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Afghan colonel vital to U.S. despite graft allegations

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 3:04 AM

IN SPIN BOLDAK, AFGHANISTAN When Abdul Razziq, a colonel in the Afghan Border Police, walks through the chockablock bazaar in this sand-swept trading hub on the frontier with Pakistan, he is mobbed by a crowd that deferentially addresses him as General Razziq. Young boys want his photograph. Gray-bearded men offer him tea. Merchants refuse to sell him anything - if he wants a bottle of cologne, he gets it for free.

U.S. officials say Razziq, who is illiterate and just 32, presides over a vast corruption network that skims customs duties, facilitates drug trafficking and smuggles other contraband. But, he also has managed to achieve a degree of security here that has eluded U.S. troops elsewhere in the country: His force of 3,000 uniformed policemen and several thousand militiamen pursue the Taliban so relentlessly that Spin Boldak has become the safest and most prosperous district in southern Afghanistan.

Despite the allegations of graft, which he denies, Razziq represents the Obama administration's best hope for maintaining stability in this important part of Afghanistan. Keeping Spin Boldak quiet, which allows more U.S. and Afghan forces to be employed elsewhere, is critical to fulfilling the president's pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next summer.

"Is it a long-term solution? That's for others to decide," said the top NATO commander in the south, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter. "But it is a pragmatic solution. . .He's Afghan good-enough."

Meanwhile, U.S. and NATO officials have begun an ambitious plan to reform Razziq, hoping they can turn him into a more savory strongman. They are attempting to chaperone him, to offer incentives aimed at improving his behavior, and to set down new rules to compel him to put less money in his own pocket and more in the national treasury.

"We're trying to promote integrity by watching his operations a whole lot more closely, but we don't want him to stop doing all of the good things that he's doing," said U.S. Army Special Forces Col. Robert Waltemeyer, who runs a border coordination center here with representatives of the Afghan and Pakistan security forces. "We want to capitalize on his leadership."

The question of what to do about Razziq has vexed U.S. and NATO officials. Some have advocated for his ouster to demonstrate a hard line against graft, while others have argued that he be left alone because his force, which is more than five times the size of the U.S. military presence here, provides vital security for NATO supply convoys heading into Kandahar.

"If we didn't have him, we'd be screwed," a U.S. Army officer said during a visit here in August. "It wouldn't be this quiet."

Razziq, a lanky man with a close-cropped beard, is the chief of the Achakzais, one of the two principal tribes in this part of southern Afghanistan. His position as local strongman could have sparked the kind of conflict over power and resources that has driven people in other places to ally themselves with the Taliban. But thus far, Razziq has managed to spread the spoils deftly to avoid an open rebellion by the rival Noorzai tribe.

"He's like this Robin Hood figure who appears from nowhere, takes money and uses it to meet [the people's] needs," said Lt. Col. Andrew Green, the commander of a U.S. Army infantry battalion in Spin Boldak. "He picks favorites, for sure, but he's smart enough not to make too many enemies, which isn't something you can say about every power broker in Afghanistan."

Razziq has begun to extend his influence west toward Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and the site of major U.S. military operations against the Taliban. Dozens of his men have participated in Afghan-led operations in recent weeks to flush the insurgents out of sanctuaries to the north and south of the city. One Afghan official said that Razziq's force is prized by the government because its well-paid members fight more ably than most Afghan soldiers.

Razziq and his men also are valued because he is fiercely loyal to President Hamid Karzai and his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the chairman of the Kandahar province council. Razziq owes his job and control over the border crossing to the president, and several U.S. officials said he repays that debt by funneling proceeds from corrupt activities to people linked to the Karzai brothers.

The officials also said they have credible reports that Razziq countenanced widespread fraud in support of the Karzais in last year's presidential election and last month's parliamentary election. Several boxes stuffed with identically marked ballots for President Karzai were stored in his house overnight for what he deemed "safekeeping."

"Razziq is the poster child for all that is wrong with Afghanistan's government," said a civilian adviser working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan who opposes working with him. "He's a militia leader who denies people the right to vote. What sort of message are we sending by keeping him in power?"

Stabilizing force

That concern prompted senior officials at the NATO military headquarters in Kabul to call for Razziq's removal late last year as the first step in the overall campaign to improve the quality of government in Kandahar and surrounding areas.

The commanders in Kandahar pushed back, citing Razziq's cooperation with international forces and his willingness to conduct independent operations against the Taliban, which few Afghan units are able or willing to do. "If we pulled him out of there, our control of the border would have collapsed," said a senior U.S. official who advocated for Razziq.

Ultimately, it was the need to ensure that trucks bearing military equipment could travel to Kandahar unimpeded that led then-Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to decide that Razziq could stay. The general traveled to Spin Boldak twice to meet with the self-proclaimed general and deliver a mixed message: You need to help us, and you need to reform.

U.S. officials then told Razziq not to interfere in the customs process. Duties and other fees would have to be collected by authorized personnel, not his men. He also was warned to keep his force operating within the border police's mandate, which allows independent operations along the frontier but not into other parts of the country.

To reduce opportunities for graft, the U.S. and Canadian governments are spending $20 million to build a new customs facility that is separate from the border police station. They eventually hope to have truckers pay duties electronically, a tall order in a nation where inspections still are conducted by jabbing a wooden stick into the cargo compartment.

In an interview at the main U.S. base here, Razziq insisted he is not corrupt and denounced allegations of malfeasance as "just rumors."

"I don't need money," he said. "I have everything I need. Everyone likes me and respects me."

Confronting 'enigma'

The centerpiece of the new American approach has been an attempt to watch over him by assigning him a mentor. After concluding that the previous U.S. battalion commander in Spin Boldak had grown too close to Razziq, senior American officials sent in Waltemeyer. His goal, which he spelled out in a memo to his superiors, was to "redirect [Razziq's] energies from day-to-day influence at the. . .border crossing point" to more traditional law-enforcement activities.

As Razziq walked through the main market in Spin Boldak on a recent morning, there was little indication that his sway has been attenuated. A throng of well-wishers and supplicants gathered around him as he walked from stall to stall.

"How are you?" he said to every shopkeeper as he reached over to hug them. "Do you need any help?"

One man complained about the erratic supply of electricity. Another asked about the construction of a new school. Several merchants thrust business cards in his hand, imploring him to find jobs for their relatives.

"He is responsible for everything good here," said Mohammed Qasim, a television vendor.

As the merchants spilled out of their shops to greet Razziq, one asked another to keep watch on his wares. "Don't worry,'' Razziq said. "The thieves do not dare steal in front of me."

An aide followed behind with a phone glued to his ear. He said Razziq has seven mobile phones, one of which is a dedicated line for top officials from Kabul and Kandahar.

"You can see the enigma he presents," Waltemeyer said.

Razziq scoffed at U.S. attempts to confine him to security patrolling along the border. "My duties are universal," he said.

Some U.S. officials said Razziq has been emboldened by a lack of coordination among international troops. U.S. Special Operations Forces have encouraged him to conduct the very sorts of combat missions that other officers have told him to avoid, the officials said. "Our messages to him are not consistent," the U.S. Army officer here said.

Because Razziq's speed-dial includes everyone from Karzai to senior U.S. officers, he has not been timid about trying to change the terms of his relationship with his foreign partners. After repeated requests to work with someone other than Waltemeyer - Razziq wanted a "partner" with more forces at his disposal, not a "mentor" - commanders in southern Afghanistan recently assigned the task to a U.S. Army colonel who has more soldiers. But that colonel also has less time to watch over him than his previous minder.

With security a non-issue in Spin Boldak, U.S. and NATO officers seem willing to forgo some of the supervision they once envisioned. "As long as we don't catch him moving trucks full of opium through the desert, we'll let him slide," the Army officer said. "If his men are shaking people down on the highway, well, that's just the way it's done here. It's no different from toll booths on the highways back home."

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