Thousands of Afghan mercenaries are believed to be helping America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. But they’re accused of flagrant human rights abuses.
With his broad cheekbones, hair swept back under a sequined cap, and the gentle manner of a well-to-do Pashtun, Atal Afghanzai might easily pass for a doctor or an engineer.
Instead, his career path led into a cloak-and-dagger world of covert armies and foreign agents, until a rare lethal run-in with an Afghan police chief landed him on death row in Kabul’s most notorious prison.
Young and motivated, Mr. Afghanzai is one of thousands of Afghan mercenaries believed to be working with the CIA to help America battle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. His story – confirmed by US diplomats, other Western officials, and Afghan authorities – illustrates the military advantages of this secret war. But, with the US poised to ramp up reliance on paramilitaries like Afghanzai as it pulls out frontline troops, the practice is raising the ire of Afghans who accuse the groups of human rights abuses. Read the rest of this entry »
As Nato prepares to pull out, the Taliban is positioning itself to step into the vacuum
A suicide bomber has killed the mayor of Kandahar City, depriving the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, of yet another ally in southern Afghanistan just as Nato troops start pulling out of the insurgency-wracked country.
The murder of Ghulam Haider Hamidi, a childhood friend of the Karzai family and a naturalised US citizen, who had returned to Afghanistan at the President’s personal request, comes just two weeks after a trusted bodyguard gunned down Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President’s half-brother.
The hit eliminates one of the leading contenders to become Kandahar’s next governor, leaving the way open for Gul Agha Sherzai, a bear of a man who dispenses patronage like one of Afghanistan’s kings of old. A nominal Karzai ally, Mr Sherzai will almost certainly consolidate lucrative Nato contracts and drugs revenues for his own family if he gets the nod, diminishing Mr Karzai’s influence in the south. Read the rest of this entry »
The latest victim in a string of killings of local officials loyal to President Hamid Karzaai, Ghulam Haider Hamidi tried to build good governance against the odds
An honest man in a city of thieves, Kandahar mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi once exemplified hopes that the U.S.-led nation-building effort would leave behind a better Afghanistan. His killing by a suicide bomber on Wednesday, less than two weeks after the slaying of Kandahar’s strongman provincial council chairman Ahmed Wali Karzai, underscores the declining prospects of the Western military mission there.
“More than 50 percent of the violence comes from these corrupt people, the ones who sit with you and smile,” Hamidi told the Washington Post earlier this year. The former accountant had returned to Kandahar in 2007 after 30 years in the United States. Having been invited to serve as mayor by his childhood friend Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Hamidi said goodbye to the comfort of his northern Virginia home and threw himself into the maelstrom of the southern Afghan city’s politics. He initiated a slew of projects — from paving roads to collecting taxes and building schools — intended to revitalize the city, and made a name for himself trying to root out graft and curb the power of local strongmen and warlords on whom he blamed Kandahar’s ills. Read the rest of this entry »
Shadowy, unaccountable forces accused of human rights abuses
Covert forces of CIA-trained Afghan paramilitaries are being built up to continue the US-led war on the Taliban as thousands of US troops prepare to leave the country.
Members of one shadowy group of some 400 men in southern Kandahar province have given The Independent a unique insight into their training and secret operations against militants as foreign troops prepare to quit Afghanistan by 2014.
Senior figures within one of the forces revealed that they were taught hand-to-hand combat by foreign military advisers, were delivered to targets by US Black Hawk helicopters and have received a letter of thanks from President Hamid Karzai for their work. Read the rest of this entry »
After the President buried his half-brother, he appointed another sibling to lead their tribe. But will that prevent a rebalancing of power in the troubled province?
They came to bury Ahmed Wali Karzai from Afghanistan and beyond, flying in on charter planes and arriving in armored convoys to pay their last respects to the man dubbed the “King of Kandahar.” Family and friends joined a funeral cortege of thousands as it made its way, under the watchful guard of helicopter gunships, from Kandahar City to the small village 12 miles away, where the Afghan President’s half-brother was born in 1961. Among the mourners were government ministers, parliamentarians and provincial governors, some dabbing their eyes with the silk of their turbans. Shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai slipped off his moccasins and stepped into his half-brother’s grave to bid the Kandahar strongman a last goodbye. Their relationship may not always have been easy, but those close to Karzai say it ran deep, and that the President has been devastated by Ahmed Wali’s murder.
Then the King of Kandahar’s brother was off from the village grave, whisked away in a motorcade of black SUVs before anyone could make another attempt against the Karzai family. (One guest had been less lucky but still fortunate, saved from a Taliban bomb blast as he traveled to the funeral by the reinforced armor of his car.)
Back in Kandahar City at a fortress-like mansion, Karzai’s first task was to anoint a successor to Ahmed Wali as de facto leader of the Popalzai tribe, from which the Karzai family hails. It was from his role as a tribal leader that Ahmed Wali drew much of his power, and Karzai chose another half-brother, Shah Wali Karzai, crowning him with a turban in front of the assembled chieftans. “Tribal leaders have proposed for me to replace martyred Ahmed Wali Karzai with Shah Wali Karzai as your tribal elder,” Karzai intoned. It was the President’s first move to repair the vast tear in Kandahar’s political fabric that Ahmed Wali’s death has left. Read the rest of this entry »
Politician was vital to Hamid Karzai’s fight against Taliban
Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother to the Afghan President and one of the country’s most powerful politicians, was assassinated by a bodyguard yesterday, leaving a power vacuum in a crucial province as foreign powers prepare to start withdrawing troops.
Mr Karzai was shot in the head and the chest as he met constituents at his home in Kandahar. Witnesses told The Independent that the assailant, a bodyguard and long-term family friend called Sardar Mohammad, interrupted a meeting between Mr Karzai and two other local politicians.
Waving a file and citing personal business, Mohammad asked to speak privately with his boss. Moments after they stepped next door, shots rang out. Guards shot Mohammad and rushed Mr Karzai to hospital but he was dead on arrival. Read the rest of this entry »
Kandahar is the Taliban’s stronghold and target of an allied assault in Afghanistan. Can NATO win hearts and minds as well as territory?
NEAR ZANGABAD, AFGHANISTAN
First came the nightly rocket bombardments, targeting abandoned mud houses about 30 miles southwest of Kandahar City, where Taliban insurgents stored 82mm antitank guns, grenade launchers, and rifles, and where they made bombs and staged attacks on NATO and Afghan forces.
For weeks, NATO and Afghan commando units launched covert raids against Taliban leaders, shattering the insurgency’s local command structure. So many commanders were killed that local tribal elders said even they weren’t sure who was in chargeof insurgent groups any more. The mishmash of vineyards, rivers, and marijuana fields in this slice of Kandahar Province is so easy to defend and so difficult to penetrate that militants and outlaws have sheltered here for as long as anyone can remember.
Then, last month, Afghan and US troops used the cover of night to storm the Horn of Panjwaii – an unruly spit of land posing the last direct threat to Kandahar City; southern Afghanistan‘s political center and the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Airborne assaults on October 15, 16, and 25 were the culmination of months of fighting in the city’s western fringes. Three Afghan National Army battalions – more than 2,000 men – and three companies of US paratroopers rode in on helicopters to attack the cluster of villages of Mushan, Zangabad, and Taluqan, considered key to Kandahar.
“There was fighting – bullets, bullets – and everyone was trying to get out,” says Mahmoud Dawood, a farmer who was caught up in the violence. Soldiers bound him and turned his house into a firing point, he continued, uncuffing him long enough to fill sandbags.
To the north, a US Army brigade – about 3,500 soldiers – had already swept into Zhari and Arghandab, rural districts that also served as staging grounds for militant attacks on Kandahar City.
All these maneuvers are part of an operation intended to scatter the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and provide breathing space for the West to better manage its exit strategy in 2011. The operation, called “Hamkari” (the Dari word for “togetherness”), is seen as the coalition’s best chance to win control of Kandahar from the Taliban. Similar operations touted as more successful than previous efforts are ongoing in the Arghandab and Zhari districts, and in Malajat, a suburb of Kandahar City.
Why is Kandahar so important?
Kandahar has more political and cultural significance than perhaps anywhere else in the country. For centuries, Afghanistan’s rulers have hailed from this patchwork of dense greenery and barren desert. It is home to the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the country’s holiest sites. It’s also one of the nation’s most densely populated cities.
Kandahar was the de facto capital when the Taliban were in power, and is the insurgents’ most cherished objective.
Anarchy and warlordism here quickly pushed inhabitants toward the Taliban when the movement emerged 16 years ago. Following 2001, marginalization of the villagers in Panjwaii, Zhari, and Arghandab districts by the ruling Zirak Durrani tribes fed the movement with recruits and leaders and contributed to the violence and lawlessness here that have undermined NATO efforts.
As US Army Brig. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges – until recently NATO’s director of operations in southern Afghanistan – put it: “Kandahar City and its environs are the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity for the Pashtun belt” – the swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Pashtun ethnic group, the one most closely affiliated with the insurgency, resides. That’s a main part of the reason NATO commanders consider the province the linchpin to winning over the country’s “hearts and minds” and ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The trick of the Taliban
Hamkari is one of the few operations where the coalition has the benefit of the full weight ofPresident Obama‘s troop surge, which saw America deploy 30,000 extra personnel to Afghanistan – there are some 6,900 NATO troops and 5,300 Afghan troops inside Kandahar. The US and NATO have more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. In Hodges’s words, the coalition will “never have it any better.” Yet for those troops in the Horn, the hard part has only just begun. As in nearly every place NATO has rolled into in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban retaliation in the shape of a brutal intimidation campaign is a near certainty.
“The trick of the Taliban,” a villager from the Horn says, is this: “They flee the fighting. Then slowly, slowly they return.” Asking not to be named for fear of reprisal, he added that everyone, “everywhere” was “scared [of] targeted killing.”
The one thing that is certain in the murky, indefinite war that has now enveloped the Horn, is a Taliban campaign that eschews military confrontation and terrorizes civilians, say inhabitants, tribal elders, local journalists, researchers, government officials, and NATO troops.
The point of such terrorizing? To show that NATO and the Afghan government may prevail on the battlefield, but they cannot provide the security, governance, and justice that would underpin the state’s political legitimacy, observers say.
Improving governance remains a NATO objective, but faced with little alternative to working with existing administration of one of the world’s most corrupt nations, officials are now downplaying this component of the campaign.
The hardest part: establishing security
Defeating the Taliban militarily is one thing. But success in southern Afghanistan, and thus the rest of the country, will depend far more on the coalition’s ability to protect Kandaharis from Taliban threats and terror tactics – and transforming the government into something worth supporting.
Taliban “kill elders, the officials, the doctors, the engineers,” says Abdul Haq, an Achekzai tribal elder who lives in the Horn. “This will put pressure on the people. Last year they killed many people in Panjwaii district, and the government couldn’t stop this killing.”
Rubbing his cropped gray hair and speaking softly, Mr. Haq recalled the murder of a teenage boy who had joined the police. The Taliban “had spies within the government who [sold him out], and after questioning him and hearing out his story, they killed him” in the mulberry grove where he had gone to pick fruit. “It was the third time they had arrested him. He was 17.”
Even in Kandahar City, which is nominally under government control, Taliban assassinations of authority figures have proven extremely effective. Kandahar’s deputy mayor was gunned down earlier this year, and his successor met the same fate. A senior warden at Kandahar jail was killed in a drive-by shooting on Nov. 6. The deputy head of the provincial adult literacy department was shot two days before.
Although exact figures are hard to come by, local media have reported more than 600 local government vacancies following a string of murders. The fact that empty posts outnumber assassinated officials is evidence that the fear campaign is working.
How to keep ‘ghosts’ away
As troops prepared for their final air assault on the Horn last month, US Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, one of the most senior NATO officers in Afghanistan, quizzed Afghan commanders at a vantage point overlooking the Horn on how they planned to stop the insurgents – known locally as “ghosts”– from sneaking back into the Horn and terrorizing inhabitants.
“These operations you’ve been doing are going very well … the challenge is, after that, how do we continue to provide security for the people?” he asked. No one answered.
“What we need [to] do with every asset we have out there,” he continued, “is figure out how to make it bigger than it is, so that the people say, ‘OK, we’ll be protected.'”
Creating that sense of security has largely proved elusive for the Afghan and NATO security forces. In Marjah, in neighboring Helmand Province, a US Special Forces captain said that persuading people whose chief motivation is survival to stick their necks out was – not surprisingly – difficult.
“The Taliban are quick to take out tribal leaders,” said Captain Matt, whose full name can’t be disclosed under NATO press rules.
In one of the most notable examples of the Taliban targeting tribal strongmen, Abdul Hakim Jan, a powerful figure from Arghandab district (Kandahar City’s northern gateway) was one of 80 spectators killed when a massive car bomb detonated at a dog fight two years ago. His murder, which came soon after the death of Mullah Naqib, another Kandahar politician and elder from of the Alokozai tribe, signaled the fall of Arghandab to the Taliban.
Captain Matt said the same phenomenon was visible in Marjah. “This place has largely been stripped of its leadership…. We try to tell people that if you want yourselves to be represented then you need to do x, y, and z. We try to emphasize that, hey, it’s your leaders,” he said. “We want to emphasize that, not impose it.”
But progress is slow, with potential leaders choosing to remain in the shadows. “A man with a gun rules 100,” Matt says. “The coalition doesn’t rule by fear – [and] a carrot doesn’t do so much.”
Tribal wars even more fierce
The Taliban have also been quick to exploit tribal enmities. When NATO and Afghan forces swept into the Horn in 2006, in one of three previous campaigns to rid the place of insurgents, the arrival of Afghan Border Police from a traditional rival of the predominant Noorzai tribe sparked such fierce fighting that it made the struggle between pro- and antigovernment forces look tame. By backing the Noorzais, the Taliban bought themselves an entire tribal block.
Local history is also a factor, especially in the Horn, which has traditionally supported a lot of illegal activity. Criminal networks existed here long before the coup in 1973, the communist countercoup in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979. Government writ didn’t really extend this far, and so the militants filled the vacuum.
Residents of Zangabad, a bucolic slice of orchards and irrigation ditches that Afghan troops stormed on Oct. 16, claim there was a Taliban court there, dispensing swift if brutal justice, and reportedly in direct competition with Kandahar City courts, which are perceived as sluggish, expensive, and corrupt.
Most locals dislike either option
Yet a major factor in the outcome of Kandahar, say top commanders, is the Afghan government’s ability to deliver. That’s the Achilles heel of NATO efforts to stabilize the country.
Although villagers who have lived under the Taliban’s austere sway have little love for the insurgents, they are not altogether convinced by the other side’s offer. Tales of police arranging for kidnappings, private militias snatching land, and government officials extorting civilians are commonplace in Kandahar.
“One man says he likes the Taliban,” explains Haji Abdul Karim, an elder from the Noorzai tribe and an old acquaintance of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. “One man says he likes the government. But the majority hate both.”
In contrast to earlier NATO promises to sideline “malign actors” (also known as the Kandahar mafia), military commanders in southern Afghanistan are taking a new approach and have now quietly dropped their opposition to the region’s power brokers, and instead have reconciled themselves to working with them.
The alienation factor this tactic creates is undeniable: “There are many warlords in the government working to acquire money, not bring security,” says Haji Mohammad Zahir, a businessman from the Zhari district. People join the insurgents “because of the government’s corruption, bribes, and extortion,” he says.
Still, the security in Kandahar is a big step toward allowing locals to even consider such issues Hodges says: “There is a presence of security that is a lot more prevalent and reassuring than at any time in the past.”
Nato and Afghan forces, which this week seized the last Taliban safe haven directly threatening Kandahar City, are drawing up plans to stop insurgents re-infiltrating the area and waging a campaign of intimidation against local inhabitants.
Earlier this week forces stormed the last cluster of villages under insurgent control in the nearby “Horn of Panjwaii” during a night-time helicopter raid. A Nato spokesman said resistance had been “light” but that troops were still clearing the area of home-made bombs.
The assault on Taloqan, a cluster of villages in the middle of the Horn, where inhabitants have typically leant towards the insurgents, is the culmination of months of fighting on the western fringes of the city. Read the rest of this entry »
As troops step up their attack on the militants’ Kandahar heartland, Julius Cavendish meets the ordinary people caught on the frontline
The first eyewitness accounts of Nato’s assault on the final Taliban sanctuary threatening Kandahar City have begun to emerge, painting a picture of sporadic fire fights, steady progress by Afghan and coalition forces, and flight by those inhabitants wealthy or lucky enough to escape the violence.
Earlier this week, Nato began its final and critical phase of a major offensive designed to clear Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, with hundreds of troops carrying out an air assault on the main insurgent base in the region. In interviews with The Independent, tribal elders, government officials and civilians in Kandahar City provided vivid descriptions of special forces night raids and Nato’s bombardment of the area in the preceding month – designed to damage the local Taliban leadership – and the tactics the insurgents used to cow inhabitants before fleeing in the face of coalition firepower.
Mahmoud Dawood, a 35-year-old farmer from the western tip of the Horn of Panjwaii, the area Afghan and Nato forces are trying to take, described how he was woken last Thursday night by explosions in a neighbouring village. Suddenly the blasts came closer, and the silhouette of an Afghan commando appeared in his open door. “There was a bright white light and a voice said in Pashto ‘Stand up’,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »