Spooks spill blood in the Hindu Kush
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
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 been
breached. 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
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
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
The Moving Finger writes, and having writ, Moves on:
nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall 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.