KABUL, Afghanistan — When Afghanistan's top spy came home on April 2 after nearly four months of treatment at a U.S. military hospital for wounds from a Taliban assassination attempt, it was to lavish greetings that included roadside billboards and banners.
When he left this week for more surgery in Washington, D.C., intelligence chief Asadullah Khalid went so quietly hardly anyone in the government knew he was gone.
"I am not aware of that," said Haji Fahim, the chief spokesman for Khalid's own agency, the National Directorate of Security, on Thursday.
"I have not heard that," echoed Adela Raz, a deputy to President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman.
But a U.S. official, who declined to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Khalid had returned to the United States for further treatment of his injuries after his condition deteriorated. He declined to say where Khalid is being treated.
A Khalid deputy, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, told a Kabul TV station that Khalid indeed had returned to the United States on Monday.
Afghanistan surely needs heroes now, with the public's confidence buffeted by seemingly endless charges of corruption among its leaders and the uncertainty of 2014, which will bring both the end of the U.S.-led coalition's combat mission and an election to replace Karzai. Some were determined to give the country one in the form of Khalid.
Khalid is a close Karzai friend who has built a reputation as an outspoken and ruthless hunter of the Taliban and a fierce critic of alleged Pakistani military support for the insurgents. But he also has been accused of involvement in drug trafficking and torturing prisoners.
"Defender of the Country! You came in and stand tall once again to defend your beloved country. The country welcomes you and looks forward to see your feet stand strong once again," said one billboard, placed in a central Kabul square by a civil society group from Herat Province.
Not only did Khalid get a hero's welcome when he returned, Karzai held Khalid's job open for him, even though that meant leaving the national spy agency leaderless for months in the midst of a critical period of transition as Afghans move to take the full lead in their own security.
The security situation is rapidly getting even more complicated: Not only did the Taliban recently announced the start their annual spring offensive, but relations are worsening with neighboring Pakistan, where keeping tabs on Afghan insurgent sanctuaries is one of Khalids major tasks.
The tensions between the neighbors are being fueled by a series of border disputes which on Wednesday night erupted in a firefight between Afghan and Pakistani forces on the frontier between eastern Nangarhar provinces Goshta district and Pakistans Mohmand tribal agency.
The clash lasted for several hours, with one member of the Afghan border police reported killed and at least two wounded.
Karzai had last month criticized Pakistan for building a border post at the location without consulting Afghanistan, which has never recognized the frontier drawn by the subcontinents former British colonial rulers.
Khalid was nearly killed at an intelligence agency guest house in Kabul in December when a suicide bomber detonated explosives hidden in his underwear. The bomber was pretending to be a peace envoy from the Taliban. Karzai charged that the attack was planned in Pakistan, which denied the allegation.
Karzai, while on a diplomatic trip to Washington in January, made a point of visiting Khalid at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The spy chief is highly regarded by the Obama administration, despite the unsavory allegations against him, and other visitors included President Barack Obama and then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
It's again unclear when Khalid will return to his job, or if Karzai will replace him if his recovery is lengthy.