Killing of adviser another blow to Afghan leader

July 18, 2011 - 1:32 AM
Afghanistan

Smoke rises after a coalition air strike against a building believed occupied by Taliban fighters in Kuz Kunar, Nangarhar province east of Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, July 17, 2011. Afghan and NATO officials say at least 13 insurgents have been killed in eastern Afghanistan after gunbattles and a coalition airstrike against a building occupied by Taliban fighters. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Gunmen strapped with explosives killed a close adviser to President Hamid Karzai and a member of parliament in the latest high-profile insurgent strike against the Afghan leader's inner circle.

Jan Mohammed Khan, a close adviser to Karzai on tribal issues, as well as parliamentarian Mohammed Ashim Watanwal were killed in the brazen late-night attack on Khan's home in western Kabul.

Security forces quickly killed one of the assailants, but the second attacker barricaded himself inside the house and battled police outside. The crackle of gunfire and small explosions finally ended about 3 a.m. Monday morning and reporters on the scene saw a body — presumably that of the final attacker — dragged out of the house on a plastic sheet. One police officer also was killed, according to the Interior Ministry.

The assassination threw a pall over two events marking the shift to the next phase of the Afghan conflict — the transfer of an entire province to Afghan security control on Sunday and Monday's transfer of authority for NATO and U.S. forces from Gen. David Petraeus to Lt. Gen. John Allen.

The killing of Khan, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, is the second high-profile assassination in Afghanistan in less than a week. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and one of the most powerful men in southern Afghanistan, was gunned down last week by a close associate.

The attack on Khan began Sunday evening when two men wearing suicide bomb vests and armed with guns knocked at a side door at Khan's home in western Kabul and then, when a man who worked at the house opened the gate, punched him and pushed past him into the residence, said Mohammad Yusuf, the man who opened the door.

"Then the shooting started," Yusuf said. It was not immediately clear whether there had been armed guards outside the door.

A relative who was inside the house said the attackers went straight for the room where Khan and Watanwal, a lawmaker from Uruzgan province, were talking.

"They went in there with their guns and started shooting and just killed them," said Najibullah, a young man who spoke through tears and only gave one name. Defense department officials confirmed the deaths.

Khan was governor of the Pashtun-dominated Uruzgan province in the south from 2002 until March 2006 and has remained influential in the area. Though he was often labeled a warlord and a thug by the international community, presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said Karzai considered him a key partner in the south and a bulwark against the Taliban.

"Jan Mohammed Khan was one of the most influential leaders in the south, especially in Uruzgan," Omar said.

As an example of Karzai's trust in Khan, Omar explained a tribal dispute the adviser helped calm.

"Only two months ago, Jan Mohammed Khan resolved a huge dispute between the Hazaras in Uruzgan and one of the Pashtun tribes. The president said, 'Jan Mohammed Khan was the only one who can resolve that problem because both sides respect him,'" Omar recalled.

He said Karzai would not have removed Khan as governor except for pressure from the international community, which wrongly accused him of criminal activity.

"He was one of the most hard-line opponents and enemies of the Taliban," Omar said.

It was unclear how influential Khan was with Karzai, but he was thought to wield considerable influence in Uruzgan.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the insurgent group.

Mujahid said the Taliban killed Khan because he was assisting coalition forces in carrying out night raids against Afghans. The controversial raids have been highly effective in capturing or killing hundreds of Taliban fighters and midlevel commanders. Karzai has complained the operations anger many Afghans who are mistakenly targeted.

"He was cooperating and helping the American forces," Mujahid said in an emailed statement.

The Taliban had also claimed responsibility for Tuesday's killing of Karzai's half brother, who was shot dead by a close associate. Wali Karzai's death left the president without an influential ally to balance the interests of the southern region's tribal and political leaders, drug runners, insurgents and militias.

Sunday's violence marred the handover of control of a peaceful province in the center of the country to Afghan police, another step in a transition that will allow foreign troops to withdraw in full by the end of 2014.

Bamiyan province is one of seven areas going to Afghan security control this month in a first round of the transition. Another, Panjshir province in the east, began being transferred earlier this month. Both places have seen little to no fighting since the overthrow of the Taliban nearly 10 years ago and barely had any coalition troop presence.

Bamiyan only had a small foreign troop contingent from New Zealand. Bamiyan and Panjshir are the only two provinces that will be handed over in their entirety during this month's transition phase.

Other areas to be handed over are the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east. Afghan forces will also take control of all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district.

But recent attacks in the capital have served as a reminder of how much Afghan forces still depend on international help in Kabul.

New Zealand special forces were called in to help with Sunday night's attack, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said in a press conference Monday.

He said the New Zealand troops began in a mentoring role but then shifted into an "operational" combat role as the attack unfolded. Key declined to give further details of what happened.

It's the second time in three weeks that the New Zealand Special Air Service group (SAS), which is in Afghanistan primarily to mentor Afghan security forces, has become actively involved in active combat. The SAS was also involved in countering insurgents who attacked the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul on June 29.

___

Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Patrick Quinn in Kabul and Nick Perry in New Zealand, contributed to this report.