Initial thoughts: death of Samangani
By Tim Foxley
Summary: A northern warlord/MP is assassinated. Taliban denials do not get them off the hook as potential suspects, but northern warlords may also have motive. A struggle to fill the power vacuum in the north may result.
On 14th July, an ethnic Uzbek Member of Afghan Parliament, Ahmed Khan Samangani, died in a suicide attack while attending the wedding of his daughter in Northern Afghanistan. The single suicide bomber was believed to be embracing Samangani when he detonated the explosive device. The explosion may have killed between 15 – 22 and wounded between 40 – 60 Afghans, almost entirely civilian. A provincial chief of intelligence and an Afghan Army general are also reported amongst the dead, with a police commander – a relative of Samangani – among the wounded. The Taliban have denied the attack.
There are rarely any definite and definitive answers to these kind of assassinations, particularly if no one claims it. There are a few possible explanations:
- warlord versus warlord power struggles (e.g. control of a drug-trafficking route or similar “turf” battle),
- central government versus regional powerbrokers (control over economic or security assets?)
- part of the wider insurgency war (Taliban, HIG, Haqqani…?)
- an individual grudge or grievance (e.g. target held responsible for death of a relative)
- combinations of the above
A Taliban denial does not mean they were not responsible, but they normally tend to claim the killing of key opponents:
“We don’t have a hand in this issue,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Reuters news agency.
“Ahmad Khan was a former commander of the mujahideen, he was notorious and many people could have had problems with him,” he said.
This actually sounds plausible, but the Taliban are also much more cautious where it comes to claiming attacks that cause large-scale civilian casualties and have frequently denied attacks in the past when it has subsequently emerged just how many Moslem civilians they have killed.
When a warlord dies violently, there is often some form of power struggle over his assets and area of influence. We may see one in the coming months. These are uncertain times in Afghanistan. International forces are pulling out, funding – the pronouncements of the Tokyo donor conference notwithstanding – and international aid more generally looks problematic. Key powerbrokers across Afghanistan, inside and outside of government, are likely to be reviewing their alliances and powerbases – economic, security and political positions may need rebalancing. Samangani has been described as both a rival to and supporter of Abdul Rashid Dostum, still probably the most powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord in northern Afghanistan, which may suggest a certain fluidity in his relationship.
In this context it is possible to see scenarios in which scores are settled, rivals edged out, areas of influence reinforced and maybe even new assets grabbed. In the specific case of Samangani, it is possible to see both Tajik and Uzbek commanders standing to gain personally from Samangani’s death just as much as the Taliban might.
Ethnic Uzbek, born around 1957, in Samangan. Fought as a commander in the Mujahideen against the Soviets. His power base is Samangan province. In the early 1990s, he continued to operate a militia force in the north, and was first aligned to Jamiat-e Islami (predominantly ethnic Tajik) before changing to serve alongside Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Jonbesh-e Milli faction in approximately 1993. His forces continued to clash with Jamiat factions even after 2001 – including against Noor Mohamed Atta, now governor of Balkh province (Mazar-e Sharif the provincial capital), which borders Samangan province. He went through an official government disarmament process in 2005 and was elected as a member of parliament in that year. In 2007 he was victim of an attempted assassination, for which he blamed Dostum. In the 2010 parliamentary elections he was disqualified on the grounds of fraud, which he strongly contested.