Top Afghan Rebel Leader Feared Killed; Setback for US, India

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

( - The government of India said Tuesday it is trying to verify a report that Afghanistan's most powerful rebel leader has been killed, a scenario that could allow the ruling Taliban to emerge as a virtually "unchallenged entity," according to an Indian Foreign Office official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Regional analysts said the elimination of Ahmad Shah Masood, the guerrilla commander leading the fight against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, could be major setback for the US and India in their effort to counter the forces of terrorism in South Asia.

"Militancy in Kashmir will go into the fifth gear if Masood is no longer on the Afghan intra-group fighting radar," said the official with the Indian Foreign Office.

The official stand taken by New Delhi on Tuesday was that it is trying to verify reports of an attack on Masood.

The Indian intelligence agencies, too, are tightlipped about the "rumor" of a bomb attack on Masood, given his important role in the complicated Afghanistan scenario.

While unnamed US officials said Washington "believed" that Masood was dead, Masood's own men have denied such reports.

"He is absolutely fine," a secretary for Masood said from the opposition stronghold in the Panjsher valley, adding that a suicide bomber posing as a journalist had blown himself up after gaining access to Masood's office in northern Afghanistan.

Masood's anti-Taliban alliance is officially led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was driven from Kabul in 1996 but is still recognized by the United Nations as Afghanistan's leader.

Iranian and Russian media reports suggested that Masood was attacked by two "Arabs" posing as journalists on Sunday. One of them had detonated an explosive hidden in a camera, blowing up himself, his colleague and Mr. Masood, the reports said.

The Afghan Charge d'Affaires in New Delhi, Syed Sardar Ahmadi, denied the reports and said on Tuesday that Masood only suffered minor injuries.

"Elimination or even marginalization of Masood would prove to be a major tactical victory for the ruling Taliban militia as well as Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which created the Taliban and is keeping it afloat with all logistic assistance.

Moreover, Masood was considered to be a potential threat to the Taliban leadership and his elimination would be a major setback for the United States in its efforts to apprehend Osama bin Laden who is living as a guest of the Taliban," New Delhi based strategic affairs analyst, Rajesh Talwar said.

The U.S. holds bin Laden responsible for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people.

The U.S. has offered a $5-million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of bin Laden, who has been living as a "welcomed guest" in Afghanistan since 1996.

Despite the promise of a reward and the U.N. sanctions imposed on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, the Taliban has so far refused to bow to pressure to produce bin Laden.

The Taliban controls 90 percent of Afghanistan territory and the rest is controlled by a Northern Alliance comprising several splinter groups.

Masood's outfit, Shoora-e-Nazar, is the most powerful group in the Northern Alliance and comprises more than 10,000 fighters. Masood's outfit controls five percent of Afghan territory and wields influence over the strategic Takhar province, bordering Tajikistan.

Apart from Masood's outfit, the six other major outfits of the Northern Alliance are Jumbish-e-Milli, led by the Uzbek leader, Abdul Rashid Dostum who is currently abroad.

Masood had recently developed serious differences with General Dostum; Ismail-e-Militia, led by General Mansoor Nadri; Harkat-e-Inquilabi, led by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi; Hizb-e-Inquilabi, led by Syed Ahmed Gilani; Hizb-e-Wahadat, a Shia outfit active in Bamiyan and Hazara areas of Afghanistan which has two offshoots called Khalili and Ansari; and Harkat-e-Islami, led by the Mohsin group.