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

foust sep26 p.jpg
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.

From a moral perspective -- that is, from an Afghan perspective trying to figure out which side of the war to choose -- is there a meaningful difference between the Haqqani insurgents and the Raziq militias? Apart from one side committing atrocities in the name of the Taliban and the other side committing atrocities in the name of the Afghan government, I'm not certain of what, exactly, might be the meaningful difference between these two gangs.

Regardless, because Raziq commits atrocities for the good guys, the American military lavishes him with money, access, and promotions, and labels him good. And because the Haqqanis commit atrocities for the bad guys, they are called "brutal" and considered beyond reproach. It is the madness one always finds in dirty little wars, but there's not reason for it to be this way.

Last year, I wondered if maybe the Haqqani's commercial interests might be enough to actually ease them away from the insurgency.

[T]here is a widespread belief that the Haqqanis are, in essence, a mafia-like organization: they exist primarily to make money, so the argument goes, so they seek to control territory and disrupt government control to better make money. This too, should challenge how we frame the group: if they are a mafia-like group, then they pose far less of a long-term problem than the Quetta/Karachi shura Taliban, who have a clear political agenda aimed at Kabul.

So, if the Haqqanis are a mafia seeking only local control, and local space to operate their businesses... why not see what happens if we give them that? Let's test the proposition. The "bad man" argument against doing so--we cannot cooperate with the Haqqanis because they are bad people--doesn't really apply, not while Marshall Fahim is a Vice President and Berhanuddin Rabbani, of all people, is heading the Peace Council. We have an opportunity, right now, to use the fluid conditions in southeastern Afghanistan to try and begin the process of negotiations to end the worst of the fighting.

There is every reason to think this wouldn't work, but it is also just about the one and only thing we have not yet tried in Afghanistan. In 2001, U.S. forces approached the Haqqanis -- an old ally from the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s -- and asked for support and an alliance. Jalaluddin Haqqani declined, and after a few years of relative inaction began, in early 2007 or so, an increasingly aggressive campaign of violence. It might be that, ten years later, he would be ready to back off on violence in return for greater autonomy and better territorial control.

But he might not be. And so long as Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) continues to fund and direct the Haqqanis -- as long as the ISI continues its state sponsorship of international terrorism, to put it bluntly -- we should not expect any change from the Haqqanis. Once again, Pakistan is standing in the way of peace.

On the other hand, our decision to work through Raziq in the south undermines our message, which says we are the good guys fighting on the side of good. The U.S. military's close involvement with Raziq's expansion through southern Afghanistan makes us out to be liars when we tell Afghans we want to establish the rule of law and the creation of a peaceful society. By our actions, we argue against our words.

Raziq is a man whose reputation precedes him in every new area he conquers with American support. So long as we rely on men like him to impose control on Afghanistan, do we really have the right to accuse the Haqqanis of such epic evil for resisting it? We Americans think we do. Afghans do not like having to live with the consequences of that choice -- something we, even our soldiers, will never have to do -- and that might be a part of why more and more seem to be rejecting the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force and the government's control.

A version of this post appeared at