Zaman: a warlord that had many targets on his back

A closer look at Haji Zaman Ghamsharik reveals a brazen fighter who crossed the US military, the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Not surprisingly, the warlords who still hold sway in much of Afghanistan have many enemies. It is the cost of doing business in a land where loyalty usually lasts as long as the cash paid for it.

What therefore was astonishing about Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, who was killed this week by a suicide bomber near the eastern city of Jalalabad, was just how many powerful enemies he managed to make in his 53-odd years. There were the Taliban, whom he fought from the moment they took power in 1996. There was the family of his Jalalabad archrival, Haji Abdul Qadir, who was assassinated in the Afghan capital in 2002. Then there were the Americans, whom he joined in late 2001 in the unsuccessful effort to capture Osama bin Laden. To this day, there are US officials who insist Zaman betrayed them, allowing the al Qa'eda leader to escape.

In other words, plenty of people had a motive to send the bomber who blew himself up near Haji Zaman on Monday, killing, along with 14 other people, a battle-hardened man who had commanded a force of 4,000 mujahedin against the Red Army. "He was a warlord, and he was fighting since 1980," Mirwais Yasini, an Afghan legislator, told The New York Times. "He was bitterly disliked by very many people. And then there were business interests, too."

The Taliban have denied any responsibility for the bombing. But among the Taliban, now the core of an insurgency fighting the government of Hamid Karzai and the western military forces supporting him, there was little love lost for Haji Zaman, more formally known as Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik. A month before a US-led coalition force ousted the Taliban from power in November 2001, Zaman presided over a war council of 100 Pashtun commanders in Peshawar, Pakistan, and demanded the Taliban's surrender. "If they don't, we will go after them," he vowed.

Zaman was not high on the list of Washington's favourite Afghans, either. After the Taliban fell, Mr Karzai appointed Zaman as the military commander of Jalalabad and a large swath of eastern Afghanistan, and he was one of three main Afghan commanders who joined the CIA and a small force of British and US commandos to hunt for the al Qa'eda leader in late November 2001. The problem was that the Afghan commanders and their combined force of 2,000 fighters despised each other more than they did al Qa'eda. That misreading of the Afghan political and cultural landscape still haunts the head of the US's elite Delta Force, who led the secretive multilateral force that pursued bin Laden at Tora Bora, a series of mountain caves above Jalalabad.

"For the most important mission to date in the global war on terror, our nation was relying on a fractious bunch of AK-47-toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs who were not bound by any recognised rules of warfare," the officer wrote in a 2008 memoir under the pen name Dalton Fury. Apparently more devoted to a local agenda than a foreign one, Zaman, on December 11, 2001, opened negotiations via walkie-talkie with al Qa'eda leaders, who agreed to surrender the following day. Bin Laden and hundreds of his followers used the cover of the purported "surrender" to make good their escape. According to a US congressional report published last year, US forces had mistakenly depended on Zaman, whom it described as a "wealthy drug-smuggler".

A month after bin Laden's escape, as he lay stretched in a hammock in his Jalalabad compound after an afternoon nap, Zaman was asked by this reporter whether he had deliberately allowed bin Laden and his followers to escape. He simply shrugged his shoulders and grinned. Meanwhile, for the sum of US$8,000 (Dh29,000), members of his militia provided tours of the cave where, they said, bin Laden himself had holed up. They also offered passports of alleged al Qa'eda members from France, Sweden, Italy, Greece and Algeria for $800 apiece.

Despite US distaste for Zaman, speculation for his murder focuses on the family of Qadir, who was serving as Mr Karzai's vice president when he was shot in the head by two men in Kabul. The two men were utterly different. Zaman was sloppily dressed, while Qadir sported black Bally loafers, a Rolex watch and a gold ring inlaid with rubies and diamonds. His sweater was cashmere; his pokol, fine angora wool. But the two men wanted the same thing: control of the goods passing both legally and illegally across the nearby border with Pakistan and control of the province's lucrative drug trade.

Zaman's brother was held in jail for several years on suspicion of killing Qadir but was never convicted. The blood feud between Zaman and Qadir's family remained unresolved. A former UN official in Afghanistan described the ancient calculus: "You can eliminate your rival, but your opponent belongs to one family that belongs to one tribe that will then put a price on your head," Leslie Oqvist said.

No doubt Zaman was aware of the bull's-eye on his back when he accepted Mr Karzai's invitation to return to Afghanistan last year after an eight-year exile in Pakistan and France triggered by the Tora Bora debacle. After playing the sides of many different fences, on Monday he finally was impaled on one.