The New York Times, October 19, 2011
Bad Guys vs. Worse Guys in Afghanistan
“Nur-ul Haq has no place in this province. As long as the foreign troops are here, he is king. The minute they go, he should leave the country.”
By Luke Mogelson
One afternoon this summer, in a park beside the Ajmil River, I sat with seven residents of Shahabuddin, a collection of villages in northern Afghanistan’s Baghlan Province. It was the first week of Ramadan, and the park was almost empty, but still the men — some middle-aged, others stooped and gray-bearded — whispered conspiratorially and became silent whenever anybody walked close. Several minutes into our conversation, one of the younger men, who’d been mutely worrying at a piece of grass, rose and abruptly stalked off. The others, embarrassed, apologized for him. “If Nur-ul Haq finds out we spoke to you,” one of them explained, “he will kill us.”
Nur-ul Haq is the commander of the Afghan Local Police in Shahabuddin. Since last winter, he has been primarily responsible for the security of the several thousand families living there. As one of the elders warily eyed two men in turbans squatting under some nearby shade, he told me that Haq and his local police had been felling people’s trees and selling them as timber. Another of the elders joined in and named three men whom he accused Haq of murdering. “These three murders are known to everyone,” he said. “Nobody knows how many others he has killed.” The former principal of a local school said that he and his eight brothers were forced to leave their village after they reported to the government that the local police had seized their family’s land. “Nur-ul Haq threatened to come with tanks and take us all out of our home and kill us if we continued to complain about him,” the man claimed, adding that he and his brothers were considering moving to Pakistan.
The elders estimated that more than 100 families had fled Shahabuddin because of the local police. The people were defenseless, they said, and indeed they all seemed cowed and frightened. But before we parted ways, one of them, with a note of defiance, assured me: “Nur-ul Haq has no place in this province. As long as the foreign troops are here, he is king. The minute they go, he should leave the country.” Another agreed: “I bet he can’t stay for one night in Baghlan if there are no foreign troops.” Grinning at the prospect, the old man added, “The people will rise against him.”
Haq’s unit is one of 51 local police forces that have been established across rural Afghanistan over the last year, employing more than 8,000 villagers. Eventually, the force is expected to reach 30,000 in more than 100 sites. The rapid rollout reflects a spirited commitment to the program by the U.S. military, which claims that local police throughout the country have subdued insurgents and helped tip formerly ambivalent communities toward the government. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called the Afghan Local Police “potentially a game-changer,” and Gen. David Petraeus described it as “almost the personification of counterinsurgency.” Every U.S. officer I spoke with considers it essential to achieving a measure of stability in Afghanistan that will be sustainable in our absence. “This is our last shot,” one major told me. “If this doesn’t work, we got nothing.”
Under the auspices of Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, the A.L.P. is technically “Afghan-owned” — a point that American officials are keen to emphasize. It would be more accurate, though, to describe it as a collaboration between the government of Afghanistan and an elite branch of the United States military called the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command (or Cfsocc, pronounced “SIFF-sock”). The origins of the A.L.P. truly began with its predecessor program, the Community Defense Initiative, which in the summer of 2009 embedded small teams of Green Berets in Afghan villages to mobilize resistance against the Taliban and other militants. The following year, when Petraeus assumed command in Afghanistan, one of his priorities was to formalize the effort and increase its scale.
Now districts that are chosen to be local police sites designate roughly 300 men to receive uniforms, salaries, AK-47’s, training from U.S. Special Operations Forces and a mandate to defend their home villages against insurgents. In theory, each local police recruit must be approved by community elders and vetted by Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence service, while each commander answers directly to a district chief of police. These safeguards, along with a strict limit on powers (the A.L.P. can’t make arrests, patrol outside their districts or possess any heavy weaponry) are intended to prevent local police from resembling the predatory militias so abhorred by Afghans for their rampant depredations throughout the 1990s.
But selectively arming portions of any given population, no matter the precautions, can be risky business in Afghanistan, and the question looming darkly over the military successes of the A.L.P. — which Petraeus credited to the fact that “no one protects their home like a homeowner” — is what other purposes might their American-supplied guns and training find, especially after foreign troops leave the country. One highly positioned Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was not optimistic. “When you have a headache, you take pills,” he told me. “Some pills will cure your headache but damage your stomach in the process. That is what we have with the A.L.P. The local police are a temporary solution. Long-term, they are poison.”
So far, the most troublesome region for the A.L.P. has been the north, where ethnic, political and tribal factions have long persecuted one another. “Land disputes, water disputes, women disputes are a portion of the aftermath of three decades of war,” says Gran Hewad, a native of Baghlan Province and a political researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The two predominant ethnicities in Baghlan are the Pashtuns and the Tajiks. After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the previously subjugated Tajiks consolidated power in the province, monopolizing government posts and proliferating the ranks of the national police. Today, about 80 percent of Baghlan’s national police hail from Andarab, an entirely Tajik district that is staunchly anti-Pashtun. To help offset the imbalance, the A.L.P. in Baghlan has been made almost exclusively Pashtun. While this solution may solve one problem, it has also created another. Factionalism in the north goes beyond ethnicity, and within the Pashtun community itself various distinct tribes harbor feuds that match in animosity those with the Tajiks; additionally, within each tribe, conflicts among families can date back generations. Every one of the numerous allegations of A.L.P. misconduct in Baghlan Province that Hewad and his colleagues have learned about comes from a Pashtun victim. Most have also come from Shahabuddin.
Nur-Ul Haq The commander of the Afghan Local Police in Shahabuddin, in his compound. (Photo: Benjamin Lowy / The New York Times)
The first time I met Nur-ul Haq, I was brought to his compound in the small village of Gaji by a Pashtun tribal elder named Pir Muhammad, who made a point of denouncing critics of Haq and the A.L.P. as Tajiks conniving to keep Pashtuns under their thumb. “They were ruling over us,” he said. “With the arrival of the local police, people took a breath of relief.” Although the congested streets and mobbed bazaars of the provincial capital Pul-i-Khumri are just a 20-minute drive away, Shahabuddin’s mud-walled compounds and rutted roadways, traveled as frequently by donkey as by car, feel a world apart. Many villagers rarely visit the city, expressing a vague disdain for those who live there; the reverse, of course, is also true. To get to Gaji, we followed a dirt road through vivid green rice paddies, cotton fields and melon patches sprawling between the brown foothills of the Karkar and Choghsang mountains. On either side of a narrow bridge, over turbulent water that tumbled the bloated carcass of a large animal, several local police officers stood in mismatched ensembles of traditional dress and government-issued uniforms, manning two shoddy fortifications made from sandbags and plywood. Recognizing Pir Muhammad, they let us pass.
Haq’s compound wasn’t far from there. When we arrived, a group of villagers were lounging under a canopy, hashing out a disagreement over water rights and watching an old TV with a ceramic eagle perched on top. Compared with the elders, the middle-aged Haq looked unexceptional and unassuming: dark and sinewy with shaggy black hair, unadorned by turban, vest or weapon. As he led us to a private room with diaphanous pink curtains, I noticed a scorpion tattooed on his arm. “Two years ago, this whole area was under Taliban control,” Haq said as we reclined on large cushions, forgoing, because of Ramadan, the customary tea. Like the rest of him, Haq’s voice was unexpectedly small but tense, carrying a threat of excitability, as if something in him were coiled and ready to spring.
He described how, before he and his comrades routed them, the Taliban roamed freely and occupied families’ homes and hanged recalcitrant villagers in the trees. Most were foreign or from other provinces, and to recruit local allies they relied on a campaign of violence and intimidation. Haq said that after several attacks on his home, he requested assistance from the governor and provincial chief of police, who “bluntly told me they couldn’t help me.” Rather than capitulate to the Taliban, Haq joined the Hezb-i-Islami insurgent movement led by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. “I decided to take up arms against the provincial government in Pul-i-Khumri because they were not providing us with protection against the Taliban,” he explained.
This might be true — Haq might have joined one insurgent group, reluctantly, only to defend himself against another — or it might be as good an example as any of the ubiquitous myth-making in Afghanistan, where personal narratives must often be rewritten to reflect an ever-shifting landscape of allegiances and adversaries. Whatever his motives, over the next two years, Haq and his fellow Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (H.I.G.) insurgents fought a series of turf battles with the Taliban until, eventually, the government offered them protection in exchange for disarmament. He agreed, but after six months in a safe house in Pul-i-Khumri, he said, “we decided we needed to have our weapons back and return to our villages.”
When Haq returned to Shahabuddin, the fighting resumed, culminating last fall in a Taliban siege of the compounds he and his outmatched men were occupying. “There were more than 500 Taliban,” Haq said, “and only about 30 of us. I was able to get to the Pul-i-Khumri government and ask for help. The chief of police kept making excuses. Consequently, I went to the Americans.” About a month earlier, a small U.S. Special Forces team arrived in Shahabuddin, and when Haq appealed to them, he said, “right away they decided to help me.” The ensuing battle lasted four days, ending when the Americans called for heavy air support. Seven of Haq’s men were killed, and with the endorsement and facilitation of the Special Forces, those who survived became Shahabuddin’s local police. No major confrontation with the Taliban has happened since.
When I mentioned the complaints of criminal abuse, Haq, with a shrug of annoyance, also chalked them up to Tajik machinations. “It is obvious,” he said. “We were able to stop some of the corruption in the government. They were benefiting from our insecurity.” He gestured at the elders gathered outside. “They don’t like people resolving their problems in the traditional way. They would like to see these people standing in their doorways, offering them bribes.” He added: “The Pul-i-Khumri government is no good. If the American forces leave today, the Pul-i-Khumri government will probably do us more harm than the Taliban.”
To speak with government officials in Pul-i-Khumri about the A.L.P. is to glimpse the wilderness of ethnic and political hostilities that makes outside intervention so challenging. One of the most vociferous critics of the program is the head of the provincial council, Rasoul Khan. Probably more than any other individual, he is responsible for the Tajik power grab in Baghlan after 2001, and the marginalization of the Pashtuns that followed. He has been accused of seizing Pashtun lands, running drugs and brutally dispensing with his enemies. “He has his own subcommanders, who are using government facilities, police vehicles, police uniforms,” Hewad, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said. “After the fall of the Taliban, this man, who was in the trenches against them, came to the government with a huge amount of his fighters and militias from the mountains.” The senior Special Forces sergeant in Baghlan told me: “Rasoul Khan is one of the most crooked dudes you’ll ever meet. He’s got so many connections, all the way to the president himself. He can literally order a hit on anybody he wants.”
At the Provincial Council building in Pul-i-Khumri, I found Rasoul Khan surrounded by a retinue of hardy-looking Tajiks, who nodded in agreement with everything he said. “As the representatives of the people, we are against the establishment of the A.L.P.,” he insisted. “The danger of the A.L.P. is much worse than the Taliban. The people becoming members are all criminals. They’ve killed at least nine people so far.”
Others dismiss these objections as self-serving. In his heavily guarded office above a hectic commercial street in downtown Pul-i-Khumri, a council member named Moh Faisal told me that the A.L.P. was anathema to Rasoul Khan because it represented a Pashtun threat to the Tajik hegemony over which he presided. “In the past, he was involved in drug trafficking and killed lots of people,” Faisal said. “Now all his relatives, friends and associates are in the government. The national police in Baghlan are not accountable to the chief of police. They are accountable to Rasoul Khan.”
Nearly everyone in Pul-i-Khumri seemed to agree with this. The provincial police chief at the time, Brig. Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahimi, was a Pashtun; the fact that the vast majority of his men were Andarabi Tajiks rendered him largely ineffectual, his authority mostly nominal. Not long after speaking with Faisal, I visited Rahimi in his opulent Pul-i-Khumri office, where each wall was lined with plush leather couches on which petitioners could wait to be invited into a much smaller and less stately room for private conversation. When it was my turn to see the general, he said: “An area that could not be secured by 500 national policemen is secured by 50 A.L.P. But what is really important is that the A.L.P. must be regulated.” Ultimately, that regulation should come from the chief of police. But the general claimed that the Americans had hampered his ability to do his job and that U.S. Special Forces protected A.L.P. commanders from criminal investigations. “The rules say the local police must be under the direct supervision of the national police,” Rahimi said. “Our friends in the Special Forces must not intervene in this.” Toward the end of our conversation, his cellphone rang. After listening to the other line for several moments, and perhaps forgetting my recorder was on, he said in Dari: “All three of them must be here for the investigation. Otherwise, the investigation cannot proceed.”
Rahimi was speaking of Nur-ul Haq, his younger brother Faz-ul Haq and their cousin Abdur Rahman. On later trips to Shahabuddin, I spent time with Faz-ul Haq and Rahman (who Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, says is accused of raping a 13-year-old boy), visiting A.L.P. checkpoints and accompanying foot patrols. As we made our way through verdant farmland irrigated by hand-dug canals, Faz-ul Haq seemed to have a story for each compound and cotton field we passed: here had been a Taliban headquarters, here a bloody firefight, here an R.P.G. attack. At his checkpoint in Omarkhel village, Rahman told me that as bad as it had sometimes been in Shahabuddin, he had only made the 20-minute drive to Pul-i-Khumri twice during the last year. “They were terrorizing us, stealing from us,” he said of the Taliban. But the Tajiks in the capital “are stronger than the Taliban,” he said.
“They never want to come,” General Rahimi now said into the phone, impatiently. “They are evading it by various means.” When he hung up, I asked whom he’d been talking to. He said it was the U.S. Special Forces. The general was no doubt affected by Ramadan and the day’s long fast, but he looked and sounded like a man overwhelmed by competing influences. “The Special Forces must hand these guys over,” he said. “If they don’t, it will jeopardize the entire program.”
The commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in northern Afghanistan calls Rahimi’s characterization “an absolute lie.” When we spoke, he stressed that it lay with Rahimi, not the Americans, to investigate complaints and make arrests. “I’m not here to defend Nur-ul Haq,” he said. “But what I do know is I’ve seen a string of baseless allegations that when we followed up couldn’t be substantiated.” The leader of the Special Forces team working in Shahabuddin told me that he had personally escorted Haq to see criminal investigators in Pul-i-Khumri. “If they want to arrest him, they can arrest him,” he said.“We’re not going to stop them in any way.” In fact, it makes sense that Rahimi would want to give an impression of disapproving of Haq (thereby appeasing certain Tajiks in the provincial government), while also refraining from arresting him (which might result in Haq’s removal and risk upsetting the precarious stability Shahabuddin now enjoys). Accusing American Special Forces of obstructionism would afford the general a convenient means of doing both.
All the same, whatever forces might influence Rahimi’s actions, or lack thereof, the allegations remain. “If they are true, obviously Nur-ul Haq won’t be an A.L.P. commander,” the Special Forces team leader told me. The problem, he said, was that no accusers had come forward, which only fed suspicions of Tajik subterfuge. I mentioned what a villager had told me: “We are too afraid to raise any complaints against the local police. If we complain in the day, they will come in the night to take us from our homes. If they capture somebody, they tell the Americans he is Taliban.” I also repeated the claim of the elders who said that more than 100 families had left Shahabuddin since Haq took control. If true, wasn’t this evidence enough of mistreatment? The team leader acknowledged that many villagers had moved to the city. But here, too, the story was more complicated than it seemed. Before Haq joined the government, residents of Shahabuddin were obliged to ally with one of two insurgent groups — H.I.G. or the Taliban — and bitter grievances endured between those who chose differently. When the Taliban controlled Shahabuddin, supporters of Haq were forced to flee to the city; last year, when Haq returned and ousted the Taliban, many of those who stayed did the same. “Whether they’re innocent or not, they have this Taliban association,” the Special Forces team leader said. “And then the other families that are in the area have the H.I.G. association. And either way, they despise each other.”
At the end of the day, the team leader said, the situation in Baghlan was enormously complicated, and you never truly knew whom to believe. “We’re really trying to do the right thing,” he said. “One of my intelligence sergeants said it the right way: ‘Everybody in some way or form is a bad guy here. So you just have to pick the people who are less bad than others to work with you.’ ” The Special Operations commander in northern Afghanistan agrees. “Given the guy’s background, he’s clearly not an angel,” he said of Haq. “We struggle with it. He’s an imperfect solution. If not him, then who?”
About a month after I first visited Baghlan Province, the long-simmering antipathy between its local police and the Pul-i-Khumri national police finally erupted in violence. According to several Afghans and Americans involved, one of Haq’s local police officers, a man named Sher Muhammad, was in Pul-i-Khumri on the last day of Ramadan when he was told that a relative, a 15-year-old boy named Humayun, was being used for sex by a powerful national police colonel — a Tajik from Andarab.
Enraged, Sher drove directly to a highway checkpoint in the middle of a busy bazaar that was commanded by the colonel, whose name is Ghani, and demanded to know where Humayun was. The guards at the checkpoint told him it was none of his business. Sher went to his truck and got his rifle. When he returned to the checkpoint and insisted on seeing Humayun, Colonel Ghani ordered his men to shoot. A national police officer named Mestaray put two bullets in Sher’s leg.
Abdul Halim, an Afghan Special Forces sergeant, happened to be passing through the bazaar in his truck. When I met with him, Sergeant Halim said that as he approached the national police checkpoint, “I saw Sher lying on the ground, and a man in civilian clothes hitting him in the face with an AK-47.” Halim stopped, disarmed Mestaray and helped the bloodied Sher across the road. Mestaray fled into a fortified compound where Colonel Ghani’s battalion quartered. By this time, a crowd had gathered. “While I was trying to get the crowd off the road, I saw a national police officer pointing his gun at Sher,” Halim recounted. “I said: ‘Don’t shoot him. He’s already shot.’ He didn’t listen. He opened fire and shot Sher a couple of times in the back.” Sher collapsed, and the gunman retreated into the same building as Mestaray.
An ambulance arrived to take Sher to the hospital, and shortly thereafter more armed men came onto the scene: the deputy chief of police, additional soldiers from the Afghan Special Forces, about 10 U.S. Special Forces soldiers and a large group of Afghan Local Police officers. As the Afghan and U.S. Special Forces tried to separate the national and local police, the ambulance returned to the scene with Sher’s corpse, riddled with eight bullets. At this point, the American team leader, who was also there, told me, “It really started getting out of control.” The Americans managed to persuade the A.L.P. to attend to Sher’s body while they tried to retrieve Colonel Ghani. They then followed behind an Afghan Special Forces team led by Master Sgt. Bilal Ahmed Sheenwari. Sheenwari later told me that when he reached the national-police compound, he found Colonel Ghani and nine other police guarding the front gate. “I told Ghani, ‘We need the guys who attacked Sher,’ ” and here the colonel again ordered his men to open fire. A chaotic gun battle ensued between the Afghan Special Forces and Afghan national police. Sheenwari said the police officers fired on them with AK-47’s, PK machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. “We received fire, too,” the American team leader said. “All the Americans almost got hit with R.P.G.’s. It was a pretty hectic 15 minutes. There were civilians everywhere. There were A.N.P., A.L.P., A.S.F.” He called for air support, and soon an F-16 and an Apache helicopter joined the fray. “We got a personal phone call from Lt. Gen. Baba Jan” — the national police commander for northern Afghanistan — “telling us please don’t kill everybody out there. That’s what stopped us from doing anymore.”
Colonel Ghani and two other men were wounded. But Ghani, Mestaray and the officer who killed Sher have all since disappeared. The U.S. Special Forces and A.L.P. believe that Rasoul Khan evacuated them from the compound via a back road and is now concealing their whereabouts. When I later asked him whether he knew where Ghani was, Rasoul Kahn said Ghani was taken to India for medical treatment — a story the U.S. Special Forces are convinced is untrue.
Humayun, the boy, has vanished as well. No one knows if he’s alive or dead, but the A.L.P. are eager for retribution. When I asked the Special Forces team leader if he was worried about what might still result from the unresolved conflict, he said: “Yes. Very much so.”
Proponents and critics of the A.L.P., when arguing its merits or its faults, each invoke Afghanistan’s long history of irregular armed groups and diffuse, localized power dynamics. “Our idea was to use the Musahiban dynasty as a model,” Seth Jones, a former senior Cfsocc adviser, told me when I met with him near his office at the RAND Corporation in Washington. Encompassing the rule of Nadir Shah, Zahir Shah and Daoud Kahn, the Musahiban dynasty extended from 1929 until the communist coup of 1978, a period of relative peace often referred to as Afghanistan’s golden age. Jones argues that Nadir Shah and his successors were able to achieve such stability “because they understood the importance of local power” and refrained from trying to displace it.
Critics of the A.L.P. point to a different precedent. The senior Afghan government official who views local police as “poison” in the long term, for example, also told me: “Look at our history, especially the mujahedeen, and you see that the A.L.P. is the wrong program for our country. People are very tired here. Why did the people accept the Taliban? Most Afghans are not extremists. But they were tired of the militias, the mujahedeen.” For Afghans who see the local police as potentially uncontrollable, the strategy represents a distressing step backward, not toward the Musahibans but the chaos that came later, during the anarchic ’90s, when warlords and militias terrorized the country. Far from a golden age, this period is often called topakiyaan — “the time of the men with guns.”
In a country as fragmented as Afghanistan, no strategy can be expected to succeed or fail uniformly on a national scale, especially one, like the Afghan Local Police, that targets not the province or the district but the village. As problematic as the program has become amid the ethnic melee of the north, the majority of A.L.P. sites are concentrated in the south, where a comparatively homogenous Pashtun population has proved more hospitable. One of the earliest A.L.P. locations in southern Afghanistan was Kandahar’s Arghandab District. Last summer, as part of President Obama’s surge, American troops in Arghandab waged some of the most intense fighting of the war, dislodging large numbers of Taliban and winning a tenuous peace that the A.L.P. and the national police must now work together to maintain.
Before the surge, a Taliban checkpoint blocked the entrance to an area in Arghandab called Tabin, and villagers were regularly hanged from the trees that shade the slow-moving river there. Today, a local police headquarters stands around the bend, and Nesar Ahmed, an intense young man with a prosthetic right leg, commands 16 motley irregulars, whose Kalashnikovs are plastered with brightly colored stickers and wrapped in psychedelic fabric and turquoise beads. Nine months ago, Nesar told me, “this entire area had turned into a hell.” Now farmers can travel to Kandahar City from Tabin during the harvests, and they can irrigate their crops at night, when it is cool. “They’ve already sold the fruit in their trees,” he said, waving at the pomegranate orchards up the road.
Nesar is a cousin of Muhammad Issak, an ascendant personality in Arghandab, who functions both as Tabin’s malik, or chief, and as its national police commander. When I met with Issak in Tabin, he was just returning from the funeral of a local tribal elder who was killed by Taliban assassins two days earlier in Kandahar City. Light-skinned and thin almost to the point of frailty, Issak affects a groomed mustache rather than a beard, and favors a sidearm discreetly holstered beneath his plaid vest; a gold watch hangs loosely from his small wrist. In an unlit room just wide enough to accommodate two bunk beds, Issak sat on the bottom mattress, one leg draped effetely on the other, while Nesar and his men crouched around him on the floor, nodding at his words.
The son of a mullah and a former teacher, Issak enlisted with the national police during the Taliban resurgence in 2006. Last year, after rising to the rank of company commander in Kandahar City, he brought 90 of his officers back to Tabin, where they set up checkpoints in six different villages, and Issak promptly began working with U.S. Special Operations Forces to establish the A.L.P. “I asked the people to send their youth,” Issak said. “Every clan from the seven mosques sent two or three of their boys.”
The boys included a teenager in an ill-fitting brown uniform, another sporting leather ammo pouches over a bright red T-shirt, a third with a purple scarf tied around his head, Rambo-style, and an older man whose long black beard showed the first wisps of gray. They all appeared timorous and awkward, still unused to their status as armed men. I asked the older one why he joined the A.L.P. “We could not take care of our orchards and fields because there was fighting in them,” he said. “There were I.E.D.’s in every field and roadway. I joined when I felt there was a need for me to bring security to my area. I want to go back to my field.”
Down the road from Tabin, past labyrinthine ruins of old, mud-walled compounds, through lush fields of okra and low-growing vineyards, a collection of villages called Nagahan has been a focal point for U.S. Special Operations Forces since before the advent of the A.L.P. The local police commander, Muhammad Nabi, distinguished himself throughout Arghandab during the jihad against the Soviet Union, but later fled Afghanistan under Taliban rule and was pushing a handcart around Quetta, Pakistan, scraping by as a street vendor, when he heard of plans to recapture Kandahar with the help of American forces in late 2001. He returned to join the fight, then laid down his arms; two years ago, the U.S. military gave them back, under the Community Defense Initiative. “I did not want it,” Nabi told me, “but they insisted that I take the lead here.”
At that time, there were 10 Taliban checkpoints in Nagahan. “We liberated this area from them in one year,” Nabi told me. A few days later, I met with a yellow-toothed elder named Meera Jan, who shared fond memories of fighting alongside Nabi before the surge and the A.L.P. When I asked him what their force was like then — how were they organized? what sorts of resources did they have access to? — Meera Jan reached into his kameez and brought out a filth-encrusted elastic belt, the reflective kind U.S. soldiers wear when jogging on military bases. He held it up for me to admire, as if its properties were magical, and explained that in lieu of uniforms, an American officer had distributed the belts to distinguish the armed villagers from insurgents.
“We defended our area with this belt,” Meera Jan said.
By last June, Nabi’s militia had grown sufficiently effective to incite the Taliban to an act of desperation. Several hundred people were celebrating the marriage of a local couple when a stranger intruded, wrapped in a shawl. Nabi was a few feet away when the man detonated himself. The blast was devastating, and though Nabi escaped with minor shrapnel wounds and a ruptured eardrum, scores were killed, many of them women and children. (News reports at the time put the toll at 40; everyone I spoke with in Nagahan said 85.) One of the wedding guests, a man named Noorullah, told me a story I hadn’t heard from anyone else — that before reaching the ceremony, the bomber stopped to ask a local boy where exactly it was being held. Noorullah claimed the boy embraced the man in greeting and felt some pieces of metal attached to his arms and back. He followed him to the wedding, and when they arrived, the boy asked one of the commanders for a gun, intending to kill the bomber. Assuming the boy was up to mischief, the commander refused. “By the time he made others understand, it was too late,” Noorullah said. He told this story very slowly and very quietly, and when he finished he added: “The bomber blew himself up in front of me. My children were killed.”
The victims are buried in several mass graves, marked by the colored flags reserved for martyrs. The attack galvanized the community against the Taliban. Such unanimous resolve is just one of several preconditions that have made parts of Arghandab uniquely suited to the A.L.P. — but that are also often lacking elsewhere in Afghanistan. Before I left the district, the chief elder for Naghan’s 20-member shura, who said he lost 20 relatives in the wedding attack, told me: “The locals are with Nabi. The shura has appointed him, and the people will continue to support him, with or without the Americans.”
The vast differences between the A.L.P. in Kandahar and Baghlan underscore the vexing nature of a war that varies profoundly from district to district, village to village. While members of the local and national police in Arghandab are literally family, in Pul-i-Khumri they seem destined for bloodshed. A week after Sher Muhammad was murdered, Pashtun elders in Baghlan Province convened a shura to discuss possible courses of action. More than 1,000 men attended. One result was a list of seven demands submitted to the governor, the last of which was that Rasoul Khan “be brought to justice” for “multiple crimes,” including hiding Colonel Ghani and the national police officers who shot Sher Muhammad. The petition assigned one week for a satisfactory response, at which point the Pashtuns would block the two main roads into Pul-i-Khumri.
The day before the deadline, I returned to Baghlan and met with Rasoul Khan, who spoke ominously about the local police. “If the government does not control the irresponsible actions of the A.L.P.,” he said, “many such clashes can happen in the future.” At the end of our meeting, he told me that the Tajiks of Andarab were holding their own council, in response to the Pashtun shura. I followed him as he led a small entourage of armed men out of the provincial council building to a massive tent under which several hundred Tajiks sat in plastic chairs and on carpets and cushions, listening to Mustafa Mohsini, Rasoul Khan’s older brother. “The local police have created chaos in the area that nobody can solve,” Mohsini intoned in a deep, sonorous voice. “They do whatever they want. They incite ethnic rifts. They are threatening our people and our tribe.”
The following morning, I visited Haq again in Shahabuddin. When I mentioned the gathering of Andarabis in the capital, he nodded in irritation. “We know about it,” he said. “They have invited a few Pashtuns who have collaborated with them in the past. I told them: ‘You are not allowed to go there. If you want to go, talk instead to your hat and ask it when you want to die, because I will kill you.’ ”
In the end, the Pashtun demonstration was postponed a week, and then indefinitely, to allow a period of mourning for Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan whose assassination in Kabul on Sept. 20 made the future of the country that much more uncertain. Five days later, General Rahimi was replaced as provincial chief of police by Asadullah Sherzad, who is also Pashtun. “It’s definitely showing right now that Rasoul Khan is trying to get to him,” the Special Forces team leader recently told me. When I asked what Sherzad was doing about the investigation into Nur-ul Haq, Faz-ul Haq and Abdur Rahman, he said: “It seems to have kind of gone away. He just said, ‘I trust the Special Forces not to incorporate criminals.’ ”
Envisioned as a two- to five-year program, the Afghan Local Police are eventually supposed to be subsumed by the National Security Forces. But if the Interior Ministry does disband the A.L.P. at some future point, what will become of its members? Brig. Gen. Jefforey Smith, until last month the NATO deputy commander for police training in Afghanistan, told me that the A.L.P. will not be required to meet the National Security Forces’ recruiting goals. He also said, “By and large, a lot of them don’t want to join the national services and be at risk of having to move away from their villages.” I asked what happens, then, when the program is terminated and there are suddenly 30,000 armed, trained and organized Afghans scattered throughout the country, unwilling or unable to enlist with the national forces but also no longer employed by the A.L.P. “That’s the $64 million question,” General Smith said. “In theory, the improvement of security over time creates opportunity for improved governance and economic development, and with that you have other employment opportunities that don’t exist today.”
In Arghandab, when I asked Cmdr. Muhammad Nabi what he would do if the A.L.P. were discontinued, he replied that if at that point the national police and the army were capable of providing adequate protection for his village, “it is not a problem with us to have the A.L.P. disarmed. We will return to cultivating ladyfingers. We will take out our tractors and start farming.” Asked the same question in Shahabuddin, Haq said: “That decision will be made by the elders. If they make the decision to turn in our weapons, we will gladly turn them in to the Afghan government.” Then he thought for a moment and added: “But not to the government in Pul-i-Khumri. As long as the government in Pul-i-Khumri remains the way it is now — an Andarabi organization — we are going to protect ourselves however we can.”
Luke Mogelson wrote a cover article for the magazine in May about Afghan citizens who were killed by U.S. soldiers.
Editor: Joel Lovell
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