As Crime Increases in Kabul, So Does Nostalgia for Taliban

Traders count their money in Kabul's open-air currency market. Several traders have been kidnapped or killed in a wave of violent crime in the Afghan capital. Armed gangs target buses and trucks on the country's main highways.
Traders count their money in Kabul's open-air currency market. Several traders have been kidnapped or killed in a wave of violent crime in the Afghan capital. Armed gangs target buses and trucks on the country's main highways. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 25, 2008

KABUL -- Mirza Kunduzai, 58, a slight man with a short white goatee, had almost reached his house after a day of trading in the capital's open-air currency market when his taxi was forced to stop by six heavily armed men dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms.

For the next week, Kunduzai recounted, he endured one horror after another -- beaten unconscious, hooded and handcuffed, strung up by his wrists and ankles, dumped in a filthy latrine -- while his family frantically tried to raise the kidnappers' astronomical ransom demand of $2 million.

"I was 95 percent sure I was a dead man," Kunduzai said last week. "They said if my family went to the police, they would chop off my fingers and send them to my wife. I begged them to be reasonable. I offered them my house and my farmland back home. Finally, they agreed to settle for $500,000 and released me. I am poor again, but I am thankful to be alive."

While Taliban insurgents stage increasing attacks in the Afghan countryside, equally fast-expanding violent crime -- kidnappings, carjackings, drug-related killings and highway robberies -- is plaguing the capital of 5 million and the vital truck and bus routes that connect the country's major cities. It is making some Afghans nostalgic for the low-crime days before 2001, when the Taliban sternly ruled most of the country.

Today's problem, which experts say is intertwined with widespread official corruption, opium trafficking and the get-rich-quick boom of postwar aid and reconstruction, is threatening to destroy public confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai and drive away what little investment the desperately poor country is attracting.

Police and soldiers are everywhere in Kabul -- patrolling traffic circles and markets, cruising in open pickup trucks. Armed private guards stand outside newly built glass offices and wedding salons. Every week, more streets are blocked by massive concrete barricades to shelter embassies, official buildings and compounds used by U.S. and NATO forces.

"The security situation is normal. Our police are honest and patriotic, and they are getting stronger day by day," Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawol, chief of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, said in a brief interview Tuesday. He dismissed concerns about growing urban insecurity as "enemy propaganda" and said many so-called kidnappings turn out to be romantic elopements.

But on Wednesday morning, Paktiawol narrowly escaped assassination when a remote-controlled bomb exploded under his vehicle on the outskirts of Kabul, where he had gone to investigate the late-night shooting of three policemen. The general escaped with minor injuries, but his three bodyguards were killed. Officials blamed the Taliban.

In the streets and shops of this sprawling city, many residents say they have virtually stopped going out at night. Wealthy families and traders such as Kunduzai have reported dozens of kidnappings for ransom this year -- often by gangs they believe to be members of the security forces.

The burgeoning drug trade, by which Afghan opium reaches international markets and provides more than 75 percent of the world's heroin, has brought ever-more weapons and wealth into the criminal orbit, corrupting cooperative officials and eliminating scrupulous ones.

Two weeks ago, Alim Hanif, the chief judge of the country's Central Narcotics Tribunal and a man known for rare honesty in a graft-ridden system, was assassinated in Kabul. Officials said he had received numerous phone and text messages warning him to acquit a suspected drug dealer or face death.

Another problem is the continued sway of militia bosses who fought Soviet troops in the 1980s and still command groups of armed loyalists in the capital and other cities. According to diplomatic reports, some of these groups are involved in private security forces that extort money from wealthy businesspeople; others are police or other public security officers who use their uniforms and weapons to abet a variety of crimes.

"The government is weak, and it has an enormously high level of tolerance for crime, abuse and corruption," said Nader Nadery, an official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "If you have power and money, you don't have to account for your actions. Instead of the rule of law, there is a state of impunity, which is one of the factors contributing to the growth of the Taliban."

Although Taliban fighters routinely hang and behead people in rural areas, the growth of crime and the lack of justice are the reasons most frequently cited by Afghans who support the reconstituted Islamist militia. More and more, people here look back to the era of harsh Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, describing it as a time of security and peace.

One group whose lives and livelihoods now face constant danger from armed criminals are the truckers and bus drivers who ply the highways between Kabul and the major provincial cities of Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad. Although vulnerable to Taliban attack, the drivers say they are just as often ambushed and robbed by well-armed thieves.

Mohammed Hussain, 40, was driving one of two passenger buses traveling together on a lonely stretch of highway from Herat to Kabul last week when heavily armed men attacked about 4 a.m. The gang shot at Hussain's fleeing bus, leaving bullet holes in the windows, and stopped the second bus, forcing it off the road and into a village. There they searched every passenger at gunpoint, confiscating money and jewelry.

"I was lucky. I had 57 passengers, including women and children," Hussain said. "The thieves wait for us in the dark, and they have powerful weapons. If we go to the police for help, they are either scared or involved in crime themselves. In the Taliban time, the roads were totally safe. You could drive anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day. Now, you take your life in your hands every time you leave on a trip."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company