Quetta in the Crosshairs

Afghanistan’s Taliban thought their exile capital in Pakistan wasa safe haven. Looks like they were wrong. Sami Yousafzai reports.

Ishtiaq Mahsud / AP Photo

Senior Afghan Taliban leaders are worried. For the first time, one of their own was gunned down Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of their longtime sanctuary and capital in exile, the Pakistani city of Quetta. And no one is sure who ordered the hit. All anyone can say is there’s no shortage of suspects.

An eyewitness tells The Daily Beast that Mullah Sayyid Ahmad Shahid Khel was shopping at a bazaar in the dusty town of Kuchlak, a few miles outside Quetta on the Afghan border, when four men rode in on two motorcycles. They opened fire on the Afghan insurgent chief with handguns at close range, shooting him in the leg, stomach, and chest. Although he managed to draw his own weapon, he was cut down before he could return fire, and the gunmen sped away.

Khel was rushed to a Quetta hospital, where doctors did their best to stabilize him before transferring him to medical facilities in Karachi. He remains in critical condition. Whether or not he survives, it’s likely to be a long time before he returns to duty as a high-ranking member of the Taliban’s ruling body, the Quetta Shura, and headmaster of the madrassa and Taliban recruiting center he runs on the Afghan border.

The day began quietly enough. According to one of the students at the madrassa, four strangers paid a call on the mullah yesterday, saying they had just rented the house next door and wanted to pay respects to their new neighbor. The mullah invited them in, as proper Afghan hospitality requires, and shared cups of green tea with his guests. After they left, he walked to the bazaar. The four men evidently followed him.

Who sent them? Speculation is running wild among the insurgents. Khel has made his share of enemies in the past 10 years—and not only the Americans and their allies in the Kabul government, although they certainly have no love for him. Back in 2003, when the shattered remnants of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s regime were spread across Pakistan, struggling just to survive and feed their families, Khel was a leader in the first efforts to regroup the Taliban and organize a serious resistance against the Americans.

He focused his efforts on Ghazni province, where he’s believed to have been responsible for the killing of Bettina Goislard, a Frenchwoman working for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He was captured soon afterward, and he spent the next six years in a Kabul detention facility operated by the Afghan government’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The man credited with taking him down, Asadullah Khalid, was serving as provincial governor and has since been made the directorate’s chief.

For reasons best known to President Hamid Karzai’s government, Khel was freed in 2009 against the protests of his NDS advisors. “We understood he would be a risk, and we tried not to release him,” says an intelligence officer in Kabul. “We were sure he would rejoin the Taliban, but we let him go anyway. He was in Quetta the next day, opening his madrassa, sending Taliban to Afghanistan, and being rewarded by Mullah Omar as shadow governor of Laghman province.” Khel’s wasted no time before adding to his roster of deadly enemies. Soon after his release, according to the intelligence officer, Khel had a direct role in ordering and planning the suicide-bomb assassination of Afghanistan’s then deputy chief of intelligence, Abdullah Laghmani.

That alone would have been reason enough for the NDS to want Khel dead, but beyond that, he brazenly carried on his work for the Taliban in plain sight, just across the border from Afghanistan. “He was running his madrassa very openly,” says one of the mullah’s close friends, a subcommander in Ghazni province. When Khalid decided to make his mark as the new NDS chief, there was no need to look far for Khel.

Suspicion is growing among the insurgents that Khalid is preparing to launch a shadow war against Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and that the attempt on Khel’s life is only the beginning. Others suggest that the CIA, long hobbled by the ban against drone strikes in Quetta, may have had a hand in the shooting.

In fact, however, there’s no way to rule out the possibility that Khel was targeted by hardliners among the Taliban. According to at least one Taliban source he had antagonized some of the younger extremists by denouncing them for carrying out bombings at mosques and resorting to other tactics that kill civilians.

The source says Khel’s complaints have particularly angered the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan). “He was abducted and beaten up in Waziristan up few months back by TTP clerics because he criticized the TTP for attacking public places in Pakistan,” the source says, adding that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the de facto chief of the pro-Afghan Taliban Haqqani Network, finally prevailed on the clerics to let Khel go.

On top of Khel’s other problems, Taliban sources say a cloud has descended on him because of his alleged ties to Maulvi Ishmael (a.k.a. Mullah Ismail), a former senior insurgent leader who is said to have been killed for making unauthorized peace overtures to the Karzai government. So far no one has publicly claimed responsibility for the shooting. The only certainty is that many of Khel’s friends are asking whether they’re next.