation was really the outcome of his growing differences with President Karzai on the issue of negotiations with the Taliban – is believed to have been a peace offering made to the Pakistanis to pave the way for pushing forward the reconciliation process.
Mr Saleh has for long been a thorn in the flesh of the Pakistani military establishment and intelligence agencies. He understands the Pakistanis like few other people do, and has a knack for getting under their skin by his no holds barred calling out of Pakistan's double game in Afghanistan. He has even accused Pakistan of patronising and propping up the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Unlike the Americans and their Western allies who have tried to appease the Pakistanis in the mistaken belief that this will encourage them to end their support to and export of Taliban terrorism, Mr Saleh has never pulled his punches in exposing the Pakistanis and not giving them any quarter. For instance, he was always adamant that Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan and once he even had a slanging match with the Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf on this issue. He has not only been a trenchant critic of the Taliban but has also been extremely sceptical about anything coming out of the dialogue with the radical Islamists. In a recent interview, he said that the negotiations with the Taliban will be “one of the most difficult peace negotiations of history” and added that “a lot of blood has been shed and a lot of divisions have been created. Overcoming these divisions will not be easy”.
Saleh understands the Pakistanis like few other people do, and has a knack for getting under their skin by his no holds barred calling out of Pakistan's double game in Afghanistan
In a way, Mr Saleh has been emerging as a standout figure in Afghanistan by his consistent and unwavering opposition to the Taliban. At a time when most other political figures and influential war-lords seem ready to make their peace with the Taliban, Mr Saleh hasn’t budged from his stand on the Taliban, or for that matter their masters – Pakistan. In a sense, he is becoming a sort of magnet for people who have absolutely no illusions about the Taliban. Although he has never been a towering political figure in Afghanistan, there is a chance that he could emerge as someone behind whom anti-Taliban forces rally as and when things start going south.
In recent days, he has once again managed to really rile up the Pakistanis by questioning the Durand line. Just two days before this latest attack on him, he tweeted: “No Afghan politician of national stature can overlook the issue of Durand Line. It will condemn him or her in life & after life. It is an issue which needs discussions & resolution. Expecting us to gift it for free is un-realistic. Peshawar used to be the winter capital of Afg”. This was literally showing the red rag to the Pakistanis and at the same time challenging the Taliban to state their stand on the issue. What is more, it was also a way to reach out to sections of the Pashtun population in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, which have always questioned the legitimacy of the Durand line. Although the former US State Department point person for South Asia, Alice Wells, questioned the raising of the Durand Line issue, the audience it was aimed at lapped it up.
On the same day he raked up Durand Line, Mr Saleh also took another pot-shot at the Pakistanis when he tweeted: “Pak has come out of denial & is openly saying they are harboring the Taliban. This clarity despite being bitter is a development which can be utilized in benefit of peace prcss. I had a candid discussions with Gen. Bajwa & ISI drctr when they visited Afg. Keep Pak engaged 4 peace”. The “candid discussions” he had with the Pakistani generals was in June when the Pakistan Army Chief and ISI chief had visited Kabul. But Mr Saleh tweeting about it three months later in the context of the Pakistanis admitting harbouring the Taliban clearly suggests that he was conveying something to the Pakistanis. In recent months, there has been a spike in militant attacks in Pakistan's tribal districts which has been causing a lot of concern to the Pakistanis who have blamed Indian and Afghan intelligence for the uptick in violence. Could there be a linkage between all these developments and the latest attempt to assassinate Mr Saleh?
In recent months, there has been a spike in militant attacks in Pakistan's tribal districts which has been causing a lot of concern to the Pakistanis who have blamed Indian and Afghan intelligence for the uptick in violence. Could there be a linkage between all these developments and the latest attempt to assassinate Mr Saleh?
While there will be the usual pro forma condemnatory statements and denials by the usual suspects – Pakistan, Taliban, and their aligned terror proxies as well as their collaborators within the Afghan state and interlocutors outside the Afghan state – the spin that this attack was the handiwork of ‘spoilers’ is really nothing more than an attempt to deflect focus from the perpetrators and planners of the attack. If anything, this attack was carried out to ensure that the ‘peace talks’ go the way its procreators and proponents want it to go – the Taliban way. Amrullah is in some ways the last man standing in the way. Like his leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, he has to be gotten rid off if Afghanistan has to be handed safely to the Taliban and resistance against Pakistan has to be snuffed out. It is therefore only a matter of time before the next attempt is made on his life.
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