Afghanistan Assassination: The Taliban's Big Get

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Omar Sobhani / Reuters

People carry the coffin of Abdullah Laghmani, Afghanistan's deputy head of the National Directorate for Security, during a ceremony in Kabul

Years of war and uncertainty have turned Afghans into masters of reinvention. Take, for example, Abdullah Laghmani, the late deputy chief of intelligence who was killed by a suicide bomber on Wednesday, Sept. 2, after praying at a mosque in the hills east of Kabul.

Laghmani started his career in the dreaded secret police of the former pro-Soviet regime. Then he switched sides, grew a beard and joined the Islamic warriors of the mujahedin. When the Americans chased out the Taliban, the ever adaptable Laghmani volunteered his unique set of skills to the new rulers of Kabul. His credentials as a new breed of Afghan democrat may have been questionable, as were a few of his interrogation techniques, but Laghmani's death is a severe blow to U.S.-led efforts to quell the rising Taliban and dismember al-Qaeda.

For starters, Laghmani was the only senior Pashtun to hold a key intelligence post. Most are Tajiks from northern Afghanistan who know as little about the troubled Pashtun regions of southern and eastern Afghanistan as an Indiana farm boy would about gangs in the Bronx. Posted in Kandahar and then in Kabul, Laghmani had the contacts and the cunning to catch many Taliban involved in kidnappings, bomb attacks and drug-trafficking. Laghmani also was the CIA's most reliable Afghan expert on al-Qaeda. A former Afghan security adviser told TIME that Laghmani had knowledge of who within the Taliban were sheltering Osama bin Laden's band. It was his sleuthing that ran down links between the Pakistani intelligence services and the bombers of the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008. This success made Laghmani powerful enemies in Pakistan, especially those in the intelligence apparatus who still secretly back the Taliban. The Taliban, too, celebrated the kill. "We were looking for him for a long, long time, but today we succeeded," exulted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The deputy security chief's death has other consequences. For all his bare-knuckle tactics, Laghmani was seen as the one advocate for Pashtuns inside the internal security services. "The Tajiks could be heavy-handed sometimes, going around arresting Pashtuns without much cause, and Laghmani was their sole defender," a source close to Afghan President Hamid Karzai told TIME. "He'd get them out of jail before much harm was done."

Votes are still being counted in the presidential elections, with Karzai, a Pashtun, winning more than 45%, ahead of his rival, ex–Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is supported by the Tajiks and other non-Pasthun minorities. But allegations of fraud and vote-rigging have stirred up the ethnic tensions that are always bubbling under the surface of Afghan society. With Laghmani gone, this source explained, "There's nobody who can stop the excesses of the Tajiks running the security services."

Apart from the frustrations heightened by the election, the war continues to fray Afghanistan's polity. NATO aircraft reportedly killed more than 90 Afghans on Thursday with the bombing of two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban. The tankers were stuck in a river, and villagers who swarmed down to load up free fuel were reportedly killed in the attack.

Laghmani's killing, which occurred in his own province, where he is a respected tribal elder, shows the alarming ease with which the Taliban is now punching through government's defenses despite intense efforts by NATO to train Afghan troops and police. The bombing that killed him horrified many Afghans; not only did it claim 21 other lives and leave more than 65 wounded, it occurred outside a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. Taliban terrorism tactics kept many Afghan voters in the militants' southern strongholds away from the Aug. 20 elections, and the bombings continue across Afghanistan. With Laghmani's death, the Taliban's ability to slip suicide bombers into Afghan cities just got a lot easier.