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The Hindu Profiles | Amrullah Saleh, INS Vikrant and Annalena Baerbock

Amrullah Saleh | The many lives of the Taliban’s top nemesis

The former spy chief, who has survived several attempts on his life, maintains that Pakistan’s support is the Taliban’s key source of strength

August 07, 2021 11:02 pm | Updated August 18, 2021 06:17 pm IST

In the spring of 2006, Amrullah Saleh, who was then heading the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s spy agency, decided to conduct a field study on the Taliban’s advances. The Taliban were operating largely from Pakistan, occasionally launching attacks in rural Afghanistan. The country, which was under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, was steadily transitioning into an elected democracy. In 2004, the country held a presidential election and in 2005, parliamentary and provincial elections. Mr. Saleh travelled across the country, met active Taliban commanders and sources to collect intelligence.

In May 2006, he completed his classified paper, “Strategy of the Taliban”, in which he wrote that the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency, decided in 2005 to support the Taliban with cash and aid. The consolidation of the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan and the possibility of a united Afghanistan emerging as an ally of India prompted Pakistan, which he called an “India-centric country”, to support the Taliban.

He concluded in the paper, the content of which was revealed by American journalist Steve Coll in his book, Directorate S , that the Taliban would make gains and launch an all-out insurgency that would bog the international troops down.

President Karzai was angry about his findings. He dismissed Mr. Saleh’s predictions. The spymaster told his President, “I hope time will prove me wrong, but this is a product of your intelligence service,” writes Mr. Coll. Fifteen years later, Mr. Saleh is the first Vice-President of Afghanistan. And he knows more than anybody that time did not prove him wrong.

Now, when the U.S.-led international troops are set to leave Afghanistan by September 11, the government is facing an existential threat in the face of the Taliban’s advances. Ever since the remaining American troops started withdrawing on May 1, the Taliban have made rapid territorial gains, capturing more than half of Afghanistan’s districts and most of its border crossings. The fighting is now moving from the hinterlands to the country’s city centres, under the watch of Mr. Saleh and his boss, President Ashraf Ghani.

The guerrilla

Mr. Saleh has had an illustrious career in Afghanistan’s fractious world of politics, intelligence and security. Born in Panjshir in October 1972, he grew up in Kabul. He was the youngest of five brothers. Like many Afghans of his generation, Mr. Saleh, a Tajik, grew up witnessing political violence under the Soviet-backed communist regime and suffering personal tragedies. In his early 20s, he joined the militia commanded by the legendary Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “lion of Panjshir”. Massoud sent him to Pakistan in 1992 to do a course on “post-conflict reconstruction and management”. After the fall of the communist regime in 1992, the Mujahideen were briefly in power and Massoud was the Defence Minister. But when the Taliban captured Kabul, Massoud retreated to Panjshir from where the Northern Alliance of the anti-Taliban warlords continued its resistance to the Taliban.

Mr. Saleh was one of the youngest advisers of Massoud. In 1999, Massoud sent him along with seven other senior aides and commanders to the U.S. to attend a CIA training programme. He had already been posted in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as the Northern Alliance’s liaison officer. In that capacity, Mr. Saleh coordinated closely with the intelligence networks of the U.S., Russia, Iran and India. On September 9, 2001, when Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda, Mr. Saleh was in Dushanbe. He was immediately summoned to Kulyab, a Tajik city close to the Afghan border. In a hospital in Kulyab, Mr. Saleh was told by his comrades that the commander was dead.

He later recalled a conversation he had with a CIA operative immediately after Massoud’s killing. “The decision is that we will fight,” Mr. Saleh told him. “We will not surrender. We will fight to our last man on the ground.” Two days later, al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center in New York. Within weeks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban regime, which had hosted al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, would soon crumble like a house of cards.

The spymaster

In 2004, after the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established, Mr. Saleh was appointed by President Karzai the head of the NDS. The years he spent as the Northern Alliance’s intelligence liaison officer came in handy. Mr. Saleh had developed close contacts with the CIA, the RAW and other regional intelligence agencies. He recruited Pashtun agents and deployed them across Afghanistan and even inside Pakistan to infiltrate into the Taliban networks.

He launched a frequent intelligence briefing for the President. The objective was to build a vibrant intelligence community in Afghanistan that could foresee and neutralise threats from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. His relentless pursuit of the jihadists earned him a reputation as being the Taliban’s top enemy in Kabul. The insurgents carried out multiple assassination attempts on him, the most recent one being in September 2020.

In 2011, after Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, Mr. Saleh said the NDS had reached the conclusion as early as 2004 that Bin Laden was in one of Pakistan’s residential areas. In 2006, he had brought it to the attention of Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was then the ISI chief, at a conference in Bagram. Mr. Kayani was angry. ‘I don’t need to be taught intelligence by someone the age of my son,” he said, according to Mr. Saleh.

But he continued to pursue the thread. In a summit between President Karzai and Pakistan’s dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Mr. Saleh brought up the Bin Laden issue again. “Why have you have brought this Panjshiri guy to teach me intelligence,” a furious Musharraf told Mr. Karzai, Mr. Saleh told The Guardian .

The warm relationship between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Saleh did not last long. When Mr. Karzai started looking for a dialogue with the Taliban, Mr. Saleh fell out with him. In 2010, he resigned as the NDS chief. Mr. Saleh believed that the Taliban problem would not be resolved unless the Taliban were disarmed and reintegrated into society. And he remained a strong advocate of the use of force against the Taliban, despite allegations of high casualties from aerial attacks.

In a 2011 interview with PBS Frontline, when Mr. Saleh was asked if he supported President Barack Obama’s drone campaign, he said “drones are not enough”. “I encourage America to use the Air Force, bomb Pakistan and force it to stop supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Period.”

The politician

For Mr. Saleh, the resignation from the NDS was an opportunity to build a broader support base before an eventual entry into politics. He turned out to be a critic of Mr. Karzai’s policies. He founded an organisation, Basej-e Milli (National Movement), which he called Afghanistan’s “anti-Taliban constituency”. He travelled across the country trying to mobilise supporters in favour of Basej and organised mass rallies in Kabul and elsewhere. In 2018, Mr. Saleh returned to the government when President Ashraf Ghani appointed him the Interior Minister. A few months later, he resigned to join Mr. Ghani’s election team. In the 2019 presidential election, Mr. Ghani, who was seeking re-election, picked Mr. Saleh as his running mate, which set the stage for his ascent as the First Vice-President.

Throughout his three-decade-long career, Mr. Saleh has seen several ups and downs. His views have also evolved. He once quarrelled with Mr. Karzai over his efforts to talk with the Taliban. Now, the administration he is part of is seeking a political settlement with the Taliban through the Doha talks. As an intelligence chief, he spent almost his entire focus on the Taliban, still he could not stop the advances of the Taliban. Throughout his career, he remained critical of Pakistan, but he could practically do nothing to stop Rawalpindi deepening its influence in Afghanistan through the Taliban.

Now, his country on the brink of a tragedy, which he had predicted. In the 2011 PBS interview, when asked whether he was worried about what would happen when the Americans withdrew, he said, “Yes. If they withdraw and the situation is in the way it is, it will be a disaster. Massacre of people. Bloodbath. Disintegration of power and fragmentation of authority.” When the interviewer asked him why should America stay in Afghanistan, he responded, with a smile, “Why did they come here?”

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