When a criminal gang abducted a prominent doctor's 12-year-old son last week off the streets of Herat, residents of the western Afghan city decided they had had enough.
Doctors, nurses, and other health providers walked out on their jobs to protest what they say are the government's half-hearted attempts to address a growing security problem. Shopkeepers, judges, and the city's main trade union soon joined them, prompting the closure of close to 250 factories.
The strike, which ended earlier this week, highlights widespread dissatisfaction with government efforts to provide security and illustrates the extent to which criminal gangs – not the Taliban – are seen as the biggest security threat in Afghanistan's major cities.
"We are scared to go outside because we never know when it will be for the last time," says Herat resident Ahmad Qurishi.
Kidnapping for ransom on the rise
Government officials report that close to 100 kidnapping incidents were registered in 2007 in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul – almost all of them at the hands of criminal gangs. The secretive, well-organized gangs often kidnap well-to-do businessmen, doctors, and other prominent figures and demand millions in ransom. The gangs also organize sophisticated robberies, often absconding with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Criminal investigations police chief Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal says there are a handful of large, powerful gangs and dozens of smaller ones that operate on an informal basis. While foreigners are occasionally targeted, the majority of the abducted are Afghans.
Two months ago, Mirza Kunduzi, an entrepreneur who owns a successful money-changing shop in Kabul's market district, returned home after a long day's work. Suddenly, six men sprang from a parked car and aimed weapons at him. "They wore military uniforms," he says. "They cut me with a knife, blindfolded me, and forced me into the back of the car."
The kidnappers took him to a nearby house, where they regularly beat him. "They asked me for $2 million, and they kept beating me because I refused to pay. They didn't even take my blindfold off – my eyes were closed for seven days."
Eventually the abductors agreed to a $40,000 ransom and dumped Mr. Kunduzi at the side of the road late at night.
Kunduzi's ordeal matches the experiences of hundreds of others, and analysts say that the climate of fear is driving talent and capital out of the country.
A local business group estimates that in 2007 private investment dropped by nearly half. "The targeting of businesses and businesspeople by criminal gangs for ransom has had the most profound impact on the morale of private entrepreneurs and, therefore, on private business and investment," the Afghan Investment Support Agency said in a recent statement.
Some experts assert that high unemployment and a lack of opportunities create ripe conditions for gangs to flourish. "When the former Mujahideen armies were disbanded, it threw a lot of people on the streets without income," says Haroun Mir, deputy director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "When you are young and you see a disparity in wealth and no hope for the future, you will do almost anything."
Former fighters involved in crime?
Many former soldiers now work for private security companies. "We have evidence that some of these companies are involved in kidnapping, robbery, and drug trafficking," says General Paktiawal.
To compound matters, many feel that some elements of the Afghan police force are corrupt and cannot be relied upon to provide adequate security. "Many gangs have contacts in the police," Mr. Mir claims. "And there is no reward for good cops or punishment for bad ones."
The fears and frustrations that drove the people of Herat to strike are prompting Kunduzi to attempt to take matters into his own hands. "Some police have a hand in this, and the government is not protecting anyone here," he says, his voice shaking with anger. "After my kidnapping I decided the only way I could be safe is if I owned a gun."
As he waits for a gun license – a difficult and expensive process even in a country awash with arms – Kunduzi says that he may not be able to buy his freedom the next time around. "They have taken everything from me. They can kidnap me again," he says, "but I have nothing left."