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Meet Amrullah Saleh: The face of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban and one of the fiercest critics of Pakistan

"Afghanistan wasn't packed and put in the bag of the last US soldier. The country is here. The rivers are flowing and the mountains are majestic. A superpower decided to be mini power that is OK."

Even after twenty years of long-drawn-out war, Afghanistan remains at the cusp of a crisis as the US forces unceremoniously pull out of the country, leaving helpless Afghans at the mercy of their radical Taliban rulers.

The situation came to pass after Kabul fell to the Taliban on the 15th of August as President Ashraf Ghani made a run from the country. In a blitzkrieg, the Taliban managed to capture the whole of Afghanistan in a matter of few weeks following the US president Joe Biden’s announcement that he would honour the withdrawal agreement signed by his predecessor Donald Trump. The speed at which the Afghan Government collapsed came as a shock to many, with Afghan soldiers leaving the force to join the ranks of the Taliban.

With the president having already fled to the United Arab Emirates and scores of Afghan soldiers either surrendering or joining the Talibani ranks, it seemed like the Taliban wouldn’t face any credible resistance in overthrowing the last vestiges of the Afghan government and establishing its supremacy in the country.

Panic and chaos gripped the country, with thousands of people streaming to the Kabul airport fearing the return of the oppressive rule reminiscent of the Taliban rule in the late 90s. Just when it appeared that the Taliban rule is imminent and unchallenged, the Vice President of Afghanistan under the Ashraf Ghani government, Amrullah Saleh, stepped up to the plate and decided that he would not go down without giving a fight to the fundamentalist group.

On August 17, just two days after the Taliban stormed Kabul, Saleh staked claim to the presidency of the country as the legitimate caretaker president. He cited the constitution of Afghanistan and said, in the event of the escape, absence, resignation or death of the president, the Vice President becomes the caretaker president.

Amrullah Saleh said that since he is still in Afghanistan, he is the legitimate caretaker president and therefore, he is reaching out to leaders to secure their support and consensus. He announced that he was in Panjshir Valley — the last anti-Taliban bastion in government’s control, and would continue to put up a brave front to oust the Taliban. As Saleh, along with Ahmad Massoud and other key leaders mobilised a resistance force to fight against the Taliban, he quickly became the face and the leader of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban onslaught.

The Afghan soldiers and warlords, who are now being hunted by the Taliban, are reportedly headed to the Panjshir Valley to join the resistance group. Saleh has indicated that he is determined to fight the Taliban to the last bullet and has praised the Afghan soldiers for taking arms against the terror group. He has also invited commandos and special forces, to join the resistance movement against the Taliban.

In his recent interview, Saleh said the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has its days numbered. He asserted that the fundamentalist laws of the Taliban are unacceptable to the people of Afghanistan, adding that the group won’t last long in the country. Saleh said the Taliban neither has external nor has internal legitimacy and they would soon face a “deep military crisis” as areas besides Panjshir would start mounting resistance against them.

Who is Amrullah Saleh?

Amrullah Saleh, 48, belongs to the Tajik ethnic group and was born in October 1972 in Panjshir Valley, 150 km north of the capital Kabul. Right from a young age, Saleh harboured deep aversion towards the USSR for their meddling in Afghanistan and joined the Northern Alliance during the civil war in the 1990s that culminated in the 1992 ouster of Mohammed Najibullah, Afghanistan’s USSR-backed ruler. He had even travelled to Pakistan where he received mujahideen training to fight against the Soviet-backed Afghan army.

Later in the 1990s, the Northern Alliance, of which Saleh was a part, was embroiled in fighting against the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban terrorists in 1996 conducted a manhunt to find Saleh but instead, they got hold of his elder sister Mariam, who was tortured and subjected to unspeakable atrocities. She later managed to escape the Taliban and fled Kabul with her family. Nevertheless, the incident had a lasting impact on Saleh and it completely changed his view about the Taliban.

In 1997, Saleh was appointed to the Northern Alliance’s liaison office in Tajikistan. There he handled contacts with international NGOs and agencies. India had then refused to acknowledge the Taliban rule over Afghanistan over the intelligence assessment that the group was backed by Pakistan’s ISI.

As per reports, it was also Saleh, who had coordinated contact between Indian officials and Ahmed Shah Massoud, facilitating India’s help in medical supplies, arms and ammunition to the Massoud-led resistance against Taliban through the Tajikstan town of Farkhor.

His journey from being a spy to Afghan politics

Then in 2004, three years after the US-led NATO forces toppled the Talibani regime in Afghanistan, Saleh entered into the field of espionage. He was then appointed as the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and served in the office for 6 years until 2010. While in office he was considered a key asset to the CIA. During his time in office, he was also reportedly censorious of President Hamid Karzai’s moderate stance on the Taliban and his undue dependence on Pakistan. In 2011, Saleh established the Basej-e Milli political party to oppose the Taliban.

Six years later, in 2017, Saleh joined hands with President Ashraf Ghani and was subsequently made Interior Minister the following year. Then in February 2020, he was elevated to the post of country’s vice president.

Saleh has continued to be the thorn in the side of the Taliban and there have been several attempts to assassinate the former vice president of Afghanistan. In September 2020, an attempt was made to kill Saleh. Although he emerged unscathed from the attack, 10 bystanders were killed. The attack took place on September 9, 2020, two days before 9/11 and on the anniversary of the killing of Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Saleh’s stand on Pakistan and its symbiotic relationship with the Taliban

Over the years, Saleh has not minced his words in voicing his acerbic and forthright assessment of Pakistan. He has remained one of the most trenchant critics of Pakistan, accusing them of assisting the Taliban and deceiving its western allies by using the alms and grants it receives from them in arming the terrorists. In his recent interviews following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Saleh has blamed Pakistan for helping the Taliban fool the international community by participating in Doha talks, while using that time to prop up military powers.

“Pakistan was not only a safe haven for the Taliban terrorists but the entire country was under the service of the terror group. The US tried to persuade Pakistan into cooperation, often by offering them incentives, but the more they paid, the more it emboldened the Pakistanis to extend their support to the Taliban tacitly. Therefore, the issue of a nuclear state facilitating and promoting terrorism and insurgency against western allies in Afghanistan was never really addressed,” Saleh opined.

In an interview with the Indian Express in September 2019, Saleh said the Taliban gets its arms and ammunition from the Pakistani ISI and the army. He alleged that Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan has become so crystal clear and transparent that the Taliban can no longer hide behind any masks to claim that their rebellion is organic.

Saleh had also famously likened the Taliban with Khmer Rouge, stating that the former was worse than the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) that wreaked havoc in Cambodia between 1975 to 1979.

“All their politburo are based in Pakistan and are not showing their faces. They can’t face the reality of new Afghanistan which is no longer buying the notion of armed struggle to solve political issues. Without Pakistan’s support, the Taliban would fade away in six months,” Saleh said while highlighting how Pakistan is the reason behind the Taliban’s survival.

Regarding Donald Trump’s strategy on Afghanistan, Saleh said it is an acknowledgement of the fact that Pakistan has been playing a deleterious and dubious role in providing support and safe haven to terrorists and agents of chaos. He urged Washington to pressurise Islamabad and its powerful army until they mend their ways and stop nourishing the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

In his 2011 interview with CBS News, a small clip of which is now going viral on the internet, Saleh called Pakistan a treacherous ally and exhorted the United States to literally bomb the terror hideouts in Pakistan to end the menace of the Taliban permanently.

“The amount of pain Pakistan has inflicted on the United States in the last twelve years is unprecedented. No other country has meted out that amount of pain on your nation(The United States)…We had numbers of senior Talibani leaders hiding in Pakistan’s Quetta, their locations as well. The US could have taken them down in no time. But they chose to sit on the intelligence because they were labouring under the delusion that Pakistan is an ally and it is extending cooperation to them in their fight against terrorism,” Saleh said.

“If you look at the problems that the United States faces in the central Asia region, they will realise that all of those will lead them to Pakistan. Be it shoring up the terrorists, the attacks in Afghanistan by the Taliban, nuclear proliferation or any other issue, Pakistan has been the hub of the problems,” Saleh said.

Saleh’s criticism of the US for consistenly ignoring his warnings and leaving Afghanistan in the lurk

Amrullah has also been severely critical of the United States for pursuing a mercurial and severely damaging policy with respect to eliminating the Taliban. On August 31, as the US drawdown of its forces came to an end amidst the Taliban take over of the country, Saleh posted a scathing tweet against the United States, asserting that Afghanistan was not packed in the bag of the last US soldier.

It is worth noting that ever since the United States decided to pull out from Afghanistan in the late 2010s, Saleh has been warning them against it, reminding them that the enemy is far from defeated and their allies like Pakistan have been providing a conducive environment to their enemy for recuperation and recovery. But, Saleh’s warnings had fallen on deaf ears as Washington refused to take into account his advice and dug its heels in pursuing a disastrous approach to the Afghan crisis.

“We failed in persuading them to reverse their decision. I had been issuing warnings to them of these kinds of ramifications for two years. But they did not heed to my alarm. They are now paying the price. This was a political decision, not a military or intelligence one.. one political misjudgment by the US has brought this situation to Afghanistan today. It wasn’t the Taliban who won this war, it was the lack of a political will in Washington that led to this,” Saleh recently said in his interview with CNN News 18.

On Tuesday this week, Saleh reiterated his position on the US pullout from Afghanistan. He quoted a tweet posted by Tarek Fatah that carried an interview clip from 2009 where he expressed his views on the prospect of the United States leaving Afghanistan midway, without completely eliminating the threat of the Taliban.

In his tweet, Saleh said, “Afghanistan wasn’t packed and put in the bag of the last US soldier. The country is here. The rivers are flowing and the mountains are majestic. Talibs are an unpopular proxy force and hated. That is why the whole country wants to escape from them. A superpower decided to be mini power that is OK.”

“If the US decides to leave tomorrow, we have no influence on that. All we can do is to tell them our story, remind them of our common objective, our common goal and our common enemy. But if they decide to go, it will be their decision. We tell them, the enemy is not defeated, their slated objectives and aims have not been met, their promises have not been fulfilled. But if they still wish to leave, it is their decision,” Saleh says in the video clip shared by Tarek Fatah.

Back in 2007, when Saleh was the intelligence chief of Afghanistan, he had shared the whereabouts of the United States’s bete noire, Osama Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda chief, who was responsible for America’s war in Afghanistan. Saleh said he had received intelligence inputs of Bin Laden staying at a safe house in Mansehra.

However, the United States did not take his input seriously. Saleh also approached Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to tell him about Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts in Pakistan. Musharraf got so offended with Saleh that he reputedly lunged at him and only after intervention from the then Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai he backed off.

Four years after Saleh informed the US intel agencies of Osama’s presence in Mansehra, in May 2011, the US special forces hunted down Osama Bin Laden at a safe house in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. As it turned out, Mansehra was just 12 miles from where Osama Bin Laden was located by the US intelligence agencies.

The Panjshir Valley is resisting. Amrullah Saleh and Ahmed Massoud are continuing the fight against Afghanistan, reportedly joined by other warlords and many former members of the Afghan military.

 

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Jinit Jain
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