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Afghanistan: Governor Spent Life Shifting Loyalty

By Hashem Mohmand and Bruce Pannier

The career of Afghan regional governor Mohammed Arif Khan -- who was killed this week in Pakistan -- is a microcosm of the violent political upheavals that have plagued Afghanistan. RFE/RL's Hashem Mohmand and Bruce Pannier take a look at how Khan moved from anti-Soviet guerrilla to pro-Rabbani leader to Taliban loyalist.

Prague, 6 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An assassin waited alongside a road in Pakistan for Mohammed Arif Khan and his bodyguards to drive by. The powerful commander for the Taliban was 48 years old when he was killed two days ago.

Pakistani police are searching for an Afghan suspect. But in the Pakistani town of Peshawar, home to thousands of Afghan refugees for more than two decades, finding Khan's killer may prove impossible.

Afghan refugees began coming to Peshawar after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. But Khan, then a young man, chose to stay and fight the invaders. He rose to the level of field commander in the forces of Jamiat-i-Islam, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani. Khan's ability as a field commander and his loyalty to Rabbani earned him the governorship of Afghanistan's northern Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan, when Rabbani became Afghanistan's president in 1992.

But Afghan politics are always a complicated business. A new political force, the majority ethnic-Pushtun Taliban, fought its way to power, and Rabbani was forced to flee the Afghan capital Kabul in September 1996. The country fractured into the northern regions, under the control of anti-Taliban forces, and the southern regions, controlled by the Taliban.

Initially, Khan and the Kunduz Province were in the anti-Taliban camp. But he changed his tune in 1997, when the opportunity to help Taliban troops came way.

The troops were lured into a province around Mazar-i-Sharif by what seemed like a mutiny against another anti-Taliban commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum fled when one of his leading field commanders, Abdul Malik, invited the Taliban into Mazar-i-Sharif. But Malik's men quickly turned on the Taliban troops, slaughtering them by the thousands.

Those Taliban soldiers who could escape headed east and found themselves in Baghlan Province. The Taliban troops asked Baghlan Governor Bashir Baghlani for sanctuary, and Baghlani allowed the Taliban troops to pass through to Kunduz Province.

Perhaps out of disgust with infighting among anti-Taliban forces or sickened by the wholesale massacre of Taliban soldiers, Khan called the Taliban troops his guests and allowed them access to the airport at Kunduz. Like most Taliban members, Khan was an ethnic Pushtun.

Since his switch to Taliban allegiance, Khan has remained governor of Kunduz Province and defended sections of it against the forces of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the defense minister of his old friend Rabbani.

Pakistani police say they are investigating the motive for Khan's killing. Forces fighting the Taliban have an obvious motive.