A man prays in front of the Shrine of the Cloak in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Tomas Munita/AP )
For 250 years, Masood Akhundzada’s family has protected Afghanistan’s 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. 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.
But suddenly its image was everywhere: in foreign newspapers, intelligence reports and Taliban propaganda pamphlets. Akhundzada’s relatives, who considered themselves neutral protectors of the sacred, were suddenly thrust into Afghanistan’s bloody political arena.
They had some experience in that unwanted role. During the Soviet occupation, Akhundzada’s father was killed when militants demanded that the cloak be taken out of Afghanistan — and away from perceived anti-Islamic influence — but he refused.
This time, though, the problem was inverted: The new leaders of Afghanistan were Islamist extremists who saw the cloak as the source of their power. Suddenly, Akhundzada and his brothers and cousins found themselves protecting their jewel on behalf of the Taliban.
For centuries, regime change in Afghanistan had been ceaseless. The family might hand the cloak to a king one day and his usurper months later. Their survival hinged on their neutrality. If Akhundzada’s ancestors were seen as politically involved — as anything other than the cloak’s guardians — their lives would be endangered.
As soon as the Taliban took power there was cause for concern: Akhundzada’s brother, Mohammed Mehadi, a former guardian of the cloak, was killed in Pakistan’s Karachi airport.
“That’s when we really got worried,” Akhundzada said.
He knew the Taliban would eventually fall. But would Omar attempt to take the cloak with him? How would he and his brothers transition from protecting the cloak for Omar to keeping it from him?
That transition happened in December 2001, as dramatic and chaotic as anyone in Kandahar had expected. When it was over, the cloak had a new rightful heir: Afghan President Hamid Karzai.