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Harper's Magazine: The Pious Spy: A Taliban Intelligence Chief's Death and Resurrection

Author: Mujib Mashal
January 2014


"Perhaps Ahmadullah no longer feels that his life is at risk. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Taliban have emerged from the past decade remarkably unscathed. Many of the group's leaders have vanished into tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and others live in urban areas—such as Quetta and Karachi—where U.S. drones could not reasonably operate. Still, if Ahmadullah who is no older than forty-seven, has any hope of playing a role in Afghanistan's future, he will have to emerge at some point from 'under the grave.'"

It is sunrise on a Saturday morning in spring, and the peaks of the Hindu Kush are gleaming from a recent hailstorm. A bearded man in an Afghan National Army uniform is examining vehicles as they leave the bus station in western Kabul. I have been warned to keep a low profile during this part of my journey to Ghazni, a province ninety miles south of the capital along Highway 1, since informants here — the ANA soldier, perhaps, or the money changer, or the boy selling phone credit — often pass intelligence to Taliban down the road. As unobtrusively as I can, I find a seat in the back of a shared Toyota Corolla.

I am on my way to meet friends and family of Qari Ahmadullah, the last intelligence minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban regime called itself when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. Ahmadullah was among the first high-ranking government officials targeted in the American invasion, and though twelve years have passed since his reported death in a U.S. air strike in eastern Afghanistan, rumors have persisted that he is alive. Some people have seen him marshaling fighters in Iran; others say he is living a life of quiet study in Pakistan. A footnote in the interrogation files of one of his associates, who was rolled up in a carpet in 2001 and shipped off to Guantánamo Bay, suggests vaguely that Ahmadullah survived Operation Enduring Freedom and "is still active." But his remains are supposedly buried in Ghazni, where his brother runs a madrassa, and I expect little more from this journey than to be shown a headstone.

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