KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – For 250 years, Masood Akhundzadas family has protected Afghanistans most sacred artifact: a cloak said to have been worn by the prophet Muhammad.
Its power drew Afghan kings and presidents and Taliban leaders to a small, blue shrine in a city conquered by Alexander the Great and contested ever since.
By the time Akhundzada inherited the guardianship in 2008, it was an honor that came at a high price. Five previous guardians – his father, brothers and cousins – had been assassinated, shot in their offices, in markets and airports. They were hunted, most believed, for their connection to a piece of Islamic history that the insurgency wanted desperately to reclaim.
When Akhundzada, a large man with a wild beard and an easy smile, accepted the keys to the shrine, he also bought a gun. Theres 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 Americas military drawdown, is as much a war over symbols as territory. Some are ordinary Qurans 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 Akhundzadas 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, the 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, Akhundzadas 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 Omars massive popularity in the countrys Pashtun south – and the army of men who accompanied him to the mosque – the guardians felt obliged to allow him into the shrines furthest reaches, unlocking the doors, safes and boxes that kept the cloak hidden from the public.
We couldnt object, said Akhundzada. He was the commander.
The family didnt anticipate Omars 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 garments short sleeves. Taliban mullahs exclaimed, Amir-ul momineen! or Commander of the Faithful!
It was seen as a pivotal moment in Omars 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.
The cloak had always been a symbol of power – the people of Kandahar attribute their provinces famously delicious fruit to its presence. For years it was unveiled to quell hysteria in the aftermath of natural disasters.
But suddenly its image was everywhere: in foreign newspapers, intelligence reports and Taliban propaganda pamphlets. Akhundzadas relatives, who considered themselves neutral protectors of the sacred, were suddenly thrust into Afghanistans bloody political arena.
They had some experience in that unwanted role. During the Soviet occupation, Akhundzadas father was killed when militants demanded that the cloak be taken out of Afghanistan – and away from perceived anti-Islamic influence – but he refused.
As soon as the Taliban took power, there was cause for concern: Akhundzadas brother, Mohammed Mehadi, a former guardian of the cloak, was killed in Pakistans Karachi airport.
Thats when we really got worried, Akhundzada said.
He knew the Taliban would eventually fall. It happened in December 2001, and when it was over, the cloak had a new rightful heir: President Hamid Karzai.
The Shrine of the Cloak is an important place not just for the president, but for all Afghans and all Muslims, said Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi.
But amid the commotion, some U.S. officials worried that the Taliban had escaped with the cloak.
They needed us to make sure that it was still there. There was a real concern that if the cloak was stolen, it would be a blow to Karzai, said Khalid Pashtoon, a Kandahar parliamentarian.
With Karzais approval, then-Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, Pashtoon and several others slaughtered goats and cows as a sacrifice to the sacred place and went on to inspect the shrine. Akhundzadas brother, Qari Shawali, unlocked the three boxes made of wood and silver that held the cloak.
There it was – brown and well-kept and very beautiful, said Pashtoon. The group prayed and wept, and reported to Karzai and U.S. officials that the cloak was indeed in the new governments hands.
Not long after that, the Akhundzada familys state worsened. The Taliban fled Kandahar in late 2001, but militants soon returned, now an insurgency with a list of new targets, including many former allies.
Akhundzadas nephew, the leader of Kandahars top religious council, was killed first, in 2005. He was shot in the face in his office. Then in 2008, assassins killed his brother and his cousin, both custodians of the cloak, as they walked through a local market.
We are not political people – we are just keepers of the holy cloak, said Haji Mohammad Osman, a cousin of Akhundzada and a lower-ranking guardian. We dont know why our family is being targeted.
When the family decided that Akhundzada would become the new official guardian of the shrine, he was resolute. Weeks later, Akhundzada was nearly killed in a suicide bombing.
Even if they try to chop my family to pieces, I will protect the cloak, he said.
That declaration contained one unmistakable irony: Akhundzada has never seen the cloak that he is willing to die for. It has remained locked deep inside the shrine since he took his position. Until the president asks for it to be unveiled – which he hasnt since 2002 – it will remain unseen, even to its guardian.
But everyone, in Kandahar and beyond, knows the Taliban hasnt forgotten about the blue shrine and what it contains.
It is a place of blessing and importance for us, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said. When Mullah Omar took it out, thousands of people gathered to watch it with their own eyes.
When the Taliban retake Kandahar, Ahmadi said, they will also retake authority of the cloak. He would not comment on whether the Taliban were behind the recent Akhundzada assassinations.
The Afghan government has upped its security of the shrine and its keepers, posting police officers around the perimeter.
We all know why theyre being targeted, said Haji Agha Lalai, the former leader of Kandahars provincial council. Theyve lost so many family members because of the cloak.
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