As the fight against the Taliban and ISIS wears on in Afghanistan, the country’s major cities have been struck with a fresh pestilence: the targeted killings of government officials, journalists, and prominent Afghan leaders. Now, the Taliban have added to its tally the murder of an Afghan National Army helicopter pilot, Massoud Atal. Atal, a member of the 205th Corps, was murdered in broad daylight by unidentified gunmen in the PD14 district of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city. 

According to a report from TOLO News and several other accounts on Twitter, Atal was gunned down by men on motorcycles inside the city limits in what the National Directorate of Security (NDS) is all but certain was a targeted killing. 

Atal’s murder comes just days after former NDS chief and current Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi identified the threat of these targeted killings as an attempt by the Taliban “to create a gap between the government and the people.”

Afghan pilot Massoud Atal murdered in targeted killing by Taliban
Massoud Atal. Officials at the 205th Atal Corps confirmed that Massoud Atal, a military pilot, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in PD14 of Kandahar city on Wednesday afternoon. (TOLO News)

Andarabi had addressed the Afghan Senate on Tuesday, December 29th, referencing the growing threat of these targeted killings and reasserting the position that they are being carried out by the Taliban. 

“The Taliban is seeking leverage in the peace efforts by putting pressure on the government with IED bombings in Kabul and by launching attacks in districts,” he said. 

He went on to say that interrogations of apprehended individuals reveal that the Taliban have formed a new group of assassins whose primary objective is the targeted killing of prominent Afghan civilians and military members. 

“The people who were arrested over the targeted killings have confessed that a group was created by the Taliban under the name of ‘Obaida’ in Logar province to target government employees, journalists and civil society activists to raise the people’s voice against the government,” Andarabi said on Tuesday. 

National Directorate of Security Chief General Zia Saraj, who addressed the Senate alongside Andarabi, corroborated the minister’s assessment. He reported that “over 18,200” insurgent attacks have occurred in the last 10 months, “99 percent of them by the Taliban.”  

“The Daesh [ISIS] group was only responsible for one percent of the attacks,” he added.  

But Atal’s murder represents more than a grim addition to the rash of killings carried out by the Taliban. Highly-trained military members like Atal are in the crosshairs more than ever, especially Afghan National Army (ANA) helicopter pilots. Pilots like Atal are not only costly to train and equip, but they are part of ANA’s aggressive tip-of-the-spear in operations against Taliban positions. Helicopters are also a crucial method of distributing supplies, medical aid, and troops to the rural and largely mountainous areas from which the Taliban tend to operate.

Earlier this month veteran helicopter pilot, Maj. Mohammed Naiem Asadi, who is credited with the highest number of Taliban kills, was denied refuge in the United States despite a previous Pentagon decision that had granted him and his family asylum. Asadi had sought U.S. protection because he was in “imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban,” according to a report from Stars and Stripes.

Since being denied by the Pentagon, Asadi and his family have been in limbo and fear the worst given the pervasion of targeted killings across the country.

Another Afghan pilot, Niloofar Rahmani, was granted asylum in the United States in 2016 after receiving death threats from the Taliban.  

Atal’s killing shows that the Taliban are growing more brazen and are intent on destabilizing the government and the national security apparatus. This all while sitting at the negotiating table in a U.S.-brokered peace process. If left unchecked, it’s clear that the Taliban will continue to grow more confident, and more lethal. 

And the Afghan government — still rife with division, infighting, and dissent about how to deal with the Taliban — appears incapable of stemming the violence.