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In Anatomy of an Afghan Bombing, Clues of a Tangled War

For days in his hospital bed, Dr. Humayoon Azizi, the governor of the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, hallucinated.

Colleagues who had been killed in the bombing that Dr. Azizi somehow survived would come to him and say they knew they were dead, but they would return with new identities. Could the governor help them?

"I would dream of fire and meetings with the friends we lost," recalled Dr. Azizi, who is still being treated for burns and fighting flashbacks but resumed work last week in Kandahar.

Even for Kandahar's long history of complex political assassinations, the bombing attack on the governor's guesthouse in January was daring. It almost devastated the entire leadership of the only province in the south that is putting up some resistance to a Taliban surge, killing a deputy governor, a senator and a member of Parliament, as well as the United Arab Emirates ambassador and five aides.

Once the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, Kandahar has remained relatively stable as district after district in surrounding provinces has fallen to the militants. But the two explosions, which killed 13 people, and the investigation that followed, highlighted the increasing complexity of the Afghan war, particularly in Kandahar, which is riven by political and tribal rivalries.

The explosives were placed under a couch just two seats to the right of the governor in a reception hall tucked behind at least five layers of security. Most of the victims were incinerated down to the bone; one official was identified just by the metal of his watch clinging to his wrist.

"The chandelier dropped from the ceiling, and the room immediately caught fire – it was dark, and there was smoke, and fire," said Mohammed Yousuf Yousufi, a businessman who survived with burns to his hands and back.

While there was no mistaking the deadly toll of the bombing, investigators struggled with the complexities of who was responsible.

Afghan officials now say they have no doubt that the Taliban were behind the bombing. However, the militants have denied involvement, highlighting their close relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Given that six diplomats from the gulf nation were killed, some officials in the U.A.E. and in Afghanistan initially suspected Iran, which has long been seen as an adversary of Arab nations and is believed to have growing ties with the Taliban.

Adding to the mystery was the fact that the province's powerful police chief, an ally of the American military named Gen. Abdul Raziq, walked out of the room just minutes before the explosion. He said he left for evening prayers; Afghan officials say he was bored and went out for a cigarette. Many wondered whether his departure was a lucky coincidence or something more sinister.

General Raziq's men are in charge of at least three belts of security around the governor's house. They are known to be so cautious that they have poked metal rods into the fruit heading to the former governor's table, which makes the security lapse in January all the more remarkable.

Other observers point to the souring of Dr. Azizi's long friendship with General Raziq since he took charge of the province two years ago, vowing to transform Kandahar's political landscape, and its patronage system, over which General Raziq had long had a monopoly.

The investigation shows that the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council operating out of Pakistan, planned the attack, according to two senior Afghan officials and a third person with knowledge of the findings, who declined to speak on the record. Central to its execution was the governor's cook, a "sleeper" who had provided information to the Taliban in return for money for more than a decade, according to the officials. The attack was in the works for several months, and the target was Kandahar's civilian and military leadership.

One crucial finding of the investigation, carried out with Emirati and American help, was that the operatives on the ground knew that Arab guests were in the room, and they communicated that fact back to Quetta on at least two occasions.

The conclusion, the officials said, has been hard for the U.A.E. government to digest.

"We might have been the target, but Quetta was told the Emiratis were going to be present," said General Raziq, the police chief. "There is no doubt that Pakistan and the Taliban have good relations with the Emiratis. But we have proof that it was done – planned by Pakistan and handled by the Taliban."

Another possibility, according to those aware of the investigation as well as Western officials, is that the presence of the Arabs was communicated back to Quetta but someone like a cook would not have realized how important the visitors were. If the Taliban had come so close to achieving a major victory – they have unsuccessfully tried to kill General Raziq more than three dozen times, according to him – they may have accepted that some unknown Arabs would be collateral damage.

"We were the target, but the plan was to take out whoever was in the room – whether it's a minister or an Arab, or anyone," said Dr. Azizi, the governor.

The Taliban, however, stand by their denial, saying that the attack was the result of an internal political rivalry among Afghan officials.

"We have no problem with the United Arab Emirates," their spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said by telephone. "And there is no reason that someone who is helping, particularly an Islamic country, should come under attack."

Afghan officials say that among the leading planners of the attack in Quetta was Hafiz Majeed, a close adviser to the Taliban's supreme leader. In addition to their ideological differences, Mr. Majeed has also been locked in a rivalry with General Raziq. When the Taliban were in power, Mr. Majeed was behind digging up the remains of General Raziq's relative Esmat Muslim, a ruthless militia commander, from near a holy shrine because he thought his presence was polluting.

Investigators followed the trail to Sayed Mahboob Agha, the cook at the governor's palace. Mr. Agha was well trusted – his father before him had cooked for dozens of governors in a career that spanned four decades. And just as his father had brought him in as an assistant, Mr. Agha had brought two of his sons with him, one of whom was on duty at the governor's house around the clock, every day.

Immediately after the attack, Afghan security agencies rounded up dozens of men, among them Mr. Agha and his sons, who were then transferred to Kabul.

Mr. Agha's brother, Sayed Agha, said it was unfathomable that his brother would do such a thing. Intelligence officers raided their home twice, breaking lockers and wardrobes in search of evidence, and rounded up about 30 members of their extended family – including four men who worked at the presidential palace in Kabul – for questioning. One of General Raziq's commanders also suspended one of the cook's sons from a tree in the governor's yard all night, he said.

"If they can prove that someone in my extended family, let alone my brother, has ever done one thing wrong against this government, they can execute us all," the younger Mr. Agha said. "They can't find anyone else – they failed in providing security, of course they will say we got the people."

One official said the cook maintained his innocence for much of the investigation in Kabul, but just before his release he bragged about his involvement to an intelligence agent who was put in the cell undercover as a Taliban assassin.

In subsequent interrogations, he confessed to receiving the explosives before the attack, according to two officials, and said that he brought them into the compound in a fruit crate. He told his handler upon receiving the explosives and an installment of money that he had learned there would be Arabs among the guests, and that they were "helping our jihad." But he was told to go ahead with the plan anyway. Another official said Mr. Agha had been promised about $30,000.

The government says it is detaining 11 people in relation to the case and have released the rest. The official release of the investigation's findings has been delayed because of a request by the U.A.E., which is still grappling with what to do with the Taliban and Pakistan.

Before turning to politics, Dr. Azizi was a surgeon by profession who specialized in treating burns. As he was driven to the hospital on the evening of the explosion, he knew there were no burn specialists in Kandahar.

"On the way to the hospital, I told those with me that when I arrive they need to create incisions on my hands. Burns, particularly circular burns – if you don't create incisions, the pressure goes deeper," Dr. Azizi said. "I was conscious until I reached the hospital. But after that – I gained consciousness six days later."

After two months of treatment, Dr. Azizi returned to a hero's welcome in Kandahar and says he is determined to continue his work.

He has avoided revisiting the hall, fearing the return of flashbacks that he overcame only after 25 days of psychiatric treatment. But he cannot avoid its burned windows, which look down on the porch of his residence.

"Neither bodyguards nor an armored room will save me," Dr. Azizi said. "It was God that saved me from the fire."

[Source: By Mujib Mashal, The New York Times, Kandahar, 31Mar17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 03Apr17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.