Amrullah Saleh, The Geo-Intelligent Afghan
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
If you were to ask me 'What are your views on Afghanistan?', till about a month ago I may have only responded as - 'Another nuisance creating country besides our special neighbor'.
It was difficult for me to think of anything good that had come out of that hostile terrain in recent times (apart from their dry fruits which I savor in my ice-cream). Perhaps, it was years of terrorism-themed news that had led to the formation of this metaphorical dust-ball (tumbleweed).
Therefore, when I was watching Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi struggling for words in an interview to a very young Afghan journalist, I was taken aback. The journalist, Lotfullah Najafizada, unlike his Pakistani counterparts, was very sharp & well prepared. In fact, he could actually give many an Indian pro journos a run for their money!
However, it was not until a few days later, when I chanced upon Stephen Sackur's (BBC HARDTalk) interview with the impressive first Vice President of Afghanistan - Amrullah Saleh, that I realized my perceptions would need some course-correction. So, after feasting on more online content from this ever so striking individual, today my compass has truly moved, and how!
So much so that I have created an compilation of excerpts from his English speeches and interviews which you can access towards the end of this article or from this Youtube link.
This article is a departure from the usual geo / mapping-tech related content I write in this professional blog. Notwithstanding my personal admiration for this charismatic Afghan personality, I believe Saleh's story, views & concerns about his beloved country and the geo-politics involved in the region needs to reverberate, especially considering its current plight in the wake of impending complete US troops withdrawal and the Taliban regaining notoriety every passing day.
Amrullah Saleh has had quite a remarkable journey so far. Hailing from a destitute background but being well built regardless, he narrowly avoided being conscripted into the Soviet backed Afghan army.
Instead, Saleh joined and trained with rebel groups, rising into prominence in his intelligence based role with one such group - the Northern Alliance which, led by its influential military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, fiercely opposed the Taliban and its extremist Islamic views.
Following the downfall of the Soviets, Saleh mainstreamed with the Afghan government, and soon enough (at the age of 32!) he was appointed as the Head of the National Directorate of Security - the central intelligence agency of Afghanistan. Apart from being a top spy, his remarkable clarity of thought & the ability to convey it effectively, endeared him to agencies & governments the world over.
Not being in favor of the then Afghan president Hamid Karzai's proclivity to appease the Taliban, Saleh expressed his discontent publicly and submitted his resignation thrice. He had the backing of US, which intervened twice to prevent it, reluctantly relenting the third time.
A combative nationalist that he was, he proceeded to create a grass-root movement (Afghanistan Green Trend) to counter the government's stance and propound his beliefs regarding democracy and reform.
If what others say of you matters, then this tribute by his colleague, the then national security advisor Rangin Spanta, is a testament to his prowess -
“With Amrullah Saleh, the Afghan people have lost a huge treasure of commitment, awareness and experience in this struggle against terrorism, Al Qaeda and the ISI. I can’t think of anyone who will be able to even slightly fill the vacuum that he leaves behind. Besides being a highly efficient chief at the N.D.S., he is a man of knowledge and research with an incredible memory and intellect. When he analyzed issues at international meetings, he exhibited tremendous ability at logical reasoning. He was head and shoulder above others."
"I had many differences in arguments with him, but I always saw his presence at the N.D.S. as a huge advantage to this country and this government. Despite my high respects for the president’s decisions, I am extremely mournful about Saleh’s departure. Extremely mournful."
Saleh resolved his differences with the current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and resumed national security duties, serving in positions such as that of the Interior Minister. During this short phase, he is said to have made considerable progress in reducing crime rates and corruption in urban centres of Afghanistan. Soon after, Saleh decided to contest elections as part of Ghani's team and became the 1st Vice President of Afghanistan in February 2020, the office which he continues to serve till the time of writing this article.
It can be concluded that his strong sense of nationalism and democratic values drew him to politics. From a rebel beginning to being one of the most heard and respected voices from the Afghan Government, Saleh's rise is noteworthy and he continues to espouse the cause of the ethnically diverse Afghan population the world over.
While 'deception' is regarded as a top trait of spies, this sincere and heartfelt tribute from a keen disciple to his martyred master gives us solid insights about Saleh's character, motivations and ideology. Two aspects struck me in particular - a) the emphasis on thirst for intelligence and good information and b) negotiating selflessly for Afghanistan's cause.
Tribute to Ahmad Shah Massoud
Saleh, by virtue of being an astute spy, was expected to be very geo / location intelligent. There are two events which stand out in particular in this context -
1. Locating the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden
This was, perhaps, his claim to fame moment. As the Head of Intelligence, he bolstered the reach of his sources and was convinced by as early as 2005 that a) OBL was not present in Afghanistan at all and b) zeroed in OBLs location to Mansehra, Pakistan - 12 miles from where he was eventually killed - Abbottabad. Not only OBL, he had also given intelligence inputs regarding Al-Zawahiri and the Taliban leadership to the US.
It must have helped that Saleh had trained with the rebels (Mujahideens) in Peshawar as a young adult and, therefore, knew the Afghan-Pak terrain very well which enabled him to source quality intelligence inputs.
Saleh also insisted that the Taliban leadership, unlike its foot soldiers, did not reside in remote mountain caves in Afghanistan or in tribal areas around Afghan-Pak border (FATF). Rather, they (continue to) lead luxurious lives in settled areas / cities of Pakistan.
2. Escaping the brutal assassination attempt on him in 2019
His prolific success makes him a hot target for crime bosses, terrorist outfits and their masters - the Pakistani establishment & ISI, of whom he is a very vocal critic of. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he has been subject to several assassination attempts in the past, each more cunningly devised than the previous one. That he has escaped unscathed so far can be attributed to both preparation & good fortune (You may read: The Nine Lives of Amrullah Saleh).
In July 2019, six suicide bombers laid siege on Amrullah Saleh's commercial residence. The planning was meticulous - it only took six minutes for the terrorists to reach him - right from entering the fortified street in a bomb-rigged vehicle to launching a fierce assault on the heavily guarded office building and reaching the fourth floor where Saleh used to work from. From being in a state of daze to regaining his composure and devising a plan of action in such a short span of time would have required tremendous fortitude. Saleh had carefully planned the building layout - he had given himself private access to the building's roof, where he hid a large cache of weapons - to deal with such an eventuality. Together with his inner security entourage, they set up strategic positions there. An intense hour-long battle ensued following which they managed to jump off to the neighboring building and continued to fight till additional help arrived, enabling Saleh to escape. The ordeal lasted for six hours in total and more than twenty people died. In the video below, Saleh recounts the details of the harrowing incident while taking a journalist on a tour of the destroyed site (Language used is Pashto though).
A curtailed video on the same with English subtitles can be found here and an interview on the subject matter in New York Times can be read from here - An Afghan Candidate Wrote His Will, Then Survived a Suicide Squad.
There are other incidents involving Saleh which are incredible in their own way. Consider these two tales-
Incident 1: Act of increduilty in the immediate aftermath of the July 2019 attack (The New York Times) -
Incident 2: Identifying an impostor claiming to represent Taliban commander Mullah Mansour (Wikipedia) -
Therefore, due to his substantive work at the grass-root level, deep involvement in intelligence, security matters and his strong sense of nationalism, the voice of Amrullah Saleh carries considerable weight and should be a guiding light for those who want to understand the geo-politics involving Afghanistan and its people who have been under invasion for the past four decades.
So how does Amrullah Saleh envision the future of Afghanistan? What are his core beliefs, threat perceptions and recommendations?
I have summarized it below, however, you may also choose to hear from the man himself in this select excerpts compilation I've made from his speeches and interviews. You may be amazed to see how accurate his assessments were, given Afghanistan's current predicament.
Here are 5 common themes which I've observed in Saleh's public messaging -
a) A pluralistic society is the only solution for long-lasting peace in Afghanistan. Saleh has always maintained that 'negotiating a deal' with the Taliban is an unwise move. The only way to eliminate the Taliban threat forever, according to him, is to have them choose to integrate with the society and live by its democratic values rather than giving them room to impose their beliefs on Afghan citizens.
b) The USA / NATO forces are leaving because of war fatigue and because their national interest calls for it, however, their mission in Afghanistan is not fulfilled and the troop withdrawal is likely to descend Afghanistan to pre-2000 civil strife era. He warns that a short period of ceasefire / inactivity should not be misconstrued as a sign of everlasting peace as the Taliban at their core remain an extremist organization and will continue to spread fear and violence. That being said, he is confident that the Afghans will continue to resist and will prevail eventually as they are much better equipped to deal with the threat now, drawing from the learning from their previous experience under the rule of Taliban's clerical dictatorship model.
c) Pakistan's military establishment and ISI's continued support of the Taliban is the root-cause behind Afghanistan's perennial state of misery. Saleh proclaims that Pakistan, by virtue of being a major non-NATO ally, has escaped being brought to task thus far for its misdeeds. While it is in the open now that Pakistan harbors the Taliban leadership and supports its activities, Saleh insists that this is not done by some rogue elements within the Pakistan military as some believe, rather, it is in the establishment's stated policy to keep Afghanistan in a constant state of conflict to obtain strategic depth against India and to milk monetary aid from the West. Saleh reveals that militant extremism acts as an outer ring of deterrence in Pakistan's quest to safeguard its nuclear assets.
d) India is a strong regional supporter of the Afghan cause. Saleh indicates that India has enormous goodwill in Afghan hearts as it promotes development and democratic values in the country and does not have a selfish agenda as other countries do. Moreover, India and Afghanistan share a common foe in the form of Pakistan and therefore, should work together on security structures to deal with the threat. (Pakistanis often accuse Saleh of being an Indian agent in Afghanistan. So what even if he is one?, I wonder.)
e) Afghanistan comprises an ethnically diverse group of people - a demographic reality which countries and groups exploit to harass them. However, he reckons that there is not enough literature highlighting the strong national bonds of Afghans. The very fact that they continue to survive in hostile conditions where anyone else would have crumbled, is a testament to their collective resilience and the global order should acknowledge this reality as well.
Closing remarks: The current geo-political situation in Afghanistan signifies a battle between a group of stubbornly violent people and a group of violently stubborn people. Amrullah Saleh and the people of Afghanistan deserve better and one hopes that they continue to thwart the actions of misguided fundamentalists and uphold the rule of democracy in the country.
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