South Asia

Sayedkhili: Afghan police chief who took on the Taliban

Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili
Image caption Mr Sayedkihili had been warned of the threats to his life

A suicide bomber has attacked an army recruitment centre in the Afghan province of Kunduz just days after the Taliban killed the province's police chief. The BBC's Bilal Sarwary recalls his encounters with the battle-hardened commander who challenged the Taliban in the once-peaceful region.

Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili believed in leading from the front, and it was on the front line where I met him for the first time.

It was 2005 and he was tasked with providing protection for a BBC team as we travelled to the central province of Bamiyan, where just a few years earlier the 1,500-year-old giant Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban.

Mr Sayedkhili had been a commander with the Northern Alliance and fought the Taliban in the late 1990s. He fought the Soviets at a young age under the commander, Ahmad Shah Masood. But when I met him he still had the hunger and drive to face down his opponents.

I stayed in touch with Mr Sayedkhili, often calling him for a quote on the war against the Taliban. Almost every time, I called him I would hear gunshots in the background.

Kunduz challenge

He was moved to Kunduz province to lead the police force there after the Taliban besieged it in 2009.

The Taliban had taken control of most of the districts in the province, restricting the government's authority to Kunduz city, the provincial capital.

But Mr Sayedkhili launched the assault on the Taliban as soon as he took command of the police force there.

Besides fighting the Taliban, he also had to cope with the shortage of weapons, ammunition and the low morale of his forces.

By now, hundreds of foreign fighters, mostly from Pakistan, Gulf countries and Chechnya, had infiltrated the province.

This was the time when the province was hit by a wave of attacks on senior government officials who dared to go after the Taliban.

The provincial governor's brother, who was himself a district governor, was killed. Just one year later, in October 2010, the provincial governor, Muhammad Omar, was assassinated in a bomb attack by the Taliban. Earlier this year, the governor of Char Dara district was killed.

The situation was becoming chaotic. I called up Mr Sayedkhili soon after the governor's death.

I asked him if he feared for his life.

"All my life I have lived in wars, I am not afraid of death," he replied. "I just hope it comes in the line of duty."

Between October and December, Mr Sayedkhili and his forces had made good advances against the Taliban and by January the insurgents were pushed out from most of the province.

Mr Sayedkhili took the fight to the Taliban instead of waiting for them to attack. He truly believed the Taliban could be defeated. This is what endeared him to the US Special Forces, who often requested him to accompany them on night raids.

Unpopular tactics

Mr Sayedkhili's efforts in clearing the province of the Taliban earned him a medal from the Afghan government.

However, some of his tactics were unpopular.

He was accused of creating militias made up of "thugs". When I asked him about the militias during a conversation over phone, he said: "We have a lot of problems on hand. Now that we have cleared the area of the Taliban, we will deal with the militias."

I last met Mr Sayedkhili a month ago when I went to Kunduz to report on operations against the Taliban.

Mr Sayedkhili and his officers were planning a big attack against the militants.

His regional commander General Dawood Dawood said Mr Sayedkhili had been warned about a threat to his life. He said Mr Sayedkhili had said the danger to his life was during the day not night.

A local official with Afghanistan's spy agency in Kunduz confirmed that they had warned him about the threat: "He was out with his officers, trying to clean the city. This was the job of municipality, not police. Our leaders are sometimes reckless."

Sobbing over the phone, the official - who was also Mr Sayedkhili's best friend - said: "Sadly, the country has lost one of its top officers."

The latest attack in Kunduz has not yet been claimed by any militant group. Although the Taliban may no longer be in control of many of Kunduz's districts, they certainly retain the capacity to launch devastating attacks.

Many in the area are mourning the man who had no fear in taking the fight straight to the militants.