Afghanistan: The Taliban Plot to Assassinate Karzai

The latest suicide-bomb attack on an Afghan official was far from the first time the insurgents used the same trick. Why does it keep working? Sami Yousafzai reports.

12.08.12 9:45 AM ET

There’s something deeply disturbing about the way Taliban suicide bombers keep employing the same ruse to get within killing distance of senior Afghan government officials—and something even more disturbing about the way Afghan officials keep falling for it. The latest victim was Asadullah Khalid, the head of Aghanistan’s domestic intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. Yesterday, a Taliban envoy supposedly carrying a message of peace was allowed to enter a fortified NDS guest house in Kabul for a meeting with Khalid. Once inside, the purported messenger detonated a hidden explosive, badly injuring Khalid and reportedly killing at least one of the NDS chief’s bodyguards. The Taliban quickly and gleefully claimed responsibility for the attack.

If you think the plot sounds familiar, you’re right: it’s the same pretext a Taliban suicide bomber successfully used in September 2011 to assassinate the head of the Kabul government’s High Peace Council, former Afghan president Berhanuddin Rabbani.

It gets worse. The Daily Beast has learned that the Taliban nearly pulled off a similar attempt on the life of no less than Afghan President Hamid Karzai two years ago. Readers may recall the revelation in late 2010 that a supposed Taliban peace envoy was actually an impostor, not the senior insurgent leader he had pretended to be. At the time it sounded like an open-and-shut case: before being discovered, the fake Taliban commander reportedly persuaded coalition officials to entrust him with a substantial amount of money. But recently a reliable Taliban source informed The Daily Beast that the bogus envoy was actually sent to Kabul in hope of killing Karzai.

For some time insurgent leaders in Pakistan had been getting repeated peace gestures from Kabul via British intermediaries. The Taliban leadership had no desire to talk peace, but they were interested nevertheless. To them, the persistent invitations looked like a wide-open chance to kill the Afghan president. And the insurgents who conceived the plan figured that a fat man would be their best bet to smuggle a suicide bomb into Karzai’s presence. The Taliban source says they soon found the perfect candidate, a lookalike for one of the Taliban’s top leaders, the famously overweight Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. To give their fake envoy extra credibility, the insurgents actually persuaded their British contacts and Karzai’s own security people to arrange transportation to Kabul for “Mansoor.”

They sent the would-be assassin to Kabul twice to gain the trust of Karzai and his security people. On one of the trips he reportedly met with the president himself. But on the third visit he would be carrying a bomb. The insurgents’ demolitions experts discussed among themselves whether to stitch a high-powered explosive into the fake envoy’s cap (the bomb that would later take Rabbani’s life was hidden in his killer’s turban) or possibly have it surgically implanted in the would-be assassin’s body.

Fortunately for Karzai’s allies, the plot unraveled before it could be carried out. “The Britons wer insisting they had made an exclusive contact with the Taliban,” says Karzai’s chief of staff, Umar Daudzai. At least two senior Afghan security officials were likewise convinced that the connection was legitimate, Daudzai says. The phony envoy was helicoptered from the Pakistan border to the International Security Assistance Force’s base in Kandahar, where he spent several days before traveling on to Kabul. But first, Daudzai says, a trusted Karzai friend was sent to check out “Mansoor.” The real Mansoor had served years before as the Taliban regime’s aviation minister, and Karzai’s friend had met him face-to-face. “The report of the inspection guy was negative,” says Daudzai. “He said, ‘This is not Mansoor’.”

Nevertheless, Daudzai says, “The phony Mansoor did meet once with Karzai.” But if Daudzai had been warned that the supposed peace envoy was an impostor, why was he allowed into Karzai’s presence? The idea, Daudzai says, was to observe the bogus representative in hope of learning who was behind him, and the president’s security people inspected him thoroughly before the meeting. Afghanistan’s presidential security is famously effective, Daudzai says. According to Daudzai, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto told Karzai before her assassination in December 2007 that she wanted his security team to train her people,  
The Taliban source says the insurgents were getting ready to send their impostor to Kabul for the third and final time when the plotters learned that Karzai’s security people had discovered that “Mansoor” was a fake, and the assassination attempt was scrubbed. Even after the imposture was revealed, however, Taliban leaders remained positive that that their trick could still work. After all, U.S. and Afghan intelligence officials didn’t seem to be aware of the assassination plot. On the contrary, the Americans still seemed to believe that the bogus Mansoor was only trying to con them into giving him money.

According to the Taliban source, some of the plotters proposed that an actual insurgent leader should go to Kabul under his true identity and meet with Karzai in a suicide vest, but no one in the group’s senior ranks was willing to accept the job. “There were numerous opportunities,” the source says, “but Karzai happens to be a lucky president, and he has the breath of a cat” (a colloquial reference not to halitosis but to the popular saying that “a cat has seven souls”—the equivalent of “nine lives”). The hope is that his luck will keep holding.