By Joshua Partlow and Jabeen Bhatti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 6, 2010; A09
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- The newly appointed top official in Marja, Abdul Zahir Aryan, is the Afghan face of the American-led military offensive. As the lone government representative in this town, he stands at the center of the next phase of the battle: the fight to build an Afghan government that is more attractive than Taliban rule.
But Zahir, who goes by Haji Zahir, arrived at this position after a tumultuous personal history that American and Afghan officials have not publicly disclosed. During more than a decade living in Germany, Zahir, 60, served four years in prison for attempted murder after stabbing his stepson, according to U.S. officials.
Three top U.S. officials in Afghanistan and one senior administration official in Washington confirmed his German conviction, though none would speak on the record. They did not say if the Afghan or U.S. government had known of his criminal conviction before Afghan officials appointed him to his post.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan said Zahir's criminal conviction did not undermine their confidence in his ability to govern.
"He served his time, so I suspect he will survive this," a U.S. military official said, adding though that the U.S. government had expressed concern to the Afghan government about this issue.
His criminal record casts a different light on Zahir than the one American officials have chosen to emphasize: that of a respected elder from the Alozai tribe, a landowner who lived in Marja in his youth and who hopes to re-create those peaceful days in areas recently wrested from Taliban control. U.S. Marines and civilian advisers in Marja have given him money and protection in an attempt to persuade a wary population to follow him.
"We want to ensure that Haji Zahir's face is on everything we do," said one official who works with him in Marja.
In interviews this week in Marja, Zahir spoke about the years he spent in exile living outside Frankfurt, sometimes unemployed, sometimes working in laundries and hotels. He chatted in German at length with a U.S. Marine who spoke the language.
He could not be reached subsequently to discuss his time in prison. But the details of his case as described by U.S. officials in Afghanistan correspond to that of an Afghan man who went by Abdul Zahar while in Germany.
The account of Zahar's life and trial in Germany, as related in newspaper articles and confirmed by German officials this week, including his defense attorney, Manfred Doering, described a man with a volatile family life and a willingness to flee from justice. He arrived in Germany in 1989 after working as a Ministry of Defense driver in Afghanistan. He settled in Rodgau with at least two wives and 13 children -- including twin 18-year-old stepsons.
On Dec. 15, 1997, after beating his wife and being taken to task by his stepson for it, Zahar went to the home of a stepdaughter and stabbed the stepson in the chest and an arm, wounds that required hospitalization.
Zahar fled to Holland and the Czech Republic and was later arrested at the German-Polish border near Goerlitz on Jan 7, 1998. At the trial, which began nine months later, Zahar took a plea bargain and was sentenced in November 1998 to four years and nine months in prison, according to German officials.
Zahir, the Marja official, was deported to Pakistan in 2003, according to U.S. officials in Afghanistan.
German officials said they could not confirm that Abdul Zahar is the same man who is now the top official in Marja.
"I have no knowledge or way of confirming that this is the same man," said Annette von Schmiedeberg, the spokeswoman for the Darmstadt prosecutors' office in Offenbach, near Frankfurt. Doering, who served as Zahar's attorney, said he had seen a photograph in the press of the new Marja official and expressed doubts it was his old client, although he said he could not be sure.
American officials could not confirm details of Zahir's case but said he served four years in prison for stabbing his stepson while living in Germany, before being deported to Pakistan.
His new role as the top official in Marja, however, is a more urgent priority than any concerns about his criminal record, according to U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan.
A senior U.S. military official in southern Afghanistan said, "I don't think it is a big deal if the Afghan [government] is satisfied that he is the right guy. He is on the job now and already making a difference."
As the planning accelerated last fall in preparation for the military offensive, the governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, selected Zahir to take over in Marja. He was considered a good choice because he owned land in Marja and elsewhere in Helmand, was a tribal elder and had worked in local government in the province.
Since Zahir has taken over, he has been thrust into a series of meetings with local elders, mullahs and residents. Maj. David Fennell, who leads the civil affairs team for one of the Marine battalions in Marja, said the local reaction to Zahir has been "definitely mixed."
"I think there's a respect there," he said. "But the people don't necessarily look at him as a local power broker."
Zahir said he hopes to have about 50 people eventually working in the Marja government, including representatives from the central ministries. His office has been approved for seven staff members -- including an administrative assistant, cook, maid, and driver, though for the moment he relies on U.S. and British civilian advisers, along with the Marines.
"I think things are going well. The people are happy," he said. "They have a new and honest government."
Bhatti, a special correspondent, reported from Berlin.