Our Man in Kandahar

Abdul Raziq and his men have received millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. training and equipment to help in the fight against the Taliban. But is our ally—long alleged to be involved in corruption and drug smuggling—also guilty of mass murder?

Above: Afghan General Abdul Raziq, seen here with American forces during a joint 2009 patrol near the Pakistan border (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Shyly, at times smiling with weak adolescent bravado, the two young men recounted to me how they were beaten and tortured. It was July, and we were sitting at a table in the cavernous restaurant where they both work, in the stupefying summer heat. They slouched forward with their arms on their knees, frequently glancing down toward their open sandals, at toes where livid burns from the electrical wires were still visible.

I will call them Najib and Ahmad, though their names, like others in this article, have been changed to protect their safety. Both 23 years old, they looked like gangly young men who should be playing basketball on the street outside their house, or perhaps video games inside. But here in Kandahar City, the linchpin of the U.S. military’s campaign against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, they had found themselves the victims of America’s Afghan allies.

One afternoon in June, two younger boys who worked at the restaurant, ages 12 and 14, had been stopped by the Afghan National Police while carrying home leftovers from an afternoon wedding. The boys, who were each paid about $60 a month, explained that they always took home leftover meals for their families. But this time they were arrested and accused of bringing food to insurgent fighters hiding outside the city.

Around 11 o’clock that night, police showed up at the restaurant and arrested Najib and Ahmad as well, accusing them of having sent the younger boys out to feed the Taliban. They were taken to police headquarters, where they were handed over to men wearing the mottled gray-green uniforms of the Border Police.

“They said, ‘We are going to beat you,’” Ahmad recalled.

The Border Police were a new sight in the city: rough-looking types with wraparound shades and bandoliers of grenades, who could be seen lounging at checkpoints throughout the city and guarding installations such as the governor’s palace. Though restricted by Afghan law to operate only in international airports or within 50 kilometers of the border, they’d entered the city on May 29 when their boss, Brigadier General Abdul Raziq, was appointed acting chief of police in Kandahar province, following the assassination of his predecessor. Raziq was well known as a warlord and suspected drug trafficker who had waged a brutal campaign against the Taliban. He was also a close ally of both President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. military.

Inside the station, the policemen tied a scarf to Najib’s handcuffs and hung him from the ceiling until he felt as if his arms were being pulled from their sockets. Then two men—one in uniform and holding a black metal baton, the other in plain clothes and wielding a length of cable—began beating him across his hips and thighs. A third man, also in plain clothes, questioned Najib: “What was the name of the commander you were bringing food to? How often do you bring food to the enemy?” Sobbing, Najib pleaded his innocence. In a nearby room, Ahmad could hear his friend’s screams, though he was spared for the time being.

When the beating was over, Najib and Ahmad were taken outside and thrown into the back of an armored Humvee, where they lay all night with their wrists still tightly cuffed, suffocating in the stiflingly hot, enclosed interior.

Early the next morning, they were taken to the governor’s palace, a long, low white compound fronted by a series of arches, jointly guarded by American soldiers and Border Police, where U.S. and Afghan officials meet on a daily basis. The police brought them around the back, to a filthy room that smelled of human waste, where they were shackled to the wall next to two other prisoners. Then, one at a time, they were taken to a second room, empty except for a gas-powered generator.

Najib went first. He was forced to lie on his back, and wires leading to the generator were attached to toes on both his feet. A group of Border Police crowded around him, jeering and spitting snuff on his face. “Tell us the truth,” they commanded. Then they switched on the power. “It felt,” Najib told me, “like my whole body was filled with moving knives.”

After he passed out from the pain, it was Ahmad’s turn to be tortured. When the two awoke from the ordeal, they were placed in separate rooms. In the evening, they were taken to police headquarters to see Abdul Raziq himself.

Raziq is just 33 years old, slender and boyish-looking, with a square jaw and a widow’s peak that tufts up beneath the embroidered pillbox cap he favors when he’s not in uniform. Uneducated but clever and charismatic, he is, despite his youth, one of the most powerful warlords in southern Afghanistan. He controls a militia of several thousand men, as well as the lucrative drug-smuggling routes that pass through his territory, which includes a key trading town called Spin Boldak, near the border with Pakistan.

That June evening, Najib and Ahmad were seated facing Raziq, who asked them to explain why they had been arrested. They told him about the younger boys who would take leftover food home to their families, and whether it was because they had not confessed, or because their stories had checked out, Raziq ordered them released.

Najib and Ahmad complained to me of suffering nerve damage in their wrists from being cuffed for two days, and both said they’d had problems with their kidneys since the electrocutions: Ahmad, who had the more-severe burns, urinated blood for three days afterward. I examined the wounds on Ahmad’s and Najib’s toes—distinct circular burn marks that were still raw and unhealed—and I spoke with a number of their co-workers, who corroborated their claims. I was also given photos of their injuries taken immediately after they were released, and was told their story independently by a source inside the Kandahar police department unhappy with the abuses taking place under Raziq. “That’s what happened to them, when they were innocent,” this official said. “Think of what they do to the guilty.”

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.”

Nor was that promotion the only evidence of Raziq’s continuing ascent. In May, when Karzai appointed him chief of police for Kandahar province, Raziq accepted only on the condition that he also remain in charge of Spin Boldak, the seat of his economic and tribal power. So, in a move that enabled him to retain both jobs, Raziq was appointed “acting” police chief in Kandahar.

While beatings in police custody have been common in Kandahar for as long as there have been police, a number of Afghan and international officials familiar with the situation there told me that Raziq has brought with him a new level of brutality. Since his arrival, Raziq has launched a wave of arrests across the city in coordination with the government intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. One human-rights official who has conducted prison visits in Kandahar told me that the number of prisoners is up more than 50 percent since Raziq’s arrival. In July, even the U.S. military seemed to have realized that the situation was out of hand, when American and NATO forces quietly halted the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities in southern Afghanistan, because of credible allegations that prisoners had been severely abused while in police and NDS custody.

Though Raziq has risen in large part through his own skills and ambition, he is also, to a considerable degree, a creation of the American military intervention in Afghanistan. (Prior to 2001, he had worked in a shop in Pakistan.) As part of a countrywide initiative, his men have been trained by two controversial private military firms, DynCorp and Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, at a U.S.-funded center in Spin Boldak, where they are also provided with weapons, vehicles, and communications equipment. Their salaries are subsequently paid through the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, a UN-administered international fund, to which the U.S. is the largest contributor. Raziq himself has enjoyed visits in Spin Boldak from such senior U.S. officials as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.

In public, American officials had until recently been careful to downplay Raziq’s alleged abuses. When I met with the State Department’s Moeling at his Kandahar City office in January, he told me, “I think there is certainly a mythology about Abdul Raziq, where there’s a degree of assumption on some of those things. But I have never seen evidence of private prisons or of extrajudicial killings directly attributable to him.”

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.

Among a certain group of Kandaharis, the rough outlines of the massacre in question are well known. But nailing down a consistent, detailed version of what took place required two years of cross-checking with a diverse set of sources, including tribal elders, human-rights workers, police officers, and government officials. Most important, I was eventually given direct access to information and photos from a suppressed police investigation into the episode.

On March 20, 2006, Shin Noorzai, a burly smuggler in his mid-30s, arrived with 15 companions at the guesthouse of an acquaintance, Zulmay Tufon, in Kabul. It was the eve of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, occasion for Afghanistan’s biggest festivities, and the capital city’s bedraggled trees were strung with fallen kites and the first buds of spring.

Shin had grown up in southern Afghanistan during the violent, turbulent times of the anti-Soviet and civil wars, and had once been jailed in Pakistan for kidnapping a man. His companions, though, were a mixed group. Some were smugglers, but others were simply friends from the vicinity of the Afghan-Pakistani border, farmers or traders accompanying him on a trip to Mazar-e Sharif, a northern city famous for its new-year celebrations.

According to an acquaintance of Shin’s who was also present at the gathering, he and his friends had arrived at the invitation of another man, Mohammed Naeem Lalai, an old friend of Shin’s who was then working as an officer in the Border Police. It was Lalai who had persuaded Shin and his friends to stop in Kabul on their way to Mazar. As the group sat down to dinner, Shin’s acquaintance, a fellow tribesman, watched uneasily, nervous about the company Shin was keeping. He offered to make the trip with Shin instead. “Come with me to Mazar,” he said to him.

Shin replied that he was going to travel up to Mazar with Lalai. But first, he said, Lalai was taking him to another house where music and entertainment were promised. That night, as darkness fell over Kabul, Shin and his 15 companions left the house with Lalai. Their friends and families would never see them alive again.

At the second house, Shin and his friends were apparently drugged. Unconscious, they were bound and gagged, then loaded into vehicles with official plates, one of them a green Ford Ranger with the seal of the Border Police on its doors.

Driving along back roads, the cars made their way 500 kilometers south to Kandahar province, and by the next morning arrived at Spin Boldak, where Abdul Raziq, then a Border Police colonel in his mid-20s, was waiting for them.

Raziq and Lalai had together lured Shin and his associates to Kabul. The tribes to which Raziq and Shin belonged had been feuding over smuggling routes, and Raziq held Shin responsible for the 2004 killing of his brother. Shin had been a marked man ever since. His 15 companions were just going to be collateral damage.

Raziq and his men loaded their captives into a convoy of Land Cruisers and headed out to a parched, desolate stretch of the Afghan-Pakistani border. About 10 kilometers outside of town, they came to a halt. Shin and the others were hauled out of the trucks and into a dry river gully. There, at close range, Raziq’s forces let loose with automatic weapons, their bullets tearing through the helpless men, smashing their faces apart and soaking their robes with blood. After finishing the job, they unbound the corpses and left them there.

Arriving back in Spin Boldak, Raziq reported to his superiors and to the press that he had intercepted “at least 15” Taliban fighters infiltrating from Pakistan, led by the “mid-level Taliban commander Mullah Shin,” and had killed them in a gun battle. “We got a tip-off about them coming across the border. We went down there and fought them,” Raziq told the Associated Press the next day. It was the beginning of a cover-up that would go all the way up to President Karzai in Kabul.

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Matthieu Aikins has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2008.

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