They have come as young children, uniformed personnel, close confidants, and now as a turbaned commoner.
A suicide bomber, reportedly with explosives concealed in his turban, killed Kandahar mayor Ghulam Haider Hameedi on July 27 morning. The bomber had arrived at the mayor’s office with a group of men who wanted to discuss a dispute related to land ownership and property destruction.
Hameedi was about to speak to citizens who were protesting the destruction of about 200 illegal houses in Kandahar’s sprawling slum of Lowe-Wala, which is considered a hotbed for Taliban supporters. The mayor had launched a campaign against squatters in Lowe-Wala. This sparked a protest on July 26 in front of the governor’s palace during which about 200 angry residents of the slum chanted “death to the mayor.”
The killing indicates that the Taliban are using local grievances and support to carry out targeted assassinations.
Hameedi, a long time friend of President Hamid Karzai, had been mayor of Kandahar since 2007. He was working as an accountant in a travel agency in Alexandria, Virginia, before moving back to Afghanistan to become the mayor.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for this the second assassination of a high-profile Kandahar politician this July. Two of Hameedi’s deputy mayors had been killed in attacks by insurgents in 2010.
Kandahar province is the Taliban’s birthplace and a focus of recent US efforts to turn the tide against the insurgency in the decade-long war. According to a recent UN report, more than half of all targeted killings in Afghanistan between April and June this year were in Kandahar.
I had argued in an earlier article, “Afghanistan’s killing fields,” that such killings of high ranking officials and political leaders are serious setbacks for the Karzai government, especially when the country is going through the crucial transition process.
Coming within days after the killing of President Hamid Karzai’s half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar and Presidential advisor Jan Mohammad in the outskirts of Kabul, such killings mark the continuation of a targeted campaign by Taliban against top Afghan leaders and officials.
The danger is that the power vacuum thus created in the south could lead to a major crisis for regime in Kabul, which has always been Pustun dominated. Moreover, it also indicates an eroding support base for the Afghan president among the Pushtuns.
Seen in the context of the ongoing reconciliation process with the Taliban, these killings also represent the marginalization of those who have either opposed the reconciliation process or have gained significant clout of their own.
From a tactical point if view, the Taliban appears to have mastered the art of exploiting the existing vulnerabilities in the security system. In Afghanistan, it is forbidden to touch a man’s turban, something akin to the importance the Sikh community in India attaches to its headgear. Thus, turbans are never taken off or scanned for presence of explosives.
This is the second time this month that a suicide bomber has used his turban to conceal explosives with deadly results. Two weeks ago a teenage bomber entered a mosque where a memorial service was being held for Ahmad Wali Karzai, the assassinated brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The suicide bomber triggered explosives in his turban and killed a senior cleric in Kandahar as well as two mourners and injured 15.
As the leadership gets targeted and eliminated, leading to a leadership crisis, the government and the security establishment would have to find ways to protect its leaders. Isolating them from the public would cut them off from the local populace, affecting their credibility. In the battle to win over the confidence of the civilians, emphasis needs to be on securing both the leadership and populace, through greater reliance of human intelligence and policing capabilities.
(Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS) in Singapore. She can be reached at email@example.com and tweeted @shanmariet)