When Akhundzada, a large man with a wild beard and an easy smile, accepted the keys to the shrine, he also bought a gun. There’s no law, he said, that prevents a mullah from being armed if his life is in danger.
The fight between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which will almost certainly continue beyond America’s military drawdown, is as much a war over symbols as territory. Some of those symbols are ordinary Korans and mosques, stand-ins for the religiosity of warriors on both sides of the battlefield. Some are more specific and sacred, like the cloak under Akhundzada’s care, whose significance has prompted even American paranoia over its fate.
Many Afghans worry that if Kandahar slips further into anarchy after the 2014 drawdown, most famous of symbols could go with it, leaving its protectors at the dangerous intersection of rhetorical and physical battlefields.
Most residents of Kandahar say the story of the Akhundzada assassinations begins in 1996, when one-eyed Taliban leader Mohammad Omar visited the Shrine of the Cloak. The Taliban had recently taken control of the city and was on its way to Kabul.
“Here I am. Let me see it,” Omar told Qari Shawali, Akhundzada’s brother, according to witnesses.
For more than two centuries, since the cloak was brought to Kandahar by Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani, the family allowed only recognized leaders of Afghanistan to view it. But given Omar’s massive popularity in the country’s Pashtun south — and the army of men who accompanied him to the mosque — the guardians felt obliged to allow him into the shrine’s furthest reaches, unlocking the doors, safes and boxes that kept the cloak hidden from the public.
“We couldn’t object,” said Akhundzada. “He was the commander.”
The family didn’t anticipate Omar’s next move: He carried the cloak to the roof of a mosque in central Kandahar a week later. As thousands gathered below him, he put his wrists into the garment’s short sleeves. Taliban mullahs exclaimed, “Amir-ul momineen!” or “Commander of the Faithful!”
It was seen as a pivotal moment in Omar’s ascent from the poorly educated son of a farmer to leader of Afghanistan and protagonist in a global jihad. Months after putting on the cloak, Osama bin Laden came to Kandahar to commend Omar.
‘There it was’
The cloak had always been a symbol of power — the people of Kandahar attribute their province’s famously delicious fruit to its presence. For years it was unveiled to quell hysteria in the aftermath of natural disasters.