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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Explained: Who is Amrullah Saleh, who has declared himself ‘caretaker president’ of Afghanistan?

Amrullah Saleh has said that since Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has fled the country, he is now the country’s ‘legitimate’ caretaker president.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 24, 2021 9:38:41 am
In 2017, Saleh joined the cabinet of President Ashraf Ghani, and in February 2020, he rose to become the country’s vice president. (Reuters/File)

Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s vice president since February last year, declared on Tuesday that since President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country and his whereabouts are unknown, he is now the country’s “legitimate” caretaker president.

Citing the Afghan constitution, Saleh made the announcement on Twitter, in which he said he was “reaching out to all leaders to secure their support and consensus.”

A follower of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, Saleh has said he will “never be under one ceiling with Taliban.” The vice president has for years been critical of Pakistan, and in recent tweets has denounced “Pak backed oppression & brutal dictatorship”.

Who is Amrullah Saleh?

Saleh, 48, comes from the Tajik-dominated Panjshir Valley 150 km north of Kabul. He was a member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during the civil war that followed the 1992 ouster of Mohammed Najibullah, Afghanistan’s USSR-backed ruler since 1987.

Back then, India, assessing that the Taliban had been propped by Pakistan’s army and the ISI, was among the countries that refused to recognise the regime of 1996-2001. “Throughout the 1990s, India gave military and financial assistance to the Northern Alliance fighting the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban regime in Afghanistan,” former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote in How India Sees the World (2017).

In 1997, Ahmed Shah Massoud appointed Saleh to serve in the Northern Alliance’s liaison office in Tajikistan, where he handled contacts with international NGOs and agencies.

In 2004, three years after a US-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime, Saleh became the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, serving until 2010. Saleh was a critic of then-President Hamid Karzai’s softened stance on the Taliban and reliance on support from Pakistan, and consequently founded the Basej-e Milli, a political party aimed at opposing the Taliban.

In 2017, Saleh joined the cabinet of President Ashraf Ghani, and was made Interior minister in 2018. In February 2020, he rose to become the country’s vice president.

There have been a number of assassination attempts on Saleh, the latest being on September 9, 2020, which killed 10 bystanders, and was widely seen as a bid to derail the Afghan-Taliban talks in Doha. This was on the anniversary of the killing of Ahmed Shah Masood two days before 9/11.

Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban over the weekend, Saleh has reportedly relocated to the Panjshir Valley, where he is part of an anti-Taliban front along with Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, Afghanistan’s Defence Minister in the Ghani cabinet.

What has been his stand on Pakistan?

In his numerous interactions with The Indian Express over the years, Saleh has been forthright in his assessment of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.

In a 2017 column written on India’s 70th Independence Day, Saleh took note of India standing behind Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance leadership even after the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, adding, “With India’s political and meagre financial assistance, the anti Taliban resistance continued to hold on and thus prevent Afghanistan becoming a de-facto colony of Pakistan through creeping invasion.”

“That slice of history, from 1996-2001, known as the era of resistance in Afghanistan, evolved around the sacrifices of the Afghan people who defended their unique identity and rejected Pakistan-backed religious dogmatism and militancy,” Saleh wrote.

In another column that same month, Saleh called then-US President Donald Trump’s strategy on Afghanistan “an acknowledgement of the fact that Pakistan has been playing a destructive and dubious role in Afghanistan by providing support and sanctuary to terrorists and agents of chaos”, and exhorted Washington to “follow up until Islamabad and its powerful army and intelligence stop nourishing the Taliban and other terrorist groups.”

In an October 2017 column, Saleh described “the deceiving generals of the Pakistan Army and the terror-loving intelligence service, the ISI” as masters of what he described was Pakistan’s “Deep State”.

In an interview with this paper in September 2019, Saleh said, “The key is for the Taliban to realise they can’t subdue a nation by guns and bombs provided by the Pakistani ISI and the army. The issue of Pakistan’s interference and backing of terrorism against the Afghan people is now so obvious that the Taliban can’t hide behind any mask. They have lost politically.”

He also called the Taliban “worse than Khmer Rouge”, adding, “All their politburo are based in Pakistan and are not showing their faces. They can’t face the reality of new Afghanistan which is no longer buying the notion of armed struggle to solve political issues. Without Pakistan’s support, the Taliban would fade away in six months.”

In the same interview, Saleh described Pakistan as an “insecure State which seeks security by sheer violence as it lacks other means to project its interest or vision.”

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