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The Taliban Policy of Assassination

First published by INSCT on Security – link to initial publication.

The assassination of the mayor of Kandahar Ghulam Haider Hamidi on July 27, which the Taliban has claimed responsibility for is the third assassination of a senior Afghan politician in as many weeks, which seems to indicate a shift in the Taliban’s military strategy.

There are questions as to why the changed has occurred and how the Afghan government, its people and the international forces in Afghanistan should deal with it. The first thing to note is that over the last few years, animosity towards the Taliban appeared to decline, mainly because in some Taliban controlled areas, law and order was established, while in other areas – mainly government controlled – corruption was rampant.[1] However, once the Taliban expanded their suicide terrorism activities, which they have done over the last few years, it had an adverse effect. That is, whereas their social and justice work were gaining them support, their military action was doing the opposite. Adopting a policy of assassinating the local powerbrokers means that the efforts against western-led reconstruction continues without the lost of support that suicide terrorism brings. By targeting local powerbrokers the Taliban also win support with the local population who hate such men because they are in effect warlords whose sole purpose was to protect their own territories and wealth at the expense of the local population.[2]

Second, the men targeted by the Taliban had close links to the United States – Ahmed Wali Karzai reportedly received money from the CIA; Ghulam Haider Hamidi had lived and worked in the US for twenty years before he returned to Afghanistan.[3] By killing these three men, the Taliban can portray themselves as noble fighters fighting the foreign forces who help produce warlords and sustain the corrupt Karzai government. The recent attack on Matiullah Khan, who escaped unharmed, is indicative of this tactic as Khan an illiterate highway patrolman has gained tremendous power because the US has opted to work with him. This was because they believed that Khan’s 2,000-men militia provided security along the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway, which is central to the Dutch, Australian and US troops in Orugzan Province. In return, Khan’s trucking company charges NATO up to $1700 per truck for using the highway, and by earning so much money Khan is able to maintain his preeminent position.[4] This is why Khan is a major powerbroker in southern Afghanistan compelling the Afghan central government to give him much freedom of action, as they know that they cannot afford to alienate him as he could become a dangerous foe.[5]

Third, the tactic of assassination centers on close penetration, good logistics and the use of reliable equipment. In each of the three latest high-profile assassinations – Ahmed Wali Karzai, Jan Mohammed Khan and Ghulam Haider Hamidi – the killing occurred in close quarters with the assassin entering their inner circle.[6] Prior to the killings the typical modus operandi was ambushing conveys as they travelled. By opting for assassinations the Taliban are showing sophistication and that they have the means to reach even those in positions of power.

The change in tactics raises some major challenges for the Afghan government and the international community. For the Afghan government the assassinations mean that Southern Afghanistan is in a period of growing uncertainty, as the slain men have left a power vacuum: Ahmed Wali Karzai was an important figure in Helmand Province; Jan Mohammed Khan was a power broker from Oruzgan Province and Ghulam Haider Hamidi was the mayor of Kandahar. The killing of such prominent men in such a short period and especially after the transfer of a number of provinces to the control of the Afghan government raises questions as to whether Afghanistan is ready for the international pullout. In other words, can the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police manage to provide the necessary security for the Afghan people and resist the Taliban onslaught?

The assassinations may affect the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The talks, which have been ongoing and have yet to provide any meaningful results, are billed as the only real hope for the long-term security of Afghanistan. This is because ten years after 9/11 there is an appreciation that without the Taliban, security and stability will continue to evade the country, which is why it is central to include them in the reconstruction of the country.

It is important that the international forces operating in Afghanistan realize that the Taliban have adopted this new tactic as they seek to create instability especially after the Faustian bargain made by the international community with these men and their likes. That is, in order to create the appearance that security is expanding in Afghanistan, the international community has opted to empower men of questionable reputations. The aim was to strengthen local communities by allowing them to defend themselves against the Taliban.[7] By removing these men, the Taliban, which is aware of the tenuous position of the Karzai government, is hoping to compel the government to accept some of its ideas. Mohammed Qalamuddin, the former head of the religious police in a 2011 interview notes that the Taliban had made mistakes.[8]

Improving Afghan peace and security requires serious efforts to end the corrupt culture that has become so entrenched within Afghanistan.[9] Taliban prevarication in the peace negotiations allows lawlessness and disorder to prevail. This benefits the Taliban who successfully argue that the international force in Afghanistan is an occupying force designed to prop up the Karzai government rather than help ordinary Afghans, which is why Afghans should work with the Taliban as they are the only ones that care about Afghanistan and ensuring that it remains an Islamic state.


[1] The Asia Foundation has found that ordinary Afghans pay on average $158 per bribe, with President Karzai being accused of torpedoing all efforts to stem corruption in the country either by emasculating agencies that are meant to combat the phenomenon or simply appointing tainted individual to position of authority. Lianne Gutcher, “Afghanistan’s anti-corruption efforts thwarted at every turn,” July 19, 2011. []

[2] Dexter Filkins, “With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire,” The New York Times, June 5, 2010. 

[3] Reportedly, Hamidi Hamidi lacked the tribal connection necessary to make it in Afghanistan, but he was close to Ahmed Wali Karzai and to President Karzai. He attracted opposition because he adopted a policy of trying to tear down illegal building in northern Kandahar, an area with a Taliban presence. The mayor was scheduled to meet some of the protesters against the demolition and as he was preparing to do so, he was killed. Taimoor Shah and Alissa J. Rubin, “Suicide Bomber Sent by Taliban Assassinates Kandahar’s Mayor,” The New York Times, July 27, 2011/ 

[4] Jon Boone, “Taliban attack Hamid Karzai ally in southern Afghanistan,” July 28, 2011. 

[5] Dexter Filkins, “With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire,” The New York Times, June 5, 2010. 

[6] Hamidi was assassinated by a suicide bomber who hid his bomb in his turban.  Ahmed Wali Karzai was shot at close quarter by an associate.

[7] In the village of Marjah, Helmand Province, US forces have recruited around 800 men to join the local militia. Each fighter receives $150 a month with the group leader receiving $180 a month and a startup fund of $5000 to purchase weapons. Jon Boone, “Afghans fear return of the warlords as anti-Taliban militias clash.” February 16, 2011. 

[8] Jason Burke, “Taliban zealot who banned TV points to his set. ‘We’ve changed,’ he insists,” June 2, 2011. 

[9] The failure to prosecute those responsible for the Kabul Bank fiasco is indicative of the many failures of the Afghan state.