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?

Last January, I followed a turbaned old man down an alley off the bustling Char Suq Bazaar in Kandahar City. The man, whom I will call Waheed, was a relative of one of the men who was killed in the gully outside Spin Boldak. I was dressed in local garb—I speak Dari and, with my half-Asian features, can pass for Afghan—and was carrying photos from the suppressed police investigation of the massacre.

As Waheed and I passed children kicking a soccer ball, he beckoned to me and ducked inside a doorway. He led me into a tiny guest room, where he clicked on a low-watt bulb and his adolescent son brought us tea. In the dim light, the three of us went through the series of 21 photos taken by crime-scene investigators. The bodies, lying close together in the gully, had been numbered by the investigators. One had had his neck blown apart; another was unrecognizable, his face a mass of charred flesh. Yet another photo was of a young boy, seemingly untouched, his smooth, skinny neck sticking out of a baggy tunic. He might have been asleep, were it not for his sightless eyes gazing skyward.

“There, Father. That’s Tooryalai,” Waheed’s son said, pointing at the picture of a rotund, walrus-mustached man, his face scrunched in agony, the white fabric around his midsection drenched with blood. Waheed nodded. “That’s him.”

Tooryalai had been about 35 years old, and had worked as an occasional taxi driver and laborer. He had known Shin for years, and the invitation to accompany him to the Nowruz festivities in Mazar had seemed a welcome chance to escape the stultifying rural backwater of Kandahar province. Waheed, his relative, had advised against it. “I said, ‘Don’t go with him, you are a poor man, and you should stay at home,’” Waheed told me.

But Tooryalai went. They found his vehicle later, abandoned in Kabul. Tooryalai’s wife and children moved in with her father. Two of his brothers joined the Afghan National Police in hopes of one day avenging Tooryalai, but both were killed in the war before they had the chance. Their father had since gone mad, and Tooryalai’s youngest brothers were now picking rags in the street.

“It was a tribal conflict,” Waheed said, shaking his head, his long fingers trembling as they tapped against his cheek. “Raziq had a problem with Shin, but why did he have to kill all the others?”

Slideshow: Explicit photo evidence of the massacre and other acts of violence committed under Raziq's authority

As Raziq intended, the victims were framed as Taliban in the Afghan press. There was an outcry across the border in Pakistan, however, where many of the victims’ families lived. On March 23, two days after the murders, the Pakistani Foreign Office lodged a protest with the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad. Yet it is likely that Raziq and Lalai would have kept the truth hidden, were it not for an Afghan official working for the European Union who had happened to be in Spin Boldak at the time of the murders.

When he heard of the suspicious killings, this official called his boss, Michael Semple, who was then the deputy to Francesc Vendrell, the European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan. “He had real-time information and alerted me,” said Semple, who noticed the discrepancy between word-of-mouth reports in Spin Boldak and the official line. “It was being sold as a heroic defense of Afghanistan against the Taliban.”

A tall Irishman with a flaming-red beard, fluent in Dari and Pashto, Semple was known as a foreigner who didn’t hesitate to get directly involved in Afghan politics. That hands-on attitude would later get Semple in trouble, when he was caught up in a 2007 dispute over a local cease-fire with the Taliban and was kicked out of the country by Karzai. He’s now a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a widely respected expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Concerned that a massacre by Afghan security forces had just occurred, Semple got in touch with a senior Afghan official at the Interior Ministry, who was able to get a team from the Criminal Investigations Department sent to Spin Boldak from Kandahar City.

One of the members of that CID team, whom I will call Mohammad, met with me earlier this year in Kabul. As he described it, the team drove to Spin Boldak on March 22, the day after the killings. After asking around among the local villagers, the investigators realized that the victims’ bodies were still out there, and drove to a Border Police outpost near the site. “We asked the local police what happened, and they said that Abdul Raziq came in five or six vehicles, and then they heard firing,” Mohammad told me.

The CID team found the 16 corpses lying a meter or two apart in a ravine near the Pakistani border. Mohammad told me that it was immediately obvious that Raziq’s story of a fierce battle with Taliban fighters could not have been true. The men had clearly been killed at close range. They were clumped together at the bottom of a steep-walled gully, an improbable place for a gun battle. Their wrists bore bind marks, and their clothes were clean and new, more suitable for a party than for a Taliban incursion.

As an investigative officer in one of the most violent provinces in Afghanistan, Mohammad had seen hundreds of dead bodies. But this time, he was overcome with emotion by the corpse of a boy who could not have been more than 16—the same boy whose picture I had looked at with Waheed. “He was a lovely boy. I wept for him as I lifted his body,” Mohammed said, his voice thickening. “For one person, Raziq killed 15 innocents.”

Raziq refused to meet with the CID team and went to stay in the house of his friend Asadullah Khalid, then the governor of Kandahar province and now the minister of tribal and border affairs; it was announced in the press that Raziq had been “taken into custody and temporarily replaced in his job pending an investigation.” Khalid, though, would hardly seem to be one to call Raziq to account: in 2007, while Khalid was governor, the Canadian military temporarily ceased detainee transfers after persistent allegations of torture by security forces, including Khalid’s notorious palace-guard force, Brigade 888.

The CID team reported its findings to Kabul, and a larger investigation was launched, interviewing scores of witnesses and establishing the identities of the murdered men, the fact that they had been lured to Kabul and drugged, and the involvement of Mohammed Naeem Lalai. (Lalai, now a member of the Afghan Parliament, denied any involvement to me.)

At the behest of President Karzai, a delegation of senior officials was sent to Kandahar, led by Major General Abdur Rahman, who was the deputy director of the Border Police. The delegation interviewed the Kandahar CID team, a variety of witnesses, and Raziq himself, before returning to Kabul.

There, according to a senior Interior Ministry official who is directly familiar with the events, President Karzai and other top officials were briefed by Rahman on the CID investigation. Semple, who was later shown the contents of the report, said that it was an open-and-shut case. “They documented the killings in such a way that would leave no reasonable person in doubt that these were summary executions carried out by the Border Police,” he said.

Yet after the CID file was handed over to the attorney general’s office, no prosecution was ever initiated. And on April 6, well after he had presented the CID’s evidence to Karzai, Rahman gave an interview to the Afghan station Tolo TV in which he backed up Raziq’s version of the story, claiming that the murdered men had been Taliban infiltrators. Raziq was soon back in charge of his post at the border.

Not long after, in one of their meetings with Karzai, Semple and his boss, Vendrell, raised the issue of the killings. “We informed Karzai that we were aware of the incident in Spin Boldak and we considered that the evidence pointed to summary executions by [Raziq’s] forces, and that they had sufficient evidence of it to mount a prosecution,” Semple told me. “And he said something to the effect of ‘Abdul Raziq is a special case.’ The implication that I understood from that was that he was saying that Abdul Raziq was an essential ally against whom he was not prepared to take action, irrespective of the nature of the allegations or the evidence.”

Vendrell didn’t recall Karzai’s exact response, but he remembered the incident clearly. “It was pretty shocking, in the sense that one of the tasks of my office was to ensure that there would be no gross violations of human rights after the Bonn accord,” he told me. He reported the incident to his headquarters in Brussels, which meant that all members of the EU were made aware of it.

For Semple, it felt like a watershed moment for impunity under the Karzai regime. “It wasn’t a case of ‘Everybody’s up to it, and only poor Abdul Raziq got caught,’” he said. “Whatever may be the sins of post-2001 security forces in Afghanistan, a propensity to indulge in multiple summary executions is not among them.”

A spokesman for the Karzai administration declined to comment. Raziq himself continues to maintain that the men killed outside of Spin Boldak were Taliban. “In the past five years, a lot of soldiers have been killed, and our enemies have also been killed,” he told The Atlantic. “And those who have been killed, they were terrorists.”

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Matthieu Aikins has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2008.

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