The Taliban Just Won a Key Battle for Afghanistan’s Future
The killing of a strongman police chief creates a dangerous power vacuum.
When I met Abdul Raziq in Kandahar in 2014, he was already the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan. He’d brought security to the once-restive province and brought under control the border crossing with Pakistan, a critical route for U.S. forces and trade. Raziq didn’t look the part of a typical Afghan strongman: He was then in his mid-30s, lean, clean-shaven, boyish, and dressed in fatigues. When I asked about corruption and summary executions he’d been accused of ordering, he blithely deflected and changed the topic to security. He assured me that the province had become so safe under his watch he could take me anywhere I wanted to go, something that would have been unthinkable before Raziq had been made the provincial police chief.
Raziq was gunned down on Thursday by a bodyguard in an attack claimed by the Taliban, throwing the already tenuous future of southern Afghanistan—and perhaps the entire country—into even greater doubt. The toll of the conflict has reached its highest levels since 2001, with as many as a hundred people dying each day. Parliamentary elections, already beset by accusations of mismanagement and fraud, have been delayed in Kandahar and Ghazni even as they go ahead in other parts of the country on Saturday. Presidential elections are set for April of next year. A June ceasefire raised hopes for an end to the conflict, and the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as a U.S. envoy for peace talks sent a signal that the United States was finally ready to make a peace deal, but this optimism is quickly eroding. No concrete signs of progress have emerged yet, and the United States has aroused anger and suspicions by attempting to sideline the national unity government in talks.
The life and death of Raziq provide insights into what has gone so wrong in Afghanistan. In the four years since I met him, Kandahar had become an island of security surrounded by encroaching Taliban control. Military analysts say the insurgency currently controls or contests 61 percent of Afghanistan. As the rest of the country deteriorated, Kandahar, in relative terms, thrived economically and seemed immune from the Taliban’s creeping jurisdiction. Some saw Raziq as a national hero, others as a war criminal. He routed the Taliban, leaving their corpses lying in the street, and was lauded by Kandaharis for calling out Pakistan’s interference in Afghan affairs. Unlike most other Afghan powerbrokers, his brutality created a tangible benefit in the form of security for at least some Afghans (excluding, of course, those subjected to his cruelty).
With Raziq dead, all bets are off. With no natural successor, his death creates a dangerous power vacuum. There are contradictory accounts about whether the provincial governor and the provincial head of the intelligence services were killed or seriously wounded. Either way, the attack effectively incapacitated the regional leadership. Gen. Scott Miller, the head of U.S. and NATO forces Afghanistan, narrowly escaped. The Taliban are now likely to try to reassert control in the critical districts around Kandahar City that they were forced to cede to Raziq years ago. This would create a corridor of Taliban control stretching across the south, which would not only enhance their military capabilities, but also strengthen their hand in any future peace talks.
The fact that the fate of so much depended on one man is not surprising in Afghan politics. Members of the international community, and the United States in particular, have backed warlords and strongmen like Raziq since the 2001 invasion—all the while supporting democratic governance and elections. It’s a contradictory strategy and one that has turned out to be self-defeating. Instead of building the basis for long-term stability and a viable political settlement in Afghanistan, the United States has repeatedly gone for quick fixes. Washington has systematically sponsored individuals like Raziq who, while they might create a certain kind of stability that serves immediate U.S. interests, achieve these outcomes in ways that sow the seeds for future violence and utterly negate the possibility of democratic governance.
U.S. and international forces saw Raziq as the only one who could keep the Taliban at bay. Commensurate with the overall U.S. approach to Afghanistan, the relationship with Raziq was short-term and expedient, ignoring the trail of human rights violations and potential war crimes, and the accusations of involvement in illicit trade and skimming customs revenue. A leaked diplomatic cable from 2010 demonstrates that the United States was clearly aware of this tradeoff, noting that by anointing Raziq as a “guarantor” of security “and the lynchpin in tribal power relations,” the Americans were willfully undermining the long-term prospects for stable institutions and responsive governance.
Raziq delivered elections, making him a pivotal player in Afghan politics. During the 2014 presidential elections, he was instrumental in winning the vote for Ashraf Ghani. Raziq controlled ballot distribution, replaced election monitors at will, and arrested government officials who backed Ghani’s then-rival and current partner in the national unity government, Abdullah Abdullah. Competition for Raziq’s support had already begun among presidential hopefuls eager to unseat Ghani.
While many previous attempts had been made on Raziq’s life, the timing of this one caught many by surprise. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, experts and diplomats I spoke with said they feared attacks on voters or polling stations. At least 10 candidates and scores of their supporters have been killed so far. Beyond the violence, electoral preparations have been marred by a series of crises and disasters that have consumed the international community in Kabul. There have been several controversies, for example, over the $20 million effort to introduce biometrics machines for voter verification. At one point, they operated only in English, and at another, they revealed the identity of voters, in direct violation of Afghanistan’s Constitution and internationally accepted norms.
In a country where wide swathes of territory are no longer under government control, it is questionable whether elections should have been held at all. A third of registration centers were unable to open, automatically disenfranchising vast portions of the population. Registration numbers were suspiciously high. Fraud is already believed to be so widespread that diplomats have adapted their language in anticipation of a profoundly flawed outcome. Instead of free and fair elections, they now talk about the importance of results that are “acceptable” to Afghans.
Initial results will not be available for some weeks, and even then, they are likely to be contested. On a trip to Kabul last week, I asked one U.S. diplomat what an election acceptable to Afghans would look like. He lamented that the only politically viable result would be one in which “all the warlords and their sons win.” The implication was that such individuals control so-called democratic processes in Afghanistan, bending them to their will and subverting those that do not deliver to them the desired result. That is most certainly not what most Afghans I spoke with want or find acceptable, but they have come to expect little else during successive elections, each more fraudulent and violent than the last.
It’s risky, if not foolish, to make predictions about Afghan presidential elections. The only sure bet is that they are incredibly volatile. Reports of Ghani’s strained relationship with the United States have sent a clear signal to his rivals that the presidency is up for grabs, setting off political competition during a time in which Afghanistan can little afford further instability. Afghans in vast stretches of the country will not be able to vote. Fraud will be rampant, scores of Afghans will die in election-related violence, and the result will be disputed. The real question is not necessarily who will win, but whether the crumbling facade of Afghan democracy can withstand yet another electoral catastrophe.