KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — 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, 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, 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.
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.
“The Shrine of the Cloak is an important place not just for the president, but for all Afghans and all Muslims,” said Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman.
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 Karzai’s 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. Akhundzada’s 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 government’s hands.
Not long after that, the Akhundzada family’s luck 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.
Akhundzada’s nephew, the leader of Kandahar’s 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 don’t 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 hasn’t since 2002 – it will remain unseen, even to its guardian.
But everyone, in Kandahar and beyond, knows the Taliban hasn’t forgotten about the blue shrine and what it contains, even if the prize remains hidden.
“It is a place of blessing and importance for us,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said this week. “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 was behind the recent string of Akhundzada assassinations.
The Afghan government has upped its security of the shrine and its keepers, posting police officers around the perimeter. Akhundzada’s last trip to Kabul included a one-on-one meeting with the minister of defense.
“We all know why they’re being targeted,” said Haji Agha Lalai, the former leader of Kandahar’s provincial council. “They’ve lost so many family members because of the cloak.”
Still, Akhundzada doesn’t like to talk publicly about his predicament. With so much looming uncertainty in Afghanistan, his family is clinging to the veil of neutrality. They merely hold a few keys, he says, a minor responsibility incommensurate with the scale of retribution, whatever its source.
“If we speak about who was behind these assassinations, our enemy will target us again,” he said. “We do not feel safe.”