x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Taliban raid on Kabul suburb kills Karzai allies

Afghan security forces kill gunmen who shot close friend of Afghan president.

KABUL // Afghan security forces killed two Taliban gunmen who hours earlier had assassinated two influential allies of Afghanistan's president in a brazen raid in one of Kabul's most affluent suburbs.

The killings late on Sunday demonstrated again that insurgents are able to carry out high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital.

Jan Mohammed Khan, the former governor of Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province and important adviser on tribal affairs to President Hamid Karzai, and Hashim Watanwal, a member of parliament from Uruzgan, were both shot and killed when two gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked Khan's walled compound in west Kabul.

A four-hour stand-off between the attackers and Afghan security forces ended just before dawn. Both assailants and one Afghan policeman were killed, the interior ministry said.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack. "These attackers; they were sent by the Taliban. It was their duty to attack Jan Mohammed Khan," Mujahid said in a phone interview. "These types of operations will continue, and in north, south, east or west, many more officials will be targeted."

The bold strike against Khan, a close friend of Mr Karzai, who is of the same Popalzai tribe, comes just after the assassination of the president's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was gunned down by a confidante in his home in the province of Kandahar less than a week ago.

While there is little evidence the Taliban carried out the attack on Wali Karzai, who was Kandahar's provincial council chief but who analysts say was more powerful than the governor, both assassinations are personal blows to the president, observers say.

As pro-Karzai and Nato-backed politicians who wielded considerable power in the south, Khan and Wali Karzai left behind large patronage networks, but little in the way of government institutions.

Their deaths are raising fears the interconnected web of politicians, businessmen, militias and drug smugglers spread across the south will unravel as violence increases and Nato troops eye the exits.

On Sunday, the first ceremony to mark the transition of security responsibilities from Nato-led troops to Afghan forces was held in Bamiyan, a province in central Afghanistan. While there are 150,000 foreign troops battling Taliban insurgents here, all combat soldiers are expected to leave by the end of 2014.

Hajji Obeidullah Barakzai, a member of parliament from Uruzgan, said Khan "was very powerful and his death will have a negative impact on security in Uruzgan. There will be mistrust among the tribal leaders who united under his leadership, and this will help the [Taliban] insurgency."

Hamid Karzai appointed Khan governor of Uruzgan in 2002, but he was pushed out in 2006 after the Dutch military, stationed in Uruzgan, insisted he be removed for corruption and ties to drug rings.

But before his removal, Khan used his influence with Mr Karzai to appoint fellow tribesmen as district governors across the province.

In addition to the political support that often undermined other government institutions, district governors funnelled money made from Uruzgan's lucrative poppy harvest to Khan's coffers, analysts say. He was also known for torturing opponents and stringing their dead bodies up in the squares of the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt.

But because Khan had a special relationship with Mr Karzai, reportedly saving his life during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, his human rights abuses were ignored.

When Khan left his governor post, Mr Karzai brought him to Kabul as an adviser at the presidential palace. It was in Kabul, in a three-storey compound with low walls and little security, locals say, that Khan was killed.

Watanwal was first elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005, and before that had been an official in the Communist regime.

In an interview last week, Watanwal, the member of parliament from Uruzgan, spoke of deteriorating security across the country.

"Civilian casualties are increasing and the Taliban are carrying out more attacks," Watanwal said three days before his death. "And neither Afghan nor foreign troops can control the violence."