November 02, 2010

He's the good cop AND the bad cop

Just an additional comment on what I wrote a few days back about whether an upwardly trending situation in Kandahar in the fall should be seen as a positive. A correspondent has kindly reminded me of a journalistic juxtaposition of some possible interest.

This was what the Washington Post wrote about the use of the Afghan Border Police belonging to Spin Boldak warlord Abdul Raziq (spelled Raziq in the article) to assist ISAF in clearing insurgents out of the districts around Kandahar last month:

On the border, [Razziq] developed an outsize reputation - part Robin Hood, part warlord. He was a close ally of the Karzais with thousands of tribal warriors at his command. "If you need a mad dog on a leash, he's not a bad one to have," said a U.S. official in Kandahar.

U.S. troops hastily planned support and coordinated to have Afghan forces ring the neighborhood, while Razziq, cellphone and satellite phone in hand, roared up from the southern desert with a few hundred men. They arrested about 20 suspected insurgents and found scores of explosives.

As this partnership has developed, Razziq has been partnered with a U.S. Special Forces commander to help coordinate his moves. He's been called on elsewhere, including particularly treacherous parts of the Argandab valley, where whole villages had been rigged with explosives that had made them impenetrable to previous American units.

The Afghan operations have stunned U.S. troops, accustomed to years of prodding along their reluctant allies. At 3 a.m. on Sept. 15, Capt. Mikel Resnick, a company commander in Argandab, learned that 1,000 Afghan forces were moving into his area. "I don't know if they're going to go burn the orchards down and leave me to clean it up," he said of his initial reaction to the plan.

The Afghans, who took 72 hours to capture 50 detainees, five large bombs and 500 pounds of explosives, required only advice and air support from the Americans, said Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, the battalion commander at the Argandab district center.

"We basically sat in here and monitored the fight," Resnick said, referring to his outpost at the village of Sarkari Bagh. "They essentially cleared this entire place out."

U.S. military officials acknowledge that it is not ideal to have the border police leading the operation, because the goal is for the Afghan army and police to provide security in their own areas.

"We need to make sure this is not undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government," said a senior NATO military official in southern Afghanistan.

Okay, here's the opposing view: in December of 2009 Harper's Magazine carried a piece by Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins about Raziq (which he spells Razik). Among other things, it alleged Raziq made $5-6 million a month personally in drug smuggling revenues, and described Raziq's issues with Taliban from the Noorzai tribe who killed several members of his family in the mid 1990s. He also recounted this anecdote, from the last time Raziq was called in to pacify the districts close to Kandahar City:

One notorious incident took place during the summer of 2006 in Panjwaii District, a volatile area just west of Kandahar city. A predominantly Noorzai district, Panjwaii is a lush river valley crisscrossed by thick orchards and mud-walled compounds, and it provides an excellent springboard for attacks on Kandahar city. During the course of the summer, Taliban fighters had infiltrated the valley, and eventually the district governor, an Achakzai, called in Abdul Razik’s border force.

What followed was a debacle. The Noorzais, fearing their tribal enemies, rose up and joined forces with the Taliban. Razik and his men responded to the unexpected resistance with brutality. “They were killing women and children,” said Ustaz Abdul Halim, a Noorzai and former mujahideen commander who lives in Kandahar city. “After that, everyone was with the Taliban.”

The writer goes on to state that the fierce resistance Canadians faced in Zhari-Panjwaii in 2006, basically the beginning of the southern Taliban's war on ISAF in many ways, was largely due to Raziq's intemperate actions.

Now, unlike some people I know, I've never met or worked with Raziq. And I don't have any firm evidence of my own to confirm or disconfirm either account above. But here's what we do know: American resources have relied heavily on a "Robin Hood" to "clear out" hostile villages around Kandahar City; that said Hood had been accused in a major American periodical less than a year ago of conducting crimes against humanity; that those allegations involved a specific tribe in one of the same districts he's now involved in again; and that all this occurred only the last time that he was summoned by the government to do the same clearing task, less than 4 years ago. As I said here, our memories in this regard are short.

Mind, that doesn't mean that anything untoward necessarily occurred this time: I'm sure Raziq's current close association with U.S. Special Forces is having a mollifying influence on his past behaviour, which also may have been exaggerated, as well. But there should be no question he's a polarizing figure among Southern Pashtuns, Karzai and ISAF's "mad dog on a leash."

In any case, this is pretty much what "arming the tribes" was expected to look like in the Kandahar context so no one need be surprised. One could justifiably argue that the newly successful strategy is, to a first approximation, really about openly supporting, with "air cover and advice", the Karzai faction, with its increasingly powerful Pashtun militias led by Raziq, Matiullah Khan in the north of the province, and Karzai's brother in the city proper, to secure the city for themselves, by acting firmly against the insurgents, who seem disproportionately drawn from those disadvantaged tribal groups (Noorzai, etc.) underrepresented in the government (in elections are, some might say, lacking in legitimacy), and detaining hundreds of those groups' members in the process. This process is largely bypassing those national pan-ethnic instruments of authority, the army and the police, which to be clear have not demonstrated any real capacity to tamp down Pashtun unrest on their own. It also involves discounting sporadic allegations of drug profiteering and crimes against humanity (and election fraud) by the friendly militia leaders. And, it's only fair to say, its backers received a good, if somewhat amnesiac, writeup in the Post for their troubles.

I'd be the last to say definitively, "this won't work." Because the realist in me sees the ruthless divide-and-conquer logic of it. This may even be what needed to be done all along in Kandahar: a couple Kandaharis of my acquaintance from the pro-government side of the tribal equation would certainly have said so. And there's ample historical precedent for its success, and not just in Afghanistan, either. No, it is what it is, even if some might have harbored idle hopes that Afghan progress when it came would look... different, somehow.

Posted by BruceR at 12:56 AM