Saturday, 24 January, 2009

Shot, hanged, stoned for an Afghan spy?

January 24/2009
KABUL (AFP)--On the road to the Afghan mountains, the spy knew the game was up. The Taliban had caught him red-handed. There was only one question: would it be a bullet, the hangman's noose or death by stoning?

A moment's loss of concentration one November evening and his career was finished. A career in espionage, as told to Agence France-Presse, that began when the Americans and the Afghan government recruited him in 2004 to spy on Taliban insurgents.

Ousted from government by the US-led invasion of 2001 and replaced by a Western-backed Afghan administration, the extremist Taliban regrouped and fought back in an insurgency that has accelerated in recent years.

Calling himself Shahir Khan, an alias, he told AFP that each time he found a Taliban hideout, he would take out a discreet GPS fashioned like a mobile phone and map the precise latitude and longitude.

He would melt into the shadows and pass the coordinates onto his paymasters. When it was the Americans, sometimes bombs would fall.

For just over $1,000 a month, he scoured southern Afghanistan before returning home to the Wardak mountains, southwest of Kabul, in 2006.

Determined to help the authorities hunt down these "bandits" who "no longer have anything to do" with the Taliban deposed in 2001, he managed to infiltrate a local cell led by "Timur".

For more than a year, he watched them terrorize his local district of Jaratu, targeting tribal leaders, ambushing truck drivers on the road, killing and snatching hostages whose families could never afford the ransom.

Then one day he said he saw 21 motorbikes "crammed with explosives" apparently destined to blow apart several towns.

That evening, the Taliban cell was to gather at his home to discuss the plans. After supper, he left his guests and slipped quietly outside.

He called the provincial governor to warn him about the planned attacks. He was on the phone just seconds too long. One of the Taliban guards came out to relieve himself, catching him red-handed behind the house.

Khan says after that, everything happened very fast.

"They ordered me behind the wheel of my car, got in and told me to drive into the mountains. The only thing I asked myself was how I was going to die, would it be a bullet to the head, hanging or stoning?"

The district commissioner at the time, Mohammed Naim, confirmed to AFP that a "spy was taken away by the Taliban to be executed."

More than a year has passed since that fateful evening. The overweight man with chubby cheeks and a beard telling the story in a Kabul restaurant laughs his head off.

"All that because a Taliban was bursting to go and it was dark. It's crazy," says Khan. Coy about a spectacular escape that saw him live to see another day, several local officials corroborate what happened next.

Shahir limits himself to admitting there was a car accident.

Naim fills in the details. "He knew he was going to die. At a bend in the road, he drove the car into a ditch. Some of the Taliban were injured.

"The spy said he broke his foot, so the Taliban paid no attention and concentrated on their injured. When they turned round, he had escaped."

There were two hungry days and one freezing night of hiding out in the mountains he knew so well before Khan got back to the road and fled.

Today he says he never got any help from the Americans who "promised to look after him in case of difficulty."

The governor of Wardak was more accommodating and found him a job as a driver in the Afghan capital.

Khan is 46 years old and earns 7,000 Afghanis ($140) a month -- a pittance compared to the salary of a spy and not enough to bring his wife, six sons and two daughters to Kabul. Some day soon he hopes to get a better job.

And he dreams still of one day gathering together enough might and weapons to clear out "his" Wardak of the "bandits".


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