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The nine lives of Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former spy chief and VP hopeful

Mohammad Ismail, Reuters | File photo of Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan's former spy chief and vice presidential hopeful.

Amrullah Saleh, a vice presidential hopeful in Afghanistan's upcoming polls, narrowly escaped another assassination attempt on Sunday. His survival mirrors that of his country and could be a harbinger of things to come.

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Amrullah Saleh has donned many hats in the course of his eventful life and has served in several positions in Afghanistan, including as spy chief, interior minister and now Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate in upcoming elections.

Along the way, the pugnacious intelligence chief-turned-politician has made some lethal enemies, many of whom, it could be said, would prefer him dead.

He hasn’t given them that satisfaction yet.

Saleh’s latest death-defying experience is the most alarming to date, underscoring the failure of the US-led international mission in Afghanistan and America’s post-World War II predilection for abandoning allies to their fates.

It comes as Afghan and American politicians are eyeing presidential elections in their respective countries, with President Donald Trump pushing for a peace deal with the Taliban ahead of the November 2020 US election.

On Sunday, as Afghanistan was marking the start of the 2019 presidential campaign season, a coordinated suicide and gun attack on Saleh’s party headquarters in Kabul killed 20 people – most of them civilians – and wounded 50 others.

Saleh narrowly escaped by jumping off the roof of the four-story structure onto a neighbouring building as attackers – armed with suicide vests and guns – made their way to his office on the top floor, just minutes after a massive car bombing shook the premises.

Like many Afghans, Bilal Sarwary, a seasoned Afghan journalist, was not surprised by the latest attempt on Saleh’s life. But he was stunned by the sophistication of the attack.

“I was quite shocked with how far the attackers got. I have been to his office and home, I’ve had coffee with Saleh in his fourth-floor office, and his security is very tight. The attack was clearly very sophisticated and well planned," said Sarwary. "They must have rented a house near the building, someone must have provided the complicated office plan. I can’t imagine how they got to the fourth floor."

‘Hit me more. Hit me again’

The 46-year-old Afghan candidate has survived so many assassination attempts that a popular aphorism about Saleh’s “nine lives” has been gaining traction in Kabul circles.

Death, in its most sudden, violent form, is a prospect Saleh has confronted for over a decade and it’s a subject he has frequently addressed in media interviews.

“I am a very, very legitimate target,” said Saleh in a 2009 interview with a US television network. “And if they kill me, I have told my family and my friends not to complain about anything because I have killed many of them with pride,” he added, his eyebrows emphatically shooting up.

A decade later, Saleh was at it again. This week in an interview with the New York Times after Sunday’s attack, he recounted how he had recently updated his will.

A compact, physically fit man, Saleh has routinely brushed aside concerns over his security. But the celebrated survivor appeared to be suffering from survivor’s guilt as he recounted how a relative of a bodyguard slain in the July 28 attack slapped the Afghan vice presidential candidate during a hospital visit early Monday. “I pulled him in and said, ‘Hit me more’,” Saleh told the Times. “He hit me again.”

Asking his bodyguards to step back, Saleh said he asked the grieving relative whether his own death would have eased his pain. When the man replied in the affirmative, Saleh said, “I pulled my handgun, loaded it, and gave it to him.”

The young man hesitated before returning the gun, Saleh said. The story promptly went viral in Afghan social media circles along with messages of support for a “brave Afghan patriot”.

From poverty to politics

In many ways, the life and times of Amrullah Saleh reflect the crises Afghanistan has faced over four decades of war and resistance.

As the US seeks to wind down its nearly 18-year military operation in Afghanistan, Saleh’s unyielding, sometimes controversial positions on current negotiations with the Taliban is a harbinger of the challenges the country is likely to face if it is to achieve a just and lasting peace.

A member of the Tajik ethnic group, Saleh was born in the picturesque Panjshir region north of Kabul a few years before the 1979 Soviet invasion. While little is known about his childhood, Saleh’s friends and supporters say he was orphaned at a young age, leaving the family landless and destitute. As a young man, he joined the mujahideen resistance under Afghan resistance hero Ahmed Shah Masood, rising up the ranks to become the group’s liaison officer for foreign intelligence services.

Following the 2001 US invasion, Afghan president Hamid Karzai appointed Saleh as head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). His stint as spy chief ended in 2010 following a Taliban attack on a peace jirga in Kabul. In an interview with a US TV station, Saleh said he quit when Karzai – who was reaching out to the Taliban – refused to believe his intelligence chief when he revealed the Taliban was responsible for the attack.

Saleh became a household name in Afghanistan after his NDS resignation, when he formed a political movement, Afghanistan Green Trend, grabbing headlines as he rallied thousands with his message opposing a deal with the Taliban “without justice”.

In 2018, President Ghani appointed him interior minister, a position Saleh held until his shock resignation earlier this year to join Ghani’s re-election team as a running mate.

Saleh is an articulate, astute analyst and a frequent speaker at international security and policy forums. Back home, the outspoken Afghan politician has a fair number of detractors who disagree with his anti-Taliban message. But even his worst critics and foes concede that he is a patriot with a reputation for probity in Afghanistan’s notoriously corrupt political circles.

“He is perhaps the only Afghan politician I know who is an avid reader – the depth of his analysis is impeccable. I have not seen any leader of his generation who is as well-read and creative,” said Sarwary. “His politics, while emotional at times, is intelligent and consistent. Amrullah Saleh has not changed his stance on the Taliban. He can be awfully stubborn at times, but there’s absolutely no doubt he is a patriot and a courageous one at that.”

An able administrator, Saleh is credited with rebuilding the NDS after the 9/11 attacks and the creation of Afghanistan’s elite rapid reaction forces. “But from my point of view, Saleh is most liked in Afghanistan for what he did during his brief stint as interior minister, when he took on crime and increased the stature of the Afghan police,” said Sarwary.

Resisting pressure to delay polls

The latest attack on Saleh’s party headquarters comes as the vice-presidential candidate has kept up a tirade against the US-led negotiations with the Taliban, warning that a deal rushed through without justice and a disarmament process will not bring stability to Afghanistan.

After decades of war, Afghans are eager to end the bloodshed in their homeland. But while most agree that entails negotiations with the Taliban, some Afghans – particularly among the minority non-Pashtun ethnic groups – are concerned that a hasty US troop withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to Taliban abuses.

Saleh’s anti-Taliban message resonates with these sections of the population, according to Omar Samad, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France. “A large section of Afghan society has its doubts about the Taliban’s motivations. They are also concerned about an eventual power-sharing agreement that would impact the semi-democratic order that has been put in place in Afghanistan,” explained Samad.

Saleh has been particularly critical of the Afghan government’s official exclusion from the talks. While Afghan government officials have attended talks “in a personal capacity,” the Taliban regards Ghani’s government as an illegitimate “puppet of foreign states” and has refused to engage with the democratically elected government in Kabul.

Both Ghani and Saleh have resisted pressure to further delay the 2019 presidential election to protect the peace talks with the Taliban from political interference. The Afghan president and his running mate insist the government requires democratic legitimacy in order to negotiate with the Taliban.

The 2019 presidential election was originally set for April 20 before it was delayed to July 20. The election is now set for September 28.

Sunday’s attack underscores the heightened security threats the country faces in the lead-up to the presidential vote, according to Samad.

“Large parts of the country are not under government control, there’s heavy fighting and the electoral mechanisms are not trustworthy enough, leading to misgivings about a likely abuse of power for electoral purposes,” said Samad in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

“The timing of the attack was obviously pre-meditated and meant to send a clear message, which is, we, the enemy – whoever that is – we’re here in the heart of the city and can attack the heart of the country’s political structure,” added Samad.

A sophisticated attack with no claim

No individual or group has as yet claimed responsibility for the July 28 attack. While an investigation is under way, many Afghans suspect the Taliban is responsible, sparking speculations on social media sites.

A media-savvy man with a sizeable Twitter following, Saleh has been an outspoken critic of the Taliban, the military-intelligence establishment in neighbouring Pakistan, al Qaeda, as well as the Afghan crime bosses he took on as interior minister.

The absence of an immediate claim of Sunday’s attack underscores Saleh’s stature among his friends and foes.

Responding to a Twitter post about the “unusual” absence of a Taliban claim, Helena Malikyar, a political analyst and newly appointed Afghan ambassador to Italy, noted that: “Claiming responsibility discredits them [the Taliban] for attacking democracy and civilians. Not claiming it proves that they won’t be able to deliver on controlling other terror groups.”

The Taliban’s pledge to control threats from the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups is a key component of the ongoing peace talks.

Regardless of who carried out Sunday’s attack, Saleh is unlikely to be threatened into silence or submission. He has repeatedly vowed to “defend the dignity” of his country, whose fate he has likened to a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s a fitting metaphor for one of Afghanistan’s best-known survivors as he fights yet another battle, this time at the polls.

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