Afghan vice president survives Taliban assassination attempt

KABUL — Taliban insurgents repeatedly ambushed the convoy of Vice President Abdurrashid Dostum and killed two of his guards, Afghan officials said Sunday, but the powerful former warlord escaped injury.

Dostum, a military general and member of Afghanistan’s Uzbek minority, was traveling in the north of the country when his heavily armed entourage came under fire.

“By the grace of God, the general was unharmed,” Bashir Ahmad Tayenj, an aide to Dostum, said by telephone. Tayenj was with Dostum when the three ambushes occurred Saturday evening.

“The fighting was intense,” he added, saying that four Taliban insurgents also were killed.

In a statement, the Taliban asserted responsibility for the assassination attempt, which comes as peace negotiations between the group and the United States are underway. Parallel talks are also being held between the Taliban and various Afghan power brokers.

Dostum, a controversial figure who has been accused by political rivals of rape and torture, had gone to Balkh province to evaluate the security situation and consult his followers on the delicate peace process, from which the Afghan government has been excluded.

Six of Dostum’s bodyguards were injured in the attack, which continued into his native Jowzjan province, local official Ana Murad Shahi said.

Although talks are accelerating, with prospects for a peaceful settlement on the table for the first time in the nearly 18-year war, there has been an uptick in fighting that experts say is expected as all sides try to increase their leverage.

The Taliban has refused to engage with the government, branding it an American puppet. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who leads the unity government with President Ashraf Ghani, said the assault on Dostum raised the stakes.

“Taliban miscreants must know that with every attack they carry out on our political leaders, our resolve gets further strengthened to defeat them,” Abdullah said in a statement. 

The U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was due in the country on Sunday as part of his latest multicountry diplomatic tour aimed at building consensus and establishing the next steps of the peace process. 

This is not the first time Dostum has survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, which also targeted him in 2003. The group has long reviled Dostum, who has been accused of suffocating hundreds of Taliban prisoners in sealed truck containers at the start of the war.

Once described by the State Department as a “quintessential warlord,” Dostum’s mercurial switching of sides throughout Afghanistan’s four decades of conflict, going back to the Soviet invasion in 1979, has earned him legions of followers and enemies alike. 

Over the past decade, Dostum has been sent into exile in Turkey twice by the Kabul leadership for extreme violence.

When he returned to Kabul last year after time away related to sexual assault charges, the government welcomed him back. He has yet to face prosecution.