Democracy at any cost: How the West supported an Afghan general who ruled through fear

November, 2018 The New Arab

The man sat on his knees, surrounded by seven or eight armed men. One had a wooden club in his hands. “Open your pants,” ordered the man with the club. The others exploded in laughter and violent excitement.  
Nabil, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, followed the order. 

“You know,” he told The New Arab, “for an Afghan these are very sensitive issues. We are extremely reserved.” 

No-one would find it easy to tell a story like this. Nabil’s strong hands begin to shake. He lowers his eyes, and his sweet Kandahar voice drops a few tones. 

“I undid the first knot of the shalwar,” he tells us. In Afghanistan, men tie the cord holding the trousers of their traditional dress with two knots. “I then untightened the second.” Nabil paused again. 

“They shouted at me ‘have you no shame?’ So I stopped, still holding my pants. It was then that they beat me.”

During Nabil’s subsequent imprisonment, his hands and feet were tied to the roof of an empty building as if he were a ceiling fan. 

He told us how he lost his senses, and woke when he fell, slamming his chest into the floor. He shook as he recalled neither day nor night for the 20 days of his imprisonment – only a temporal space where time was marked by a man who would untie his trousers to allow him to urinate, and another who put food in his mouth. 

He was not even allowed to pray. For all the time he was kept in captivity, Nabil had his hands tightly bound.

It was difficult to arrange this interview. Nabil cancelled, then rearranged, then cancelled again. A relative came to talk with us to ensure we did not work for the government or any foreign agencies. 

He looked at us with a mix of curiosity and disgust: “You foreigners get want you want, and then leave us in trouble,” the relative said. “Probably in Kabul you are part of the same people who will call me a Talib.” 

In the increasingly upmarket capital, despite the constant threat of bombings, the traditional life is no longer welcome, and a man like Nabil’s relative will be quickly dismissed, looked-down upon as a “Talib”. 

When we talked about Afghanistan and the war, he did not hide his contempt for the new penal code, condemning the new disregard for stoning and hand-chopping in cases of adultery and theft. 

Many in rural Afghanistan might support these ideas, though few though would admit it in front of a western journalist for fear of being depicted as an extremist.

In an almost-forgotten past, “Taliban” simply meant a good Muslim student, and in rural folk literature, their high morality was praised. But the dark years of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan took away any romanticism surrounding the term. In today’s Afghanistan being a Taliban apologist has become an easy accusation, often used to discredit rivals, eliminate competitors, and to hold power among the few.

Abdul Raziq Achakzai – the militiaman reportedly mentored by US Special Forces through his career from anti-Taliban fighter to brigadier-general in charge of a lucrative border post, and later promoted to chief of police by Afghan President Hamid Karzai – exploited this strategy to the most grotesque extent.

Anyone with a full-grown beard, turban, or any other sign of belonging to a traditional approach to Islamic values was potentially at risk of abduction by the police. Victims talked to us about men with their faces covered by scarves, violently taking civilians from their shops, carrying them away in a Toyota Fielder with blacked-out windows. 

When one day we spotted one such car behind our own on the Kandahar airport road, our blood froze, fearful not of being kidnapped or being sold to insurgents, but of our recorder being seized, and our interviewees compromised.

A man in his 60s, who we we shall Ahmad, told us how he was arrested, kept in an isolated cell, and held on the floor by four men. One was pinning his head back, holding his nose. Two were controlling his legs, stretching them in opposite directions. The final man was forcing the barrel of his AK47 down into his throat. 

He survived, but his failing sleep means he can no longer rest to this day. His temper is fragile as he continues to suffer from the trauma. 

Each of the stories we heard of Raziq during our time in Kandahar included electrical shocks, waterboarding or other forms of inflicting horrific pain. 

We asked Ahmad what the government was doing to counter these brutal abuses. “Don’t you know? Even the president can do nothing against him. Americans support him, he does what he pleases.” 

Only last January, Raziq told reporters: “I was not hired by this government, and it cannot fire me.” He was reacting to President Ghani’s removal of Atta Muhammad Noor as Governor of Balkh. Noor, another notorious warlord, was also empowered by former President Karzai and by the post -9/11 war on terror. Like Raziq, he was accused by Human Rights Watch of indiscriminate killings and described by the international organization as “torturer-in-chief“.

The UN demanded Raziq’s prosecution over allegations of torture and enforced disappearance. While he always denied any allegation, he could rely on the international support of  those who praised his ability to keep Kandahar safe from the Taliban. Many here were too terrified to speak out against him. 

The city is surrounded by checkpoints and men in uniform, rifles ready to shoot. It’s very different from Kabul, where streets are frequently crossed by pick-up vehicles with militiamen openly riding in the back. Checkpoints rarely stop them. In Kandahar there are no such vehicles.

There are snipers and uniformed officers at every corner here. It was a clear demonstration of authority – there was only one man in charge in Kandahar, and his men were there to remind all of that fact.  

Even on a Friday, when dozen of motorcyclists come from across the district to race on the highway at the gates of Kandahar, the feeling of a city ruled by the rifle hangs heavy in the air. Police officers smashed rear lights of the bikes they caught going too fast. 

There is a Pashto saying: “No good men among the living, no bad men among the dead.” General Raziq, praised by many, feared by others, manages to remain a hugely controversial figure even after his death. 

He survived numerous assassination attempts by the Taliban over the past several years, but was eventually killed by a bodyguard who shot him dead as he left a meeting with a US military official in October. He was just 39 when he was killed. 

The past 40 years have seen a succession of oppressors taking the place of previous oppressors in this city. The Taliban were not the last in this brutal chain. Just a few years ago, a pro-government militia fighting the local Islamic State group franchise in Nangarhar cut the heads off insurgency fighters and left them in the street for days.In Kandahar, families continue to look for sons who disappear for weeks, months, even years at a time, asking around for information that no one will provide. In the city and in the countryside, secret prisons hide the stories of men no-one is allowed to visit. 

Sometimes, their bodies are found in the desert, or even in the remote Maiwand district, months after their disappearance. Othertimes a ransom will set them free.

Raziq did what the post-9/11 elite would have never had the courage to do, with their modern loose hijabs and fashionable ties. He served the US-led foreigners’ war on terror narrative, providing the enemies they needed. Now that he is gone and Kabul again fears the advance of Taliban, Kandaharis are hiding in their homes, waiting for a new wolf. 

They know one person’s security means someone else’s pain. 

With his death, pictures of the general, dubbed “Haji Raees” by his sympathisers, are appearing in Kabul shop windows. Meanwhile, his gigantic portrait remains on display at the border control post in Spin Boldak, the gateway to Pakistan’s Balochistan province. 

It was there, where he grew up as an Afghan refugee in Chaman, the border town on the Pakistan side, that he first learned the smuggling trade. He started working as a driver-assistant to the pick-up tracks working the route from the border to Quetta. 

After building his power allegedly by becoming part of the highly lucrative drug smuggling industry, his family’s militia background helped him later to find a job with US forces based in Kandahar fighting the Taliban. 

Raziq was a vocal opponent both of the Pakistan army and the country’s establishment, but his controversial manner of managing the border when he was appointed Chief of Police, suggests his previous feelings may not have been entirely firmly held. 

At a high-security and risky crossing point, documents were not always needed, and a notable extent of freedom was allowed. It was not comparable, for instance, with the Torkham border in Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan. 

Connections with the Pakistani side were certainly of a higher level than he would have liked people to know.

The Kandahar-Spin Boldak highway is no Afghanistan land, it was his land. It is there, now, that the future of Kandahar, and Afghanistan, will be set.