“The Final Straw?” Slaying of Kandahar Police Chief Might Be Sympton of Intractable Problem

by Joshua Foust on 6/29/2009 · 6 comments

Matiullah
Kandahar Police Chief Matiullah died today during a shootout between Afghan police and a NATO-affiliated Afghan private security firm. (Source: AP Life)

Christian is staying on top of this story better than I could have, so go there and keep hitting “refresh” for his updates. The gist is: earlier today a group of gunmen broke into a government office building and grabbed a man being held there by the authorities; in the gunfight that ensued, the chief of police and eight other policemen were killed.

Now here is where it gets interesting: the first wave of reports coming out, most of which is actually Alex Strick van Linschoten’s twitter feed (my “proven provider,” if you’re Tom Ricks) along with an Alertnet dispatch, had the story sourcing be Ahmed Wali Karzai, the drug-running brother of President Hamid Karzai. Sources matter—Al Jazeera English lends the impression Matiullah was the only one killed and there were five injuries, furthering the point that we cannot take as true any of these initial reports.

In an Alertnet update, we learned that President Karzai claims the gunmen were not Afghan National Army troops, as initial reports suggested, but employees of a private security firm employed by the Coalition whose relative was being held. Then again, the Canadians—who this time actually arrested them, quite unlike their miserable performance at the Great Jailbreak of 2008—claim they are actually Afghan National Army soldiers. Who knows?

Via email, Alex says the damage is already done. “Whatever the truth of the story is,” he says, “local people (including many of my usually-quite-docile friends) are very angry in Kandahar. They are angry that the police chief was killed, and they are angry at the idea that foreigners may have had a hand in it.”

Rightly or wrongly, it is a growing perception. Alex publishes the beyond-essential AfghanWire, which is an English translation of local media in Afghanistan. It’s gone quiet before because of funding issues (amazingly, no one wants to fund this, presumably at least in part because intel professionals can get some of that functionality through the Open Source Center). Anyway, so the recent editorials coming out of the Afghan newsweeklies and dailies is quite damning—increasingly so—of the U.S. military’s tactics:

  • Arman-i Milli claims that “experts” think the U.S. has intentionally underfunded the Afghan security forces so it can have an excuse to remain in the country.
  • Cheragh complains that NATO’s approach is too heavily focused on the military, and it’s resulted in needless harm to innocent people…. again and again.
  • Last year, Erada was complaining of the security collapse in the country, noting how weird it is that it was accompanied by more of a Western presence. This was over a year ago—and things have gotten worse.

Alex noted that, “there is a feeling of ‘the final straw’ in people’s reactions to the news.” People are just sick of it.

There is also the confusing array of conflicting reports to sift through. As Christian has noted, the initial reports were wrong, but that seems to drive opinion in many parts of Afghanistan—whatever you heard first, so it is. Some unreported context to the incident: earlier in the day, before the shoot out at the prosecutor’s office, some Afghan soldiers and police got into a big fist fight. Police Chief Matiullah was busy trying to pull them off each other when he got called to handle the jailbreak. It is probably he arrived in a bad mood, and who knows how that might have affected things as well.

Did the U.S. or Coalition have a hand—even a very indirect one—in today’s killing? We won’t know for a bit. Some witnesses reported seeing Humvees fleeing the scene, and local Afghan security firms don’t normally drive those (they drive Hiluxes or Ford Rangers). But Afghan special forces do. There’s also the issue of private firms with close relations to U.S. special operations units. The Khost Protection Force, for example, is hired to provide security for U.S. bases in Khost province. The KPF does not get its funding from normal military channels. Nor is it unique, just publicized (perhaps inappropriately, but that’s another matter).

Was the firm accused of the jailbreak today one of those groups, a quasi-extension of some sort of black operation? It would explain why Greg Julian is saying the Coalition didn’t have anything to do with it—as far as he’s concerned, he’s right. The black ops guys operate on their own, and rarely coordinate with or inform Big Army types when they do something (even something stupid).

If—and this is a big “if,” as we just don’t know yet—this turns out to have connections to SF-types, the General McChrystal’s much ballyhooed push for a lighter special operations footprint is certainly off to a great start. The man has his work cut out for him either way, as this is a problem will not go away—Kandaharis still complain bitterly about rough house raids from 2001. What will they do now?

“It’s a pity,” Alex said to me, “there aren’t any journalists in town at the moment.” As I said before—it’s remarkable how much “news” about Afghanistan, especially in insurgency-ridden areas, comes through close coordination with the U.S. military. Alex is (was) the only non-embedded independent journalist in Kandahar. But he’s going away for a few days, and can’t cover things in his usual detail. “Someone needs to get to the bottom of this,” he warns. I fear he is right. It won’t just go away.

Some more context: From March of this year, Sarah Chayes posted a dispatch (pdf) on her website in which she notes the increasing sophistication of Taliban “shadow government” services, which seem to mostly involve promising not to destroy things if the villagers ask permission and buy products and services privately and not from the government or Western-affiliated groups. Her friend Nurallah, “sunny, bubbly Nurallah, who was taking English and computer courses, now sees no future at all for Afghanistan, just a slow, inexorable slide back into war.”

I expect this to be a very nasty summer in Afghanistan. Very nasty.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

Christian B June 29, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Totally agree that perceptions are what count here. And the damage has been done on that front. Doesn’t really matter what actually happened. I can just imagine the bazaar chit-chat going on right now.

Old Blue June 29, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Greg Julian needs to get all over this and find out exactly what happened and start doing what the Americans said that their info strategy was going to be: break the truth first; good, bad or ugly. His minimalist reports seem almost dismissive.

Even if, especially if, this did not involve coalition forces, if there are men in custody, Coalition custody, then the truth is known by Coalition members and Julian should have access to it. This is not something that should be left to a few tweets and the grapevine. For each individual, perception is reality… and there are a lot of realities being formed right now.

Joel Hafvenstein June 30, 2009 at 12:48 am

I’ve got friends in Kdh who are convinced it was American soldiers who killed the police chief, on the grounds (as you say) that they heard that story first, and any subsequent explanations are the cover-up.

Fnord June 30, 2009 at 4:29 am

Face-palm. Anyone care to give an estimate how bad this is? Will it result in bloodfeud, etc? On a speculative guess, you dont get to be police chief in Kandahar without some good connections. Anyone know how this may play out?

BruceR June 30, 2009 at 8:13 am

I think your Khost Protection Force analogy is the current most-likely. Note the comment by the Canadians: “the regional deputy has been replaced” as a result of this, so its fairly clear now this was a non-ANSF paramilitary organized on a regional level, ie, not necessarily Kandaharis. There’s a lot of irregular organizations like that out there doing low-level security tasks, guarding the highways, guarding the SOF bases, guarding the Afghans, and the like. Suggestions they were US-trained are almost certainly wrong… someone was paying for them, though, and all this money always ends up coming from the West’s bankroll through some chain of hands.

In the Western movie analogy, it’s the Clantons coming into town and overruling the Earps. Except this time the Earps lost. Blood feud? Oh, yeah, but it’s not like they were short of those before in Kandahar, either.

IntelTrooper June 30, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Crickets from the famous ISAF IO machine? Shocking!

And it is not entirely impossible that these guys (or at least some of them) are both ANA and private security guards. Lots of ANA go home for “leave” and end up staying months on end, in the mean time taking temporary jobs as local guards or helping the family on the fields.

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