The Afghan Robin Hood
Monday, October 4, 2010
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, which he denies, Razziq represents the Obama administration's best hope for maintaining stability in this vital 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 start 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.