In Afghanistan war, government corruption bigger threat than Taliban
Warlords and government corruption may destabilize the country even more than the Taliban, say Afghan and NATO officials. The city of Kandahar reflects this central problem of the Afghanistan war.
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Provincial council member Haji Moqtar Ahmed declined to name the city's powerbrokers, but said they were well known to locals.
"I won't say the names of these people, but everyone knows who they are," says Mr. Ahmed. "They are the masterminds of business in Kandahar."
Top prosecutor: 'Sometimes I ignore the rules.'
With such oligarchs asserting themselves, the provincial attorney general admits that he routinely drops cases under pressure from powerful figures. “In Kandahar, every criminal has a supporter, and the supporter wants him released from custody,” says Mohammad Ismael Zia.
“There are many warlords in Kandahar City,” he continues. “If I don’t accept their demands they can make many problems for me. They could kill me or remove me from this job. So sometimes I ignore the rules.”
He points to a stack of papers on his desk – requests from parliamentarians and provincial council members. If Mr. Zia’s help is not forthcoming, he says he is threatened “by telephone and night letters.” None of his superiors, he says, have agreed to provide him with secure accommodation or guards to help him resist the intimidation.
Also complicit in corruption are the police. Tales of kidnappings, bribery, blackmail, even murder by officers are commonplace, with many residents saying they are the No. 1 fear. One police commander is particularly infamous. In one story he threw a man in jail for refusing to hand over his dog. In another, he imprisoned two teenagers brought to him by coalition forces after their family failed to pay the ransom he demanded.
“The worst people, the addicts, the thieves, the drunkards are in the police,” says Haji Abdul Karim, a tribal elder. “The best way for bad men to make money is to join the police.”
Police in Kandahar deny the allegations.
'Corruption, bribery, extortion' turn people to the Taliban
The corruption and abuse are alienating people who wouldn’t naturally align themselves with fundamental Islam.
For example, says Mr. Karim, a local Taliban commander known as Dr. Qwagha, joined the insurgency after he was abused by the police. “The police came and beat him very badly, and he became an enemy of the government.”
“Many people who suffered police brutality are with the Taliban now,” he says.
Haji Mohammad Zahir, a Kandahari who moved to the city to find a job, says: “Who’s in the Taliban? Normal people. Not ideologues. I am, he is, my cousin, my brother – because of the government’s corruption, bribes, and extortion.”
Contrasting the poor reputations of government officials, Mr. Zahir praises a local Taliban commander, Kaka Abdul Khaliq, who operates in the village of Pashmul 25 miles west. “He’s a very good man” who “treats his villagers well because he knows their ways,” he says.
'Too hard to exclude' some powerbrokers – NATO
NATO officials and Western diplomats are mindful that sidelining “malign actors” – a NATO euphemism for the Kandahar mafia – shoring up government institutions, and reforming the police will matter more to the Kandahar campaign than any gun battles will.
NATO has lobbied President Karzai unsuccessfully for the removal of Ahmed Wali Karzai from his post, leaking details of his alleged business activities to the press. But in reality, NATO may have to try to coopt him and other powerbrokers in an effort to mend Kandahar’s political fabric.
“In some cases it’s too hard to exclude them altogether,” says Sedwill.
According to one Western diplomat, the hope is that the oligarchs will realize, “If the Americans aren’t here, I’m dead,” and that this will provide leverage.
The strategy has risks. Across Kandahar, residents rightly or wrongly see the West as complicit in the rise of the mafia. Both they and NATO officials believe Western largesse may have helped strengthened them. It was similar weariness of corruption and brigandry that 16 years ago helped sweep the Taliban to power.