The many faces of Afghanistan’s spy chief

As he recovers from an attempt on his life, Asadullah Khalid’s controversial past clouds his rising political influence.

Asadullah Khalid
A Canadian official has accused Asadullah Khalid (second from right) of operating a 'dungeon' [EPA]

For those that know him best, Asadullah Khalid has always been “a man of action”.

His reputation for “assertiveness” has ingratiated the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) – the Afghan intelligence agency – with some of the most powerful figures in the nation.

But Khalid’s literally hands-on methods have also earned him powerful enemies abroad and a reputation for ruthlessness. He has been accused of assassinations, torture, and drug-dealing as governor of Ghazni and Kandahar provinces.  

Despite the allegations, Khalid is a favourite among Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle. So it came as little surprise when Karzai rushed to a Kabul hospital to visit his spy chief hours after a December 6 suicide attack wounded him.

“It’s not clear to me that Khalid was so uniquely hostile to Pakistani interests as to merit targeted assassination during a period of broader rapprochement.

– Colin Cookman, Center for American Progress

The assailant pretended to be a “messenger of peace and negotation from the Taliban side” before detonating explosives hidden in his underwear at a government guesthouse, an intelligence agency spokesman said. Khalid survived and is now in a US-run military hospital, though the seriousness of his wounds remains unclear.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, the fifth attempt on Khalid’s life in five years.

“Karzai was in shock. His reaction was the same as when he got the news about Ahmad Wali,” a high-ranking cabinet official said, referring to the July 2011 assassination of the president’s half-brother, who was close to Khalid.

That closeness earned Khalid the respect of the elder Karzai, who named him Afghanistan’s intelligence chief in September.

Wahid Monawar, former permanent representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Vienna, described Khalid as genuinely loyal to the president, a rare trait that earned the 42-year-old many high-level posts, including governor of Kandahar province.

Karzai’s man

Three high-level officials spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, all citing a fear of offending Khalid and his powerful allies. 

An intelligence official within the NDS said Khalid hadn’t waited for a ministerial post to begin his fight against the Taliban and foreign elements. Khalid first went up against the Taliban as part of the forces of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a current member of parliament and former warlord during the 1990s.

Those who spoke to Al Jazeera all pointed to Khalid as a driving force against the Taliban. When fighters launched an attack in the Arghandab Valley during the summer of 2008, Khalid flew back from the United States “and picked up a gun himself”, said the cabinet official.

Khalid has also faced allegations of using his influence to assist Karzai during the 2009 presidential election. Already there’s speculation of the role he might play in the next presidential vote, scheduled for April 2014, an official in the Electoral Complaints Commission said.

But some say Khalid represents the exact kind of leadership that is lacking in the Central Asian nation.

Afghans appreciate his style, said the cabinet official, because they know “democracy will not work in Afghanistan. Instead, we need something more akin to dictatorship”.

As evidence that a hardline approach works in Afghanistan, the cabinet official highlighted the November executions of 16 “terrorists, murderers, kidnappers, and rapists”.

Others in the international community, however, disagree with that approach. Citing “the weakness of the Afghan legal system”, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Kabul government to halt the “sudden surge of executions”.

The European Union, which recently suspended $25m in judicial aid because of a lack of progress in fighting corruption, urged the Afghan government to take “a first step toward definitive abolition of capital punishment”.

Support of ordinary Afghans

But the cabinet official said the executions were largely supported by the Afghan people.


“This is not a democratic mindset, but it is prevalent. This is why people support someone like Khalid. He takes definitive steps,” the official said.

People have also been swayed by the confidence the NDS chief exudes.

When asked about him, many Afghans cite Khalid as one of the only high-level ministers who walks around freely without a bodyguard.

The NDS official told Al Jazeera that Khalid “did everything on his own accord, he rarely ever consulted anyone else”.

But Monawar said that in his conversations with officials in US and Afghan intelligence, it is clear Khalid’s “self-realisation and political maturity was borne with his appointment as NDS chief. In a very short period of time, he had impressed many in Washington while managing to make Islamabad increasingly nervous”.

Karzai claimed Khalid’s attacker entered the country through Pakistan – without implicating the Pakistani state outright. Afghan lawmaker Fawzia Koofi of Badakhshan province was less coy. “For the Afghan government and people, the message of such attacks is to know that Pakistan wants to impose its agendas in Afghanistan.”

Not everyone’s convinced, though.

Colin Cookman, a security policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington DC-based think-tank, said it was unlikely the attack originated in Islamabad.

“It’s not clear to me that Khalid was so uniquely hostile to Pakistani interests as to merit targeted assassination during a period of broader rapprochement. That would suggest either a serious disconnect within the Pakistani security establishment, or minimal involvement on its part.”

Torture and trafficking

Khalid’s reputation among rights groups and Western governments – unlike the Afghan government – is far less positive.

The cabinet official said Khalid was “a constant point of contention between Karzai and the Canadians” while he was governor of Ghazni and Kandahar provinces.

Richard Colvin, a former Canadian deputy ambassador to Afghanistan who worked closely with Khalid, testified before the Canadian parliament in 2009 that Khalid was directly involved in torture.

Citing “very credible evidence”, Colvin said as far back as the summer of 2006, Khalid was known “to have had a dungeon in Ghazni … where he used to detain people for money … He was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way.”

Josh Shahryar is an Afghan journalist based in the United States who met Khalid in 2005. 

“Khalid’s ‘assertiveness’ is in essence his disregard for laws and taking matters into his own hands to deal with a problem for which there is the Afghan National Police,” said Shahryar. 

Khalid’s reputation was again called into question by Monawar when he served as Afghanistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Vienna in 2007. As the leader of the province with the highest rate of poppy production, Khalid was one of two governors invited by the UN to give presentations on creating poppy-free provinces.

“Khalid seemed scattered and often missed important meetings,” Monawar said. “He had no clear plan on how to eradicate opium in Kandahar, or even to follow through with existing plans.”

What he did have, however, was an excellent rapport with tribal elders, added Monawar.

A 2009 report by Kabul Press, a local syndicated media outlet, cited sources in the presidential palace calling Khalid “the most crucial member of a narcotics producing and smuggling syndicate”.

Khalid dismissed the charges as “just propaganda”, but when he was being considered for the NDS post in August, Human Rights Watch called on Karzai to appoint a new spy chief whose “integrity and commitment to human rights is above reproach”.

Karzai’s decision to award him the post despite the outcry “indicates the degree to which Karzai trusts Khalid to protect his interests”, said Cookman.

With questions now surrounding Khalid’s health, it remains to be seen if the controversial figure will continue to be a major power-broker in Afghanistan’s future.

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

Source: Al Jazeera