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Who is Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan's New 'Caretaker President' and a Former Guerilla Fighter

As president Ashraf Ghani fled, Afghanistan's vice-president Amrullah Saleh vowed to not leave his country and fight the Taliban. (New York Times)

As president Ashraf Ghani fled, Afghanistan's vice-president Amrullah Saleh vowed to not leave his country and fight the Taliban. (New York Times)

Orphaned at a young age, Saleh first fought alongside anti-Taliban guerilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud Massoud in Panjshir in the 1990s.

Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh in a tweet on Tuesday announced that he is the “legitimate caretaker president" and is still in Afghanistan.

“Clarity: As per d constitution of Afg, in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President the FVP becomes the caretaker President. I am currently inside my country & am the legitimate caretaker President. Am reaching out to all leaders to secure their support & consensus," he said in a post on the mico-blogging site.

Saleh’s remark comes days after he asserted that he will not surrender. “I won’t disappoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER," he wrote in English on Twitter on Sunday, before going underground after he reportedly retreated to the country’s last remaining holdout: the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul.

A day later, pictures began to surface on social media of the former vice president with the son of his former mentor and famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud in Panjshir — a mountainous redoubt tucked into the Hindu Kush. Saleh and Massoud’s son, who commands a militia force, appear to be putting together the first pieces of a guerilla movement to take on the victorious Taliban, as fighters regroup in Panjshir.

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Who is Amrulla Saleh?

Orphaned at a young age, Saleh first fought alongside guerilla commander Massoud in the 1990s. He went on to serve in his government before being chased out of Kabul when the Taliban captured it in 1996.

The hardliners then tortured his sister in their bid to hunt him down, Saleh has said. “My view of the Taliban changed forever because of what happened in 1996," Saleh wrote in a Time magazine editorial last year.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Saleh — then a part of the anti-Taliban resistance — became a key asset for the CIA.

The relationship paved the way for him to lead the newly formed Afghanistan intelligence agency, the National Security Directorate (NDS), in 2004. As NDS chief Saleh is believed to have amassed a vast network of informants and spies inside the insurgency and across the border in Pakistan, where Pashto-speaking agents kept track on Taliban leaders.

The intelligence Saleh gathered provided what he alleged was proof the Pakistani military continued to back the Taliban.

Taliban Backed by Pakistan

In an interview with News18 in 2019, Saleh, who was one of the youngest intel chiefs when he took charge in 2004, asserts that the Taliban fights for a vague ideology. “Our quest is for stability,” he says.

Commenting on the strong ties between Taliban and Pakistan, Saleh said he was certain that Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was being shielded by the Taliban, was in Pakistan. He also recalls the ISI telling the then George W Bush administration in the United States that the tribes that were said to be protecting Osama were autonomous and their terrain was rugged and that they needed money to clear these areas which have remained quasi-independent for centuries.

After multiple rounds of intelligence collection in FATA (Federally Administred Tribal Areas), Saleh says, he did not find Osama. “Instead, what we found was a wide network and small cells of terrorists operating out of the area covertly, and in some cases, with overt support from Pakistan army. We had to develop our sources and go elsewhere. Eventually, in 2006, we located Al-Qaeda related safe houses in Mansera. We saw traces of Bin Laden there too,” he tells News18.

The findings had panicked President Pervez Musharraf, he said, adding that the Afghan government was accused for colluding with India’s intelligence. “He (Musharraf) went on saying that the Afghan government was all in collusion with India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), and finally he said the dossier was nothing but some false information and that if there was any truth in it he would personally act on it. He said Pakistan isn’t a banana republic and there was no Mullah Omar in the soil of Pakistan. He also said that if Pakistan did hide Mullah Omar it was like shooting in its own foot. You can imagine when a general is caught lying red-handed, what his reaction will be,” says the vice presidential candidate.

Assassination Attempts

However, in 2010, he was sacked as Afghanistan’s spy chief following a humiliating attack on a Kabul peace conference. Exiled into the political wilderness, Saleh maintained his fight against the Taliban and Islamabad on Twitter, where he fired off daily tweets taking aim at his longtime foes.

A return to favour came in 2018 when he briefly oversaw the interior ministry after sealing an alliance with president Ashraf Ghani, who has now fled to an unknown location. The VP faced a series of assassination attempts on by the Taliban as the US was preparing to exit Afghanistan. His latest close call came last September when a massive bomb targeting his convoy killed at least 10 people in Kabul.

Within hours of the attack, Saleh appeared in a video with his left hand bandaged, promising to fight back. “We will continue our fight," he said.

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first published:August 17, 2021, 20:41 IST