Rivalry Revived in Afghanistan
Karzai Takes On Secret Service Led by Defense Minister

Washington Post Foreign Service, July 24, 2002
By Susan B. Glasser

KABUL, Afghanistan, July 23 -- It was the mid-1990s, and Kabul was a battleground for warring Islamic factions. Rocket fire blasted the city. The government was disintegrating. In the chaos, Hamid Karzai, a deputy foreign minister, was seized for interrogation by the country's feared secret service. The agents who held him worked for Mohammed Fahim.

Karzai escaped when a rocket slammed into the building where he was being questioned, according to several sources familiar with the episode, which has not before been made public. Bleeding from a head wound, he bolted in the ensuing bedlam for Pakistan.

Nearly a decade later, Karzai, now Afghanistan's president, and Fahim, his defense minister, are locked in an escalating rivalry that threatens to further destabilize Afghanistan's shaky government. Karzai and his allies describe the secret service -- once again controlled by Fahim -- as a vast, corrupt and highly politicized apparatus that operates outside the president's authority. According to a source close to Karzai, the agency has 30,000 employees and its departments are run by ethnic Tajiks from the Northern Alliance who answer only to Fahim.

Karzai has pledged to take on the agency. He named a high-level commission this month to recommend broad reforms and investigate allegations that the secret service tortured and killed Abdul Mutaleb, a 22-year-old construction worker who had just returned to Afghanistan after living for years as a refugee in Pakistan.

Karzai's challenge to the intelligence service is seen here as a contest over who will rule post-Taliban Afghanistan. To the ethnic Pashtun president and his supporters, the unchecked power of the Tajik-run secret service is a key obstacle to Afghan democracy that lies closer to home than either regional warlords who refuse to disarm their men or lurking remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

"For a democratic country, a country that wants to move toward democracy, an institution like this is obviously in contradiction," said Vice President Hedayat Amin Arsala, who is leading the commission.

The secret service is a relic from the days when Afghanistan was a Soviet client state, and it has managed to survive the country's various political transformations in recent decades. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, the KGB created the Afghan intelligence agency in its own image. The agency, known by the acronym KHAD, had a network of neighborhood informers and a reputation for torture and killing that made it as notorious as any spy agency in the Eastern Bloc.

As control of Afghanistan passed from Soviet puppets to fractious Islamic guerrillas to the Taliban movement, the security service's name changed -- it is now known officially as the National Security Directorate and referred to locally as the Amaniyat. But many of its methods are the same as before, as are many of the operatives who carry them out, according to critics of the agency. After the Taliban collapsed last year, the Northern Alliance installed its own leadership at the agency, and allies of Karzai say it remains a Soviet-style institution.

"It hasn't changed at all from the KGB," said a former intelligence operative familiar with the agency's workings. "They use the same methods."

The former agent said that most of the staff remained long after the Communist-backed government of President Najibullah was toppled in 1992 and that only the top leaders of the department have changed. The agency even maintains a political department, he said, responsible for monitoring "the ideology of the workers" -- a reminder of a Soviet Union that no longer exists.

Vice President Nematullah Shahrani, the other chairman of the commission set up to investigate the agency, said, "We will reform the intelligence service so that people are not afraid of them, so that people can think the intelligence service does not harass them."

Interviews with the two vice presidents suggest how great a challenge that will be. In a country where men and guns still translate into power, they have no staff of their own, no money, not even offices to work out of. They also have no plan for how to reform the secret service beyond the generic hope, as Arsala put it, that "intelligence agencies should be restricted to intelligence" while civil authorities enforce laws.

Even many inside Karzai's government are skeptical that they will be able to effect much change. "It's difficult for Karzai to do," said Gen. Anwar Kohistani, a top official in the Interior Ministry's separate, and much smaller, intelligence department. "It's totally controlled by one faction, and they have expanded the department and recruited loyal members. It is the department to protect their power."

But a spokesman for the president said Karzai had no choice but to take on the secret service, and the campaign is likely to have enormous popular appeal at a time when he is seeking to strengthen his hold over the country. "The election of Karzai was an investment, and the people are entitled to a return on that investment," the aide said.

Since the fall of the Taliban, Karzai and Fahim have appeared together in public on several occasions, maintaining the appearance that they are able to work together. Both attended a graduation ceremony today for more than 350 new Afghan soldiers trained by the U.S. military. But Karzai clearly has become worried about his safety, and this week he asked the U.S. military to provide him with bodyguards and dismissed his Afghan security unit. The Afghan guards were loyal to Fahim.

"It hasn't changed at all from the KGB," said a former intelligence operative familiar with the agency's workings. "They use the same methods."

The former agent said that most of the staff remained long after the Communist-backed government of President Najibullah was toppled in 1992 and that only the top leaders of the department have changed. The agency even maintains a political department, he said, responsible for monitoring "the ideology of the workers" -- a reminder of a Soviet Union that no longer exists.

Karzai first publicly vowed to reduce the power of the Amaniyat in June, after the loya jirga, or grand council, that elected him president was marred by accusations that the secret service had harassed and intimidated delegates who dared to deviate from the approved line. Dozens of agents lurked around the site of the loya jirga, according to participants, monitoring speeches and private talks. Some outspoken delegates said they received death threats after making speeches, including a woman who served in Karzai's interim cabinet, Sima Samar, who has told associates she was targeted by intelligence operatives.

"They are really a problem. They all belong to one ethnic group, to one political group, and they do whatever they want without anyone questioning them," said a senior official in Karzai's government who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "They are really a threat to security itself."

The actual workings of the intelligence agency are difficult to discern, and its leaders refused repeated requests for an interview. But several top officials from other agencies described the Amaniyat in interviews as a secretive behemoth that apparently has a free hand to detain suspects, entirely outside any legal process, and is deeply involved in furthering the designs of the Northern Alliance, many of whose members think their victory over the Taliban entitles them to rule Afghanistan.

All those interviewed agreed that the agency, which is headed by Mohammed Aref, former intelligence chief for slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, is effectively under the control of Fahim, Massoud's successor. Currently, the former agent said, there are 23 directorates in the secret service -- all of them run by loyalists from the Panjshir Valley, the home of Fahim, Massoud and the Northern Alliance's other leaders.

The U.S. military has worked extensively with the Northern Alliance in prosecuting its war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. But in an interview this week, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, said he was not aware of any specific dealings the U.S. forces have had with the security agency and said he doubted he had ever met the agency's head.

In the mid-1990s, when Karzai was detained by the agency, he was deputy foreign minister and Fahim was head of the secret service. Multiple sources confirmed that the future president had been detained, though they offered conflicting information on details of the story and were vague on whether it occurred in late 1993 or early 1994.

Then as now, it was a time of political intrigue in the capital, as rival Islamic militias battled for supremacy after Najibullah's government fell. Karzai, according to several of the sources, was in regular contact with the two main feuding parties: President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pakistani-backed militia leader whose rockets were destroying the capital.

It's not clear why Fahim's secret service, loyal to Rabbani, arrested Karzai, although all those interviewed said the incident was related to Karzai's contacts with Hekmatyar. Whatever the reason, the sources said, the interrogation came to a dramatic close when the rocket attack allowed Karzai to escape.

Soon afterward, Karzai appeared at the house of his cousin, Abdul Khaliq Popolzai, bleeding and saying they had to leave Kabul immediately, Popolzai said in an interview. "He came to my house and said we had to go. He didn't even allow me to pray first," Popolzai recalled. Karzai told his cousin that he had been summoned to a meeting at the security agency and then detained when he showed up.

Karzai and Popolzai left for Pakistan, arriving in Peshawar late the following day.

Karzai initially was a vocal supporter of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Over time, however, he soured on the repressive Islamic movement and eventually traveled to the Panjshir Valley to meet with the Northern Alliance to discuss opposition to the Taliban.

Years later, Karzai has decided to take on the agency that held him that day in Kabul. But despite Karzai's rivalry with Fahim, several supporters of the president insisted that Karzai has forgiven the people responsible for his detention and believes it was a mistake.

His campaign to remake the intelligence service, said one top government official, "is not personal. It's just the necessary thing to do."

Special correspondent Griffin Witte contributed to this report.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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