Gun terror of Kabul's liberators

Northern Alliance militia loot and plunder in defiance of new government's deadline to disarm

The Observer , January 13, 2002
By: Suzanne Goldenberg, Kabul

It was a gruelling 48 hours for police captain Mohamed Sabber Abbasi - a kidnapping, burglary, attempted car jacking and a double shooting. And that was just his immediate family.

But what galled Abbasi most as he lay in hospital with a bullet hole in his side was that the criminals were the militiamen who claim to have liberated Kabul from the Taliban.

'The policemen from before are all gone and these people are looting and plundering the city,' he said. 'They are all bad people. They have no human sentiment and no mercy - from the highest commander to the very lowest ranks.'

In Kabul, the Kalashnikov rules. Two months after the capital fell to the troops of the Northern Alliance, men in combat gear loiter on street corners with rocket launchers and assault rifles, or screech around the capital in pick-up trucks with blacked-out windows.

The troops were supposed to have left the city by yesterday afternoon - the deadline for the disarming and evacuation of the militias set by the interim leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. There is little sign that will happen, suggesting that the government will have to move cautiously to avoid a head-on confrontation with the thousands of armed men roaming the streets.

But the delay - and the rising popular resentment at a wave of armed robberies, car jackings and murders by the militiamen - is compromising the interim government's standing in the eyes of its own people.

The presence of the gunmen also complicates the deployment of the 1,150-strong British-led international peacekeeping force in Kabul. The paras began joint patrols with Afghan police last week, but British officials say they will not be actively involved in disbanding the militias.

'It is not for us to disarm,' said Major Guy Richardson. 'It is up to us to assist, but we have not been called on to assist as yet.'

That caution has come as a disappointment to the people of Kabul, who are looking to the international forces to bring the order they crave. There are no reliable figures for the crime wave, but that hardly seems to matter.

Loathed though they were for their repressive regime of religious zealotry, the Taliban earned the grudging respect of Afghans for their success in maintaining law and order, and guaranteeing security on the streets.

The murder of a wealthy trader last week, bludgeoned to death on his morning walk to work, and several much-discussed armed robberies have sharpened fears of a descent into the lawlessness that defined the era of the early 1990s - the last time the Northern Alliance was in charge of Kabul.

'The militias are robbing people and cars, and breaking into houses,' said Amir Mohammed, who lives in the southern neighbourhood of Karte Nau.

'We were expecting peace, but we were much happier before. We don't want to see anyone with a gun walking in the streets.'

Many of their victims are Pashtuns - the largest community in Afghanistan and viewed as suspect by the minority fighters of the Northern Alliance who identify them with the largely Pashtun Taliban.

Others were targeted because they looked as if they might be wealthy.

'The day before yesterday, five gunmen flagged me down and asked me to take them somewhere,' said Amir Mohammed. 'When I refused, they asked how much money I had and if I had a satellite phone.'

Abbasi was wounded on Wednesday night, about the time Karzai ordered the militias out of the city, when his car was flagged down at a roadblock. As the vehicle slowed, he noticed the checkpoint was manned by hooded gunmen who opened fire, hitting the off-duty policeman in the side and his brother in the stomach.

The terrifying encounter came barely two days after another Abbasi brother was hauled out of his car and kidnapped for ransom at the same roadblock.

In both instances, Abbasi turned to uniformed police. He said the police - who were recruited from the same militias - refused to act. Some of the makeshift checkpoints - set up by the militiamen for the express purpose of looting hapless motorists - were dismantled on Friday. But many fighters claim they had yet to receive their marching orders and the Deputy Interior Minister, General Din Mohamed Jorhat, said the government would take another week to enforce the ban.

Jorhat, who is in charge of Kabul's security, acknowledges a rise in violent crime in recent weeks. But with just 3,000 uniformed police for a city of a million, he admits he cannot exercise full control over the city's streets.

Most of the gunmen are country boys - villagers from the northern provinces who arrived in Kabul last November as foreigners in this part of the country. They are meant to be paid about 500,000 afghanis a month - about 70 - but many have not received wages for weeks.

'Since the Taliban collapsed in Kabul and we entered the city, there have been problems and we still have them,' said Jorhat. 'Some of the commanders have thousands of troops and not all of them can be good people. There are bound to be a few bad people.'

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