Afghan governance: more Judge Dredd than Jefferson

More than a decade into the US-led war in Afghanistan, local strongmen still undermine US and NATO efforts to establish a strong democratic culture in Kandahar.

Nearly 11 years into the American-led war, local strongmen often still have more influence than government institutions in Afghanistan, undermining US and NATO efforts to establish a strong democratic culture here.

Rather than seek the help of their local parliamentarian or governor, many Afghans turn instead to individual figures acting alone and outside the framework of the law. In Afghanistan's south, this paradigm has traditionally created problems. There, provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq has managed to become one of the most influential figures in Kandahar Province, despite credible rumors of involvement with extrajudicial killings, torture, and drug smuggling.

For Western observers who hoped to see Afghanistan adopt a more democratic and transparent government that would move away from strongmen and their parallel governments, the rise of a figure like General Raziq is concerning. Still, many Afghans see him as necessary to bring peace in the short term and an unavoidable stepping stone to a new class of leaders who live by the law, not by the gun.

“Given the current situation and the people who are fighting against Afghanistan and our people, I think Raziq should be aggressive,” says Haji Fazal Mohammad, district governor of Kandahar’s Panjwayi district, a former Taliban stronghold that has seen substantial improvements over the past year.

“If the Taliban were thinking about human values, then it would not be good to be aggressive with them, but they are against all human values, and they are trying to destroy our country and our security institutions, and they are against reforms in our country,” 

The need for an effective police command became clear in April of last year when a suicide bomber managed to infiltrate police headquarters in Kandahar and killed then police chief Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid. Raziq, who was commander of the border police in Kandahar’s Spin Boldak district at the time and a close ally of the US, was brought in to replace him.

About three months later, Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother to the president, was gunned down by someone from his inner circle.

Enter Judge Dredd

Having overshadowed most government institutions, Mr. Karzai's death created a power vacuum that many feared could cause Kandahar to fall into a downward spiral. Some Kandaharis hoped that his death might pave the way for the government, rather than another strongman, to regain control of political life in the south. 

However, locals now say that Raziq, along with top officials from the Afghan Army and Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, have stepped into fill the void outside the framework of the law.

Among Raziq’s supporters, he has developed a reputation as an aggressive and responsive police chief who does not hesitate to take action against insurgents. Among his detractors, he’s viewed as something closer to Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd; a one-man police officer, judge, jury, and executioner. Among Kandaharis, there’s a popular rumor that when Raziq captures Taliban insurgents he often orders them killed rather than taking them to court, where a corrupt and inefficient judicial system might release them, only to instigate violence once more.

Unlike President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, though, Raziq’s influence has remained limited to the security sector.

“Ahmad Wali was the brother of the president and all the officials of different government directorates were appointed in coordination with him. Raziq is just the head of the police and commander of the border police. He does not have the same status that Ahmad Wali had,” says Mohammad Isa Khan, a former attorney general and independent analyst in Kandahar.

Outside of security, Kandahar has yet to see any strong personalities rise up to replace Ahmad Wali. The provincial governor, Tooryali Wesa, is a relatively marginal figure; and internal disagreements on the provincial council have stopped members from gaining too much influence.

Shah Wali Karzai, another brother of the president, was appointed to replace Ahmad Wali as leader of the Popalzai tribe, but he has yet to gain widespread influence and many in Kandahar say he lacks the ambition to do so.

Post-Soviet replay?

Without a strong political counterpart, this has left the largest share of power in the hands of Raziq and the security apparatus in Kandahar.

Afghans are all too aware of the dangers this power dynamic presents after their war with the Soviets when commanders who fought the Russians began using their power to build and control local fiefdoms with the same heavy-handed methods they had used during the war. This would inevitably help spark the country's civil war and made it impossible for a central government to effectively control the country.   

“With Kandahar the way it is now, it is good to have the power with the security officials here,” says Noor Nawaz Byawary, an independent analyst in Kandahar. But, he says, if and when Afghanistan is able to overcome its security challenges and corruption problems, the security sector and Raziq should take on a smaller role so they don't overshadow the government.

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