In Afghanistan, a Blurring Line Between 'Bad Guys' and U.S. Allies

The U.S. relies on strong men to impose control on Afghanistan, a strategy that belies promises of establishing the rule of law and peaceful society

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Afghan soldiers sit above their bunkers in Ghaziabad district in Kunar / Reuters

Two important stories about Afghan militant leaders have come out in the last few days. Together, they highlight a rather stunning, if unsurprising, aspect of the war: we do not really support the good guys. From over the weekend, the New York Times ran an excellent piece about the Haqqanis, a family of Afghan insurgents who also operate like a hyper-violent mafia:

With a combination of guns and muscle, the Haqqani network has built a sprawling enterprise on both sides of a border that barely exists.

American intelligence officials believe that a steady flow of money from wealthy people in the gulf states helps sustain the Haqqanis, and that they further line their pockets with extortion and smuggling operations throughout eastern Afghanistan, focused in the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. Chromite smuggling has been a particularly lucrative business, as has been hauling lumber from Afghanistan's eastern forests into Pakistan.

They are also in the kidnapping business, with a mix of pecuniary and ideological motives. In May, the group released the latest of a series of videos showing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American infantryman held by the network since June 2009, with a Haqqani official. David Rohde, then a reporter for The New York Times, was held hostage by Haqqani operatives from November 2008 to June 2009.

Over the past five years, with relatively few American troops operating in eastern Afghanistan, the Haqqanis have run what is in effect a protection racket for construction firms -- meaning that American taxpayers are helping to finance the enemy network.

There is a lot more there, but that's the gist. The Haqqanis attack American and Afghan forces, but they also operate a large and growing commercial empire that spans the AfPak border. They even figured out how to get a hold of American reconstruction money and use it to fund attacks on American reconstruction efforts. Truth be told, it's deviously clever, which is also why the Haqqanis are such a difficult enemy to have.

Matthieu Aikins, a great reporter who spends a lot of time in Afghanistan, just finished a two-year reporting project on another Afghan warlord we should all know, Colonel Abdul Raziq, in Kandahar. He writes about Raziq in the November issue of The Atlantic:

What happened to Ahmad and Najib is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern of abuse that has occurred wherever Raziq has been in power, first in his outpost of Spin Boldak and now in Kandahar City. Raziq has long been publicly suspected of drug trafficking and corruption; allegations that he and his men have been involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, and illegal imprisonment have been trickling out for years. Raziq categorically denies all such charges, telling The Atlantic, "When someone works well, then he finds a lot of enemies who try to ruin his name."

Last fall, Raziq and his militia were given a starring role in the U.S.-led military offensive into Taliban-controlled areas west of Kandahar City, a campaign that boosted his prestige immensely. Mentored by an American Special Forces team, Raziq's fighters won public praise from U.S. officers for their combat prowess. After the offensive, Raziq was promoted to brigadier general--a rank requiring a direct order from President Karzai--in a January ceremony at the governor's mansion. As Ben Moeling, who was until July the State Department's senior official in Kandahar province, explained to me at the time, the promotion was "an explicit recognition of his importance."

... Yet, as a 2006 State Department report shows, U.S. officials have for years been aware of credible allegations that Raziq and his men participated in a cold-blooded massacre of civilians, the details of which have, until now, been successfully buried. And this, in turn, raises questions regarding whether U.S. officials may have knowingly violated a 1997 law that forbids assistance to foreign military units involved in human-rights violations.

Again, there is a lot here to digest, including a disturbing photo gallery of human rights abuses Aikins ties to Raziq. The Afghan warlord and his men attack Taliban and other insurgent forces, but they also operate a large and growing commercial empire that spans the AfPak border, and they even figured out how to take American counterinsurgency money and use it to fund their own expansion of territorial control. Now, Raziq is America's golden boy.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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