KABUL, Afghanistan — When Afghanistan’s top spy came home 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," Haji Fahim, the chief spokesman for Khalid’s own agency, the National Directorate of Security, said 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 Khalid had returned to the United States for further treatment of his wounds after his condition deteriorated. He declined to say where Khalid is being treated.
A Khalid deputy, also speaking only 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 the end of the U.S.-led coalition’s combat mission and an election to replace Karzai.
Khalid’s absence – and the scramble to succeed him, should he not be able to return – is likely to hamstring progress on a wide range of issues in which the Afghan intelligence agency and its chief play huge roles, from conflict with Pakistan over border security and Taliban havens in that country to the nascent peace process with the Taliban, which is considered crucial to U.S. plans to withdraw.
Khalid is a close Karzai friend who’s 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’s also 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 seeing 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 also held his job open for him, even though that meant leaving the national spy agency leaderless for months in the midst of a crucial period of transition as Afghans move to take the full lead for their own security.
The security situation is rapidly getting even more complicated: Not only did the Taliban recently announce the start of their annual spring offensive, but relations also are worsening with neighboring Pakistan, where keeping tabs on Afghan insurgent sanctuaries is one of Khalid’s major tasks.
The tensions between the neighbors are being fueled by a series of border disputes, which erupted Wednesday night in a firefight between Afghan and Pakistani forces on the frontier between eastern Nangarhar province’s Goshta district and Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency.
The clash lasted several hours, with one member of the Afghan border police reported killed and at least two wounded.
Karzai had criticized Pakistan last month for building a border post at the location without consulting Afghanistan, which has never recognized the frontier drawn by the subcontinent’s former British colonial rulers.
Khalid was nearly killed at an intelligence agency guesthouse 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 Panetta.
Landay reported from Washington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul, @JonathanLanday