The death of the Taliban commander Mullah Ghulam Dastagir last night in an airstrike in the northwestern province of Badghis brings to a bloody end a saga which had been particularly damaging for President Hamid Karzai.
Dastagir and another Taliban commander, Mullah Baz Mohammad, died along with a dozen or so of their men in a compound in the village of Darya-ye-Morghab, near the Turkmenistan border in north-western Afghanistan. According to US military reports, the precision strike damaged no other buildings.
His death will be a blow to the Taliban as he was in charge of much of western Badghis. “He was like the shadow governor of Badghis,” said General Mohammad Ayub Nizyar, a former police chief in the province.
This was no exaggeration. From almost no Taliban activity three years ago, the Taliban are now estimated to have several hundred fighters in the province, many of them sheltering in the rugged mountains in the region. Already by November 2007, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting noted that Dastaghir and his fighters had a significant presence in the area.
And historically, Badghis had always been more open to Taliban influence than other parts of the north. It was the first northern province to go over to the Taliban in 1997. Unemployment and the failure of the Afghan government to offer any hope to a substantial Pashtu-speaking population in the area are factors in their resurgence.
President Karzai has, no doubt, wished death on Mullah Dastagir many times since 27 November last year when he led insurgents who ambushed a supply convoy, killing nine Afghan soldiers and five police officers, wounding 27 men, capturing 20 others, destroying at least 19 vehicles and stealing five others.
Two months previously Dastagir had been in custody in Kabul on charges of aiding the Taliban. He had been arrested in March 2008 in the Kamarkalagh district just north of Herat’s provincial capital. Dastagir spoke regularly with regional media outlets and was the Taliban’s unofficial spokesman for their northwestern faction.
Despite this background, he had been released by President Karzai after assurances from a delegation of tribal elders that he would live a peaceful life. The disastrous ambush and the presidential pardon that preceded it subsequently became the subject of a government inquiry, as well as a source of profound embarrassment for the Afghan government.
Just in case anyone had any doubt that the Mullah was responsible for the November attack, he was happy to go on the record. When asked directly, he replied, "Definitely!" He was hardly able to contain his laughter. "I am a jihadist, I will continue my jihad," he declared. "My morale is very high."
The parliamentary inquiry has since revealed further details of the negotiations that led to Dastagir’s release. According to the New York Times, Rangeen Mushkwani, a senator from Badghis who attended the elders' meeting with Mr. Karzai, said the Taliban ordered the delegation to plead for Dastagir's release. "These people did not come by their own choice," Mr. Mushkwani said. "They were forced to come." He said that he and others had only attended the meeting in order to protect relatives in Badghis that the Taliban had threatened to kill.
Dastagir continued to cause problems, even amongst the Taliban. In early December last year he became involved in a firefight with another Taliban commander that left one dead and four injured. The fight between Dastagir and Mullah Bahauddin broke out in the Dokoon area in Bala Murghab district. Perhaps President Karzai will not be the only one to welcome the news of his demise.