The South Asia Channel

Kandahar’s Enforcer Fights Evil with Brutality

Through merciless tactics, General Abdul Raziq brought stability to what was once one of Afghanistan’s most lawless provinces. Will it last, and at what cost?

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Afghan National Army soldiers stand alert after clashes against security forces at Kandahar Airport on December 9, 2015, a sprawling complex which also houses a joint NATO-Afghan base. At least 37 people were killed when Taliban insurgents wearing military uniforms stormed Kandahar airport, triggering pitched gun battles in a lengthy siege as President Ashraf Ghani on December 9 sought to revive peace talks at a regional conference.The raid on the sprawling complex, which also houses a joint NATO-Afghan base, is seen as the most serious attack on the largest military installation in southern Afghanistan in 14 years of war. AFP PHOTO / Jawed Tanveer / AFP / JAWED TANVEER (Photo credit should read JAWED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)

General Abdul Raziq is one of the more prominent cases of the warlord paradox shaped by the U.S. state-building agenda in Afghanistan. Labeled by some as a warlord and others a hero, Raziq is the reigning police chief of Kandahar province, with a near mythic stature. Foreign support and celebration of Raziq may say more about the U.S. commitment to short-term centralization of power than investment in long-term civil institutions in the developing world. As politicians, practitioners, and academics, continue to contemplate the last 15 years of foreign intervention and state building, particularly as the debate regarding the West’s role in Syria and Iraq widens, it is important to recognize that liberal intervention in conflict-ridden countries is bound to find strange bedfellows with unsavory leaders.

But is that such a bad thing? After a recent visit to Kandahar city and its neighboring districts, security conditions are now much better there than in previous years. News of increased insurgent and criminal activities comes only from the districts of Maiwand, Ghorak and Shorabak — areas located far from Kandahar city. In light of worsening security conditions across Afghanistan, Kandahar is now among the more relatively stable provinces. Irrespective of Raziq’s brutal notoriety, many citizens of Kandahar attribute these security gains to his strong leadership.

Considered by many as a “special case” due to his outsized and abnormal means of exerting influence and holding power, Raziq serves the interests of the state-building elite by crafting an image of strength and stability in southern Afghanistan, even if that comes at the expense of accountable governance, human rights, and long-term stability. Raziq road the coattails of a coterie of ruthless warlords empowered by western intelligence and security organizations like the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and NATO military allies. He is a leading figure in the Achakzai tribe, a major power bloc along the southern border and strong auxiliary security component through formal and informal militias. Raziq grew up in Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar, and was mentored by strongmen such as Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and Asadullah Khalid, who protected Raziq from prosecution when 16 Nurzai tribal members were murdered in 2006. Numerous stories link Raziq, or men working for him, to human rights violations, torture, and murder of prisoners. While such stories of abuse are disquieting, it seems even more alarming when Raziq openly boasts of such acts. In the summer of 2014, Raziq, along with other Afghan security officials, issued a take no prisoners directive: “My order to all my soldiers is not to leave any of them alive.”

While alarming the West’s more prudent side – guided by the liberal peace agenda, a strategy that uses pro-democracy and free market economy-based reforms as the pillars of creating stability and peace – these authoritarian directives are hardly outside the norm of contemporary state building in Afghanistan. Even when presented with evidence of the Dashti Laeli massacre in northern Afghanistan committed by then-General Dostum’s militia, U.S. patrons turned the other way. They celebrated the heroic efforts of their Afghan allies to liberate the Afghan people, memorializing the 2001 invasion as an adventure carried out on horseback, and giving warlords with questionable pasts a new future. General Dostum, for example, served as President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate in the 2014 presidential election and is now the first Vice President.

Our collective will to ignore predation and drive to build a new state likely gave way to new occasions of state-led violence that could be viewed as protective or predatory over the civilian population. Chalmers Johnson, a scholar and critic of American empire, reminds us that state-led violence must be exercised with caution, as “legitimacy is a function of the value structure,” and if violence is wantonly used outside this structure, resistance may result. Certainly some criticize Raziq’s methods, but many also celebrate his style as necessary and legitimate. Many other warlords similar to Raziq effectively seized the market of protection within their regional fiefdoms but also transitioned to internationally recognized “statesmen,” even as they continued to engage in various levels of barbarity and criminal activity. The most successful warlords like Noor Muhammed Atta, Matiullah Khan, or even Commander Azizullah, captured the attention of local and foreign media to become contemporary celebrities or folk heroes, regardless of scandal or notoriety.

Some Afghans and Americans celebrate and endorse figures such as Raziq. One U.S. official noted in private that he wished there were “one million Raziqs” to cleanse Afghanistan of its insurgent problems. This thinking is an unfortunate outcome of both utilitarian and neo-imperial positions in Afghanistan, where victories one week overshadow potential conflicts months later. Our short-sighted perspective not only found us compromising our broadly proclaimed global values of democratic peace, but also compelled our allies in the Afghan intelligence and security services to fall back on their own utilitarian models of impunity. As such, in many cases, U.S. forces stood by idly as Afghan counterparts in security or intelligence services engaged in predation or human rights violations. The Senate’s 2014 CIA Torture Report is a sober assessment of just how difficult it is to uphold U.S. values and fight a war in the shadows.

Many Afghans in Kandahar view Raziq’s “shoot to kill” strategy against Taliban insurgents as successful. He is famous for being merciless against Taliban insurgents, although his military approach has raised valid concerns among human rights groups. A Kandahari businessman stated: “only a tough and strong-minded person can maintain Kandahar security and Gen. Raziq is that individual.” However, a humble and modest character balances his strong and decisive command. On a recent flight from the United Arab Emirates to Kandahar, Raziq and his family — unlike other Afghan senior officials — flew in the economy cabin of the airplane and openly discussed issues of daily concern with the people. One might think that he was just another passenger. Dressed in simple Kandahari embroidered clothes and a pair of new sneakers, Afghan passengers greeted him and many requested to take a photo with him. He openly accepted their offers with a smile and humbly embraced interaction with these common strangers. His populist personality and ease with human interaction is a result of being born and raised among local people.

When asked by one of the authors how he finds success in Kandahar while many other police chiefs fail, Raziq responded that part of the security solution is the “cooperation of people” and part of it is “God’s help.” He noted confidently that “Kandahar had its worst times and God will not again bring such a hard time on Kandahar,” even though the province remains “a high priority for the Taliban.” Those who know him well believe his strong support from the Achakzai tribe is a major contributing factor to his success. With the fall of Sangin and Musa Qala, the rise of civilian casualties, and the emergence of Taliban factions pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, Afghan citizens will increasingly look to strong leaders such as Raziq.

JAWED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)

Matthew Dearing is Assistant Professor for the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University. Ahmad Waheed is an Afghan Fulbright Alumnus and former senior research analyst at the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are the authors’ own.

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