Out of the Shadows, an Afghan Spy Chief Joins Presidential Politics

Six years after he was gravely injured by a Taliban bomber, Asadullah Khalid, a former Afghan intelligence chief, is entering presidential politics as a party leader.CreditCreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — During his two years of recovery at Walter Reed, the American military’s pre-eminent medical facility, Asadullah Khalid was known as the miracle patient.

Mr. Khalid barely survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012, when he was the Afghan intelligence chief. A disguised suicide bomber had just finished lunch with Mr. Khalid, sitting right across from him, and set off his explosives at point-blank range as the dishes were being taken away.

Mr. Khalid’s torso was ripped apart, and it took dozens of operations before he could begin learning to walk again. His first three steps, he said, were the most painful moments he can remember.

Nearly six years after he cheated death, Mr. Khalid, 48, is facing long odds again, but of his own choosing. He is stepping out from the shadowy world of espionage that shaped him from a young age, and into the messy field of Afghan politics in the hopes of becoming president.

In recent weeks, he marshaled crowds of mostly young supporters at a rally in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and in Khost, in the southeast, to mark the creation of a political party that he hopes can become a factor in the presidential election next spring.

Mr. Khalid has been many things: a wunderkind operative and money man for the mujahedeen as they fought Afghanistan’s Communist regime in the 1980s; a provincial governor and staunch ally of the Americans as he hunted Taliban militants after the invasion; a feared spy chief followed by dark whispers about torture. Above all, he has been a survivor.

Now, he has also become a troubling development for Afghanistan’s struggling president, Ashraf Ghani.

“Can we keep quiet any longer about these two doctors?” Mr. Khalid said at the rally, referring to Mr. Ghani, a doctor of anthropology, and his coalition partner Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist.

In the absence of strong political parties, presidential hopes in Afghanistan live or die on an array of scattershot coalitions, each usually with a member of the Pashtun ethnic majority as its leader.

With the vote just months away, that coalition-building, and the jockeying among Pashtun public figures to lead them, is at a full sprint. The incumbent, Mr. Ghani, has declared that he will seek re-election, but his struggle on every front, from deteriorating security to the disintegration of the coalition that got him elected, has given hope to his potential opponents.

Young supporters dominated the crowd at the opening rally for Mr. Khalid’s political party on Aug. 2 in Kabul.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Presidential candidates won’t be registered until after the parliamentary elections in October. But many members of Mr. Ghani’s coalition are already positioning to rally behind others or throw their own hats in the ring. The latest of those defections is Hanif Atmar, Mr. Ghani’s influential national security adviser, who quit last week amid signs he is considering a run.

Several of the potential first-time contenders are, like Mr. Khalid, former security ministers. Although his chances are unclear, Mr. Khalid has in his favor his perceived closeness to the C.I.A. and other American officials (former President Barack Obama visited him in the hospital and kept an interest in his recovery), and an ease with the former Afghan warlords who are the current power brokers in the country’s politics.

His comeback has been a long road. His took his first physical steps years after the bombing, and his first political steps came years after his discharge from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington.

Largely at the urging of Americans, he helped mediate between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah when the two men, opponents in the bitterly contested 2014 elections, were at each other’s throats within a government that was supposed to be shared between them.

Then, over the past two years, he began working quietly to establish his party, Omid e Saba, as a grass-roots network of a new generation with him as its leader, as opposed to what he sees as Mr. Ghani’s largely centralized decision making and his tug of war with older political parties turning dynastic.

But as he tries to shape a new identity, his past looms large.

He not only came of age under the wings of some of the most controversial warlords associated with the past decades of the Afghan war, but he is also accused of having acted much like them when he became a young governor. Human rights organizations say that when Mr. Khalid ran the provinces of Ghazni and then Kandahar, he maintained private prisons where forces under his command tortured detainees.

Mr. Khalid has long denied those accusations.

“In the provinces, the governor is the overall in charge,” Mr. Khalid said. “If you have the police prison, and the police forces are your guards, what is the need for private prisons?”

In Afghanistan’s deteriorating security environment, where a resurgent Taliban is engineering deadly bombing attacks seemingly daily, politics is often a deadly business. Mr. Khalid’s opening rally, and its preparations, had the secrecy of an intelligence operation and the color and chaos of a summer camp.

He kept his program so under wraps that even the thousands of young people who arrived from more than a dozen provinces did not know where the Aug. 2 rally would be held until the last minute. He was preoccupied with security — trying to keep the rally as short as possible, and learning from recent attacks by making sure the crowd was dismissed gradually so suicide bombers wouldn’t target them on their way out the secured location.

Preparations on the eve of the rally ran late into the night at his home in Kabul, where Mr. Khalid finalized the details of the program with four other speakers. The master of ceremonies, a young man from the north, read the opening of his prepared remarks.

“Ministers, members of Parliament, excellencies,” he started.

Mr. Khalid cut him off. “There will be no excellencies, no ministers or M.P.s,” he said.


Members of Omid e Saba, Mr. Khalid’s new political party, in Kabul.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The young man seemed dismayed and confused.

“Is Mr. Karzai not coming?” he asked, referring to Hamid Karzai, who was president when Mr. Khalid was spy chief. It was a sudden reminder that Mr. Khalid must struggle even within his own party to craft an identity independent of others he has long been associated with.

“Man,” Mr. Khalid asked with a smile, “if Mr. Karzai comes, then what will be left for you and me?”

Mr. Khalid is a product of Afghanistan’s history of turmoil over the past four decades, thrust into a life of weapons, money and secretive missions from a young age.

His father was a member of Parliament from Ghazni Province during the Afghan monarchy. When Asadullah was in the 10th grade in the 1980s, he and three of his classmates from their Kabul school were jailed by the Communist regime for involvement with parties seeking to overthrow the government.

His father negotiated his release. Agents delivered him to the office of the country’s intelligence chief — the same office Mr. Khalid would occupy decades later. With Mr. Khalid’s father sitting across his desk, the head of intelligence and the future president, Mohammad Najibullah, whom Mr. Khalid would help the mujahedeen rebels overthrow, told Asadullah he was free.

“What about my friends?” Mr. Khalid remembers asking.

As Mr. Najibullah wrote down the names of his friends and promised their release, Mr. Khalid noticed the spy chief was writing with a pencil. He pointed that out. “I was a stubborn young man,” he said.

Soon after his release, Mr. Khalid joined the Islamist resistance, which operated out of Pakistan. He and his family opposed the Communist government, but he says they were not cut out for the ideology that bound the resistance. After his uncle, who was leading a tribal militia that was part of the resistance, was killed, the tribe chose Mr. Khalid, still in his teens, to be their leader.

Over the years, he became one of the most trusted lieutenants of Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, a hard-core Islamist closely allied with the Arab contingent that would later be led by Osama bin Laden. Mr. Khalid served as Mr. Sayyaf’s liaison with foreign countries and often handled his money.

In the early 1990s, after the mujahedeen overran the Communist government and took charge in Kabul, Mr. Khalid had a brief taste of normalcy. He became a political science student, his university entrance secured by a special order of the new prime minister.

Meanwhile, his former sponsor, Mr. Sayyaf, became a central part of the clash between warlords that wrecked Kabul and traumatized the country, ending when the Taliban overran Kabul in 1996.

Mr. Khalid is aware that his years working with Mr. Sayyaf are a legacy that must be overcome, if he is to seek office.

“We do not want to go back to the 1990s,” Mr. Khalid declared during the rally — essentially denouncing a past he was part of.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)