Bomb kills Taliban leader, ends humiliating affront

By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Taimoor Shah
New York Times / February 17, 2009
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KABUL, Afghanistan - Before he was killed during the weekend, it was not always easy to track the ways that Maulavi Ghulam Dastagir had become an acute shame to the Afghan government.

He was a Taliban commander who had helped upend what was once a relatively peaceful area in the northwest, near the Turkmenistan border - betraying the idea that the Taliban controlled only the south and east.

Three months ago, he pulled off one of his most audacious raids, destroying an Afghan army convoy and killing at least 13 men in a battle that ended only when helicopter gun ships arrived to reinforce the 200 besieged Afghan soldiers and police.

But it was not the ambush in and of itself that made Dastagir famous across Afghanistan.

Two months earlier, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, had personally intervened to release Dastagir from jail, where he was being held on charges of conspiring with the Taliban.

To many Afghans, the ambush seemed to vividly confirm one of the most biting complaints here: that the corrupt and the criminal often find a way to get out of jail. And it did it in a way that seemed to implicate the highest authority in the land.

The presidents' aides protested that Dastagir had been pardoned only because tribal elders had begged for his release and vouched for his future conduct.

That explanation did little to quell the hue and cry. Nor did Dastagir quietly count his blessings and slink back into hiding.

"I am a jihadist, I will continue my jihad," he said in a telephone interview soon after the November ambush. Reveling in his good luck, he laughed and added, "My morale is very high."

But in the wilds of Afghanistan, fortunes can change in an instant.

On Sunday night, five bombs fell on a compound in Badghis Province, where Dastagir and a half-dozen fellow Taliban commanders were meeting, one of his other commanders said in a telephone interview yesterday.

His men rushed to the scene about 10:30 p.m. But all they found were mangled bodies - "martyrs," the commander said - buried beneath rubble.

Stunned that the bombs had found their once-indestructible leader, the men started looking for a snitch.

"The Taliban have launched a search for whoever was behind this attack," said the Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified. "We are looking for those who might have given information to the foreign military about his location."

A statement by the US military command in Kabul did little to discourage the notion that Dastagir was betrayed by someone close, explaining that he had been pinpointed by "intelligence sources."

His death was a rare bit of good news for Karzai, who has been besieged by criticism, not only at home but from his ally, the United States.

Karzai's biggest mistake might have been failing to know that some of the tribal elders who sought Dastagir's release had been threatened and forced to seek the pardon by the Taliban, as some elders later admitted.

A Karzai spokesman could not be reached yesterday to discuss Dastagir's demise. A government statement said his death "will enhance the development and security of the area."

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