Sep 4, 2009
By M K Bhadrakumar
Like in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, the murder of Dr Abdullah Laghmani, the deputy head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, could have been foretold. But the sheer brutality of his murder by a suicide bomber in front of a mosque in the town of Mehtarlam in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday afternoon in the holy month of Ramadan speaks of a visceral hostility not easily fathomable.A self-styled Taliban spokesman promptly claimed responsibility. "We were looking for him for a long time, but today we succeeded." Commentators will no doubt rush to underscore that Laghmani's killing demonstrates the growing "sophistication" of Taliban operations. Indeed, Laghmani was a heavily guarded figure right in the sanctum sanctorum of the Kabul power structure. The first circle of the Afghan security establishment has beenbreached. High professionalism is the hallmark of the operation. However, there are wheels within wheels. At critical junctures in the progress of the Taliban movement, an unseen hand has often summoned the assassin to clear the path or tilt the scales. The chronicle is chilling: Ayatollah Mazari, the top Shi'ite cleric of Afghanistan, (1994); Mohammad Najibullah, president of Afghanistan (1996); Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, (2001); Haji Abdul Qadir, also in the Northern Alliance, (2002). The list seems never-ending. "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on ... "  Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been stalking Laghmani for a decade. It is rare for an intelligence agency to single out one individual as its mortal enemy and publicly warn him. The ISI had bestowed on Laghmani that rare honor more than once publicly. If one could go back and take a peep into the Northern Alliance's (NA's) intelligence apparatus during the anti-Taliban resistance in the latter half of the 1990s, one would spot Laghmani as an operative of exceptional brilliance in the shadows. Being an ethnic Pashtun, he had keen insight into the political culture of the Taliban movement and the mindset of its patrons in the ISI, which was an invaluable asset for the NA. Pakistan got a taste of what Laghmani could do when in July 2008 he established the connection between the suicide bombers who attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the ISI by tracing a cellphone found in the wreckage to a facilitator in Kabul who was in direct telephone contact with a Pakistani intelligence official in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. The ISI felt the maximum heat from him in his native region of eastern Afghanistan, given the complexity of the situation there involving factors such as the traditional failure of the Taliban to strike deep roots among the Ghilzai tribes, the presence of the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani and al-Qaeda and the continuing influence of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e Islami. In sum, Laghmani is not easily replaceable for the Tajik-dominated Afghan intelligence in Kabul on account of both his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Pashtun tribal alignments and the inner working of the Taliban and the ISI, as well as his operational skills. The timing is significant. He has been a key ally of President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has adopted an air of indifference to the outcome of the Afghan presidential elections, but a strong undercurrent of anxiety is palpable. Especially so, as the prospect of Karzai winning another five-year term as president is appearing. Everything now hinges on the American effort to rein in Karzai by getting the leading contenders to form some kind of a national government and to include technocrats in his cabinet. But then Karzai might well reject such a proposition. Karzai has tasted independence and may have come to like it. To quote Ahmed Rashid, the well-informed Pakistani author who advises the Pentagon, "Karzai, of course, is showing his independence more and more from the Americans and does not want to be seen as an agent of the West in any way." With such a curious power calculus forming in Kabul, the ISI needs to prepare for the return of Mohammed Fahim, the head of the NA intelligence - Laghmani's boss - and former defense minister, to the top echelons of Karzai's government as first vice president. That is a tough call. There is no one today in Afghanistan with Fahim's reach of experience in intelligence and military operations. Pakistan succeeded to get the United States pressure Karzai to remove Fahim from his powerful post as defense minister and send him into political oblivion in 2005. (The US probably had its own geopolitical objectives too.) Pakistan now faces the specter of Fahim rising up, as it were, from the ashes like a phoenix, more powerful than ever. A massive media campaign has appeared against "warlord" Fahim, ever since he began figuring as Karzai's running mate. Unsurprisingly, he evokes strong partisan feelings. But to the consternation of his detractors, Karzai remains unmoved. Now, Fahim used to be Laghmani's mentor. Indeed, the Fahim-Laghmani team would have turned the heat on the Taliban and the ISI from day one of the new Karzai presidency. Fahim, with his vast experience as an "operations man", is quite capable of carrying the fight to the ISI camp, and Laghmani would have been a "force multiplier" for him in the Pashtun regions. There was an attempt on Fahim's life already in August and Laghmani's murder is most certainly intended as a warning. Prime facie, Pakistan ought to have nothing to fear from a Karzai presidency. Karzai has repeatedly expressed his willingness to work for a political transition that accommodates the Taliban as an Afghan group, provided it eschews violence. But in Karzai's scheme of things, the reconciliation of the Taliban should be preferably through an intra-Afghan peace process and through a loya jirga (tribal council). And there is no guarantee that the other Afghan groups will concede any dominant role to the Taliban. Besides, the Afghan-ness of the political process might incrementally loosen the ISI's grip over the Taliban. Indeed, Laghmani with his seamless knowledge of the Taliban leadership and the Pashtun tribal alignments would have posed a constant headache to the ISI if any intra-Afghan peace process got under way. Laghmani's murder highlights continued interference in Afghanistan. In the coming period, we may see an escalation of such interference. Pakistan, for its part, will feel tempted to exploit the differences that have cropped up between Karzai and Washington. Pakistani commentators see the Americans "breathing down his [Karzai's] neck harder then ever". They anticipate that in the name of a crusade against public corruption and for good governance, the US will seek the exclusion of important political allies of Karzai who belonged to the Northern Alliance, such as Fahim, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. Indeed, these NA stalwarts ("warlords") will stubbornly reject a Taliban-dominated power structure in Kabul. Therefore, in the shadowy world of the spooks, the second Karzai presidency may be starting on a bloody note. From all accounts, Laghmani was a popular figure in the Afghan security establishment and he figured in Karzai's inner circle. The general expectation was that he was destined to occupy a key post in any new government under Karzai. There will be many in Kabul who may want to avenge his untimely death.  Quatrain 71of the The Rubaiyat by Persian poet Omar Khayyam (circa 1048-1143) reads, The Moving Finger writes, and having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor WitShall lure it back to cancel half a line,Nor all your tears wash out a Word of it.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey. (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication