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?
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The U.S. Embassy was also aware of the killings of Shin and his companions. Each year, with the help of embassy staffers around the world, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor produces an annual report on every country’s human-rights situation. In the 2006 report for Afghanistan, the bureau notes:

In March Commander Abdul Razaq of Kandahar province was removed from his post for allegedly attacking 16 rivals under the pretext that they were Taliban militants. The 16 men were Pakistani citizens who had traveled to Afghanistan for Afghan New Year celebrations. They belonged to a clan in Pakistan that Razaq blamed for the death of his brother two years earlier.

Nor was that the only time Raziq’s force was featured in the human-rights report. Last year’s report referred to an incident in February 2010, noting that “Afghan Border Police mistakenly killed seven civilians who were collecting firewood near a checkpoint in the border town of Spin Boldak.” As reported in the press, the seven victims were from the remote village of Sortano, near the border. In an exchange remarkably similar to that which followed the Shin Noorzai killings, Raziq claimed they had been mistaken for Taliban infiltrators, while the Pakistani press reported simply that they were “Pakistani drivers” who had been killed over “old differences.”

Other episodes have been reported as well. In January 2010, Nader Nadery, a commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, held a press conference to denounce abuses in Kandahar. One of the subjects he brought up was Raziq. “In at least three cases where the chief of the Border Police in Spin Boldak was involved, people gave testimonies that they were illegally imprisoned and tortured,” Nadery told me. The victims claimed to have been beaten with cables and held incommunicado, one of them for three months. According to Nadery, they were simple men who had not been accused of serious crimes. Their detentions may have been politically motivated, or related to conflicts over business.

Given the level of violence in Kandahar, confirming these sorts of claims is extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. According to Mohammad, who was part of the CID team that investigated the deaths of Shin Noorzai and his companions in 2006, a comparable government investigation of allegations against Raziq would be unthinkable today. He has grown too powerful.

I was, however, able to speak with multiple sources about the deaths of two young men, whom I will call Sediq and Faizullah. The two were allegedly killed by the Border Police on September 7, 2010, at the height of the U.S.-led military offensive. Their deaths, among others, strongly suggest that the murders of Shin Noorzai and his friends were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a pattern of private detention and extrajudicial killing overseen by Raziq.

Both men, according to family members, had been in custody in one of Raziq’s private prisons in Spin Boldak, before being pulled from jail and shot in the last days of Ramadan, possibly in retaliation for the assassination on August 31 of one of Raziq’s favorite commanders. Faizullah had been from a family of taxi drivers, and was about 21 years old. He had been arrested by the Border Police in Spin Boldak three months earlier. Sediq, around the same age, was a madrasa student who had been arrested a month before that. Though they hadn’t known each other, they wound up sharing a grave in a remote area near the village of Katsai Ziarat.

“Their hands were tied, in a dried gully, far from the village,” one of their relatives, who recovered the bodies, told me. “The shepherds from the village had seen dead bodies, and so the locals took us there.”

It is impossible now to tell whether the men had any involvement with the Taliban, or worked for rival smuggling gangs, or were, as their relatives claimed, truly innocent. Regardless, though, they were, according to these sources, summarily and illegally executed. And the desperation and fear of their relatives was palpable. “We went so many times to the Americans,” another relative claimed. “They did nothing. What else can we do?”

Since then, thanks in part to the support and forbearance of the United States, Raziq has become the acting police chief of Kandahar province, which includes Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and he seems to have brought with him the brutal methods of the borderlands. In July, I spoke with a man who told me that his son, an 18-year-old shopkeeper, after being seen with a man the police suspected of being an insurgent, was detained by police and beaten so badly in custody that he died of internal injuries. And I saw with my own eyes the round burn marks on Najib’s and Ahmad’s toes, where, they told me, they had been electrocuted during questioning about crimes they did not commit.

Moral questions aside, Raziq’s record of reported human-rights abuses should make it illegal for the U.S. to train and assist his forces. In 1997, in response to abuses by the Colombian army, Congress passed the Leahy Amendment, named after its sponsor and most vocal advocate, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. The law prohibits State Department or Defense Department assistance or training to a foreign military unit where there is “credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.”

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor—which put out the 2006 report citing Raziq’s alleged involvement in the massacre of civilians—is also the group responsible for overseeing compliance with the Leahy Amendment. Yet, incredibly, U.S. support for Raziq seems never to have triggered Leahy concerns. “No Leahy Amendment issues have come to me,” Ben Moeling, the State Department official in Kandahar, told me in January.

The question is whether Raziq’s apparent exclusion from Leahy vetting represents a baffling oversight, or a deliberate evasion. In August, WikiLeaks released hundreds of classified, Leahy-related cables from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that revealed that, from 2006 to 2010, the U.S. vetted thousands of Afghan security officials before training them. In one instance, on September 29, 2007, the embassy vetted 251 mid-level and senior officers in the Border Police. Raziq’s name was conspicuously absent.

“U.S. training of Afghan security forces is covered by the Leahy Amendment,” Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me. “I’m concerned about the effectiveness of the vetting, and that the amendment isn’t being applied as vigorously as it should be.” (A State Department spokesman said the department cannot comment on whether it has investigated an individual over Leahy concerns.)

Now that Raziq has moved to a higher-profile job, as the acting police chief of Kandahar, the American military seems finally to have become concerned about being complicit in his abuses. The decision to bar all units in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force from transferring detainees into police or NDS custody in southern Afghanistan, pending resolution of concerns over the allegations, was quietly issued in a classified report on July 12.

The problem of the human-rights abuses by America’s Afghan allies is broader than just Raziq. A UN report drafted in September interviewed hundreds of detainees held in police and NDS detention facilities and found that more than half reported that they had been tortured. Though the Afghan government rejected the report, ISAF halted detainee transfers to several additional prisons based on its findings.

But the abuses seem likely to continue, as long as those ordering the torture do so with impunity. On August 22, Karzai appointed Asadullah Khalid—the former governor who protected Raziq in 2006 and whose personal guard unit had been implicated in torture—as his special representative to oversee all security forces in southern Afghanistan.

The halting of detainee transfers in Kandahar province might well result in Raziq’s returning, for now, to his fiefdom on the border. But this is not the first time that the United States and ISAF have considered withdrawing their support for him. Toward the end of 2009, senior ISAF officials reportedly thought about pushing for Raziq to be replaced. According to leaked cables, a high-level meeting was convened in Kabul, chaired by Deputy Ambassador Earl Wayne and Major General Michael Flynn, to discuss the problematic behavior of Raziq, among others. “Nobody, including his US military counterparts,” one cable noted, “is under any illusions about his corrupt activities.” Ultimately, however, General McChrystal, who was then the commander of ISAF and U.S. forces, decided that Raziq was too useful to cut loose, according to an article in The Washington Post. (McChrystal, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.) Cables also reveal that an American information-operations team even proposed a plan, “if credible,” for “the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the ‘reform’ of Razziq.”

For his part, Raziq continues to deny all allegations of wrongdoing. “We have told the world and the media,” he said, “that if you have any proof regarding this matter, come and drag us to court.”

That has been America’s balancing act in Kandahar—weighing the allegations of abuse and criminality that have been raised regarding Raziq against his effectiveness as an ally in the war on the Taliban. Or, as Moeling told me back in January, before the most recent round of allegations: “At the moment, I think we have to take a look at what he’s been able to achieve. For us, trying to see the negative doesn’t really get us anywhere.”

Matthieu Aikins has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2008.
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Matthieu Aikins has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2008 for such publications as The Atlantic, Harper's, The Walrus, and The Guardian. He splits his time between New York and Kabul.

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