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The Star, February 9, 2011

Taliban assassins on motorbikes strike fear in Afghanistan

The execution could even come in broad daylight, close to home, in front of your children

By Paul Watson

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—Day and night, Taliban assassins on motorbikes hunt their victims, often taunting them over the telephone before gunning them down in the city’s streets.

An Afghan cop manning a checkpoint on an insurgent infiltration route into Kandahar covers his face for fear the Taliban will harm his family
An Afghan cop manning a checkpoint on a favorite insurgent infiltration route into Kandahar covers his face for fear the Taliban will harm his family. (Photo: Paul Watson)

They are working their way through lists, meticulously killing off people fingered as collaborators with the Afghan government or its foreign backers.

Unlike suicide bombers, who make headlines with periodic attacks that take themselves out along with their targets, most insurgent assassins escape as quickly, and anonymously, as they strike.

They slip quietly back into Kandahar’s shadows, still in the hunt, sewing terror with murders that number in the hundreds each year.

Each one sends a chilling message to anyone who doesn’t fall in line: You may be the next to go down. The execution could even come in broad daylight, close to home, in front of your children.

The build-up of Afghan police and soldiers, and foreign troops, in and around Kandahar city over recent months has improved security, but agile and coldly efficient motorbike death squads remain active.

They struck twice last Friday, a special day of prayer for Muslims. Around 7 a.m., two men riding a motorcycle murdered a police officer standing guard near a Kabul Bank branch in Kandahar. As usual, the killers got away.

Later that day, two men on a motorbike opened fire on a police officer in the same district, near Al-Jadid market. The victim was badly wounded but survived. Police said they arrested two suspects hours after the shooting.

But no one was able to identify the men who parked their motorcycle near a police checkpoint, calmly walked up to Haji Karim Dad and killed him at point blank as night fell on Jan. 20.

The assassins got back on their motorbike and disappeared just after 6 p.m., as Dad, a 50-year-old guerrilla veteran of the 1980s war against Soviet occupation, bled to death in front of his home.

Their timing was precise. The normally busy street was almost empty of witnesses.

“Nobody noticed the motorbike or the number plate because it was parked too far away,” said Abdul Samad Jan Ghazi, a long-time friend. “Everyone had gone to the mosque to pray, so the street was empty.”

Dad’s relatives refused to meet for an interview because they are terrified of the Taliban and feared that talking to a foreigner would only invite more killing.

So Ghazi, who knew Dad for some 30 years and fought alongside him against the Soviets, relayed a Toronto Star reporter’s questions to the victim’s family members.

Nothing in Dad’s background suggests he was a first-tier target. He was hardly a foreign stooge.

His mujahedeen pedigree was good. One leg bore the scar of a Russian bullet that hit him during a battle with Soviet troops in Arghandab, his home district northwest of Kandahar city.

Dad had no love for U.S. troops either, his friend said. Americans bombed Dad’s mudbrick house to rubble two years ago, during an operation to break the Taliban’s hold on the village of Khisrow, Ghazi said.

Taliban guerrillas were living in it at the time, according to Ghazi, who said the insurgents evicted Dad.

“The Taliban threatened him many times,” Ghazi said. “They knocked on his door one night as the Taliban were taking people from their homes and killing them. He moved, along with his family, to the city.”

Dad started making short visits back to his village last summer, cautiously checking to see if thousands of U.S. forces pouring into the countryside would make his village safe.

The Americans offered to pay Dad around $2,000 for his destroyed home, but insisted he return to Khisrow to collect the compensation. It’s standard procedure as U.S. troops try to quickly lure villagers back to ground seized from the Taliban.

As a grey-bearded guerrilla vet, Dad was a favourite when his neighbors voted for a seat in the District Development Assembly, an elected council called a shura that sets priorities for foreign aid to local farmers.

Dad thought he was just doing the right thing for his people, not taking political sides in a war. But even a tenuous link to the Taliban’s enemies was enough to mark Dad for death.

His cell phone rang as the gunmen neared Dad’s home in the Loya Walla neighborhood of Kandahar’s 9th district, still an insurgent nest.

Dad stepped outside to take the call. One assassin fired a single bullet into his head from close range. The other shot several rounds from a street corner and missed.

As Dad crumpled to the ground, another man near him threw a rock at the closest shooter and hit him in the shoulder, Ghazi said.

The spot where Dad fell, bleeding out in the street, was some 400 metres from an Afghan police checkpoint. None opened fire or stopped the assassins as they rode off, ready to murder again.

There aren’t official figures for the number of people killed by insurgent death squads. Local reports estimated the total for 2010 was as high as 600 murdered, almost always by two-man teams on motorcycles.

Kandahar’s plague of political killings is an uncomfortable subject for senior police commanders. Endless assassinations contradict the official line that the city is now secure.

Haji Khan Mohammad Mujaheed, Kandahar’s provincial police chief, insisted Dad’s death was “not insurgent-linked. It was personal dispute.”

He couldn’t explain why killers carrying out a garden variety village vendetta would so closely follow the known modus operandi of insurgent assassins, whom Mujaheed acknowledged are still active in the city.

“All these things are very complicated and nobody can understand that,” he said after depositing a bit of chewing tobacco into a small spittoon next to his office armchair.

But Karimullah Naqibi, whose father Mullah Naqibullah Akhund was assassinated by an insurgent bomb in 2008, is among many friends of Dad who are convinced the Taliban executed him.

“We knew him a long time, and often attended gatherings together, but we never heard from him that he was having any kind of problem with anyone,” Naqibi said.

The ever-growing list of Kandahar city’s victims include Afghan aid workers, educators, low-ranking government officials, suspected snitches—anyone the insurgents decide are on the wrong side of their dirty war.

Few of the Taliban hitmen’s victims have come to know the killers as intimately as Haji Fazal Mohammed —and lived to talk about them, even stand up to them.

Insurgents have obliterated his Panjwai district shura, killing all but three of 23 council members over the past four years.

They almost got Mohammed, too, in September, 2006, when two men on a motorcycle pulled up beside him around 7:30 in the morning. Mohammed was riding a bicycle, trying to get his sick, 3-year-old daughter Rahmania to a doctor.

The gunmen fired five times, hitting Mohammed in the legs and jaw. Fighting just to breathe, he didn’t have the strength to draw his gun. But he did open an eye slightly to get a look at his attackers.

“One pointed a pistol at my mouth,” recalled the elder in his early 50s, as calmly as a man describing a slip on the stairs. “He said, ‘You’re still alive?’ And then he fired one more shot into my mouth.”

As he told the story, Mohammed lifted his thick white beard with a leathery index finger to show a small scar, just under his left ear, where a bullet pierced his neck, just missing his jugular vein.

Afghan police got Mohammed to the city’s main hospital, where doctors kept his heart beating long enough for him to be transferred to the Kandahar airfield, where Canadian military surgeons saved his life.

Once Mohammed was back on his feet, the Taliban hitmen started calling again, warning him they would return to finish the job. He dared them to say it to his face. They told him to come to the stadium and look for two guys wearing red and black caps.

He took his pistol, with a few extra clips of ammunition. But he couldn’t find the men and waited for the next call.

“I told them, ‘You are just cowards, not real men,’ ” Mohammed said. “After that, I haven’t received any more threats from anyone.”

Every day, Ghazi expects the death squads to come for him at any moment. He packs a pistol too, trusts no one and only hopes he’ll have a few seconds to aim and pull the trigger before the assassins’ get their shots off.

He expected better after surviving the Soviet occupation, the civil war that followed and Taliban rule after that, to celebrate what he thought would be liberation from a lifetime of war.

“At first, people were so hopeful that our country will have peace, prosperity and development,” Ghazi said. “But nothing happened.”

More elders of his tribe and other influential Pashtuns have died since the American-led invasion in late 2001 than during the nine-year war against the Soviets, or under Taliban rule, according to Ghazi.

“Now all the friends of my time are gone,” he said. “We are really in a hard situation.”

Ghazi shook his head in dismay. It was late afternoon, and he had paused twice to take urgent cell phone calls.

Relatives wanted to know where he was, whether he was still alive.

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