The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghanistan’s one-man crusade to combat Kabul’s crime wave

The remains of a popular restaurant demolished by the government for encroaching on city park land in Kabul. (Pamela Constable for The Washington Post)

KABUL — For years, the burger restaurant was a popular anchor in the Afghan capital's upscale shopping zone, with alpine murals, twinkling lights and a hearty, affordable menu. But late one recent night, after the busy district had shut down, government bulldozers smashed the eatery to rubble.

The demolition of Shahr-e Now Burger marked the dramatic debut of a citywide anti-crime crusade headed by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh. It was launched in early October in response to growing public alarm as an explosion of robberies, killings and drug-related crimes has swept Kabul, a city of more than 4 million, in recent months.

But Saleh, a tough-talking former national intelligence chief, has a sweeping vision of crime and an ambitious goal to tackle it in all forms. His announced targets range from pickpockets to land-grabbers, and from unregistered vehicle owners to powerful politicians who insult police at traffic stops or pressure them to free detained suspects.

Crime has been increasing in Kabul for several years, since the war economy collapsed with the pullout of foreign troops and projects. Thousands of residents lost jobs and drug addiction soared while the government was preoccupied with fighting the Taliban. Now, officials are grappling with a stalled peace process and a rash of attacks by the Taliban and other extremist groups, most recently an armed assault on the large Kabul University campus Monday that left 22 dead.

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In September, President Ashraf Ghani asked Saleh to spearhead a short-term crackdown on city crime and bolster public confidence. Nobody expects he’ll be able to dismantle webs of criminal networks in a short time, but Saleh hopes to prove that even small gestures can set big examples, whether bulldozing an illegal cafe or confiscating an unregistered car.

In the Shahr-e Now Burger case, the alleged offense was that the restaurant had been operating illegally on city land that was set aside for a public park. The owners claim they had regularly paid rent and taxes and were targeted unfairly; the government claims they had ignored repeated orders to shut down the establishment.

Saleh, 49, is using equally unorthodox and attention-grabbing methods to go after violent street crime. In late October, hundreds of “wanted” banners appeared across the city, with enormous photos of alleged robbers and killers, along with their names, aliases and messages asking the public to help authorities catch criminals and keep the city safe.

He is also promoting other forms of public collaboration, such as creating youth police scout groups and networks of local informants — tactics that can have authoritarian overtones but that Saleh views as helpful for improving rapport with city residents, who often see the police as corrupt, abusive and distant.

“The people of this city are thirsty for security, but we need their support. They have lost trust in us and we have to build it back,” Saleh told a recent meeting with Kabul’s 18 police precinct commanders. They must now report every morning at 6:30 sharp to his office, where he listens to their concerns and responds with a motivational mix of reprimand, advice and praise.

A forceful, outspoken figure who has survived two assassination attempts, Saleh has drawn criticism from human rights groups for acting too harshly, and from political rivals who say he is on an ego trip. But while others might be daunted by the challenge of restoring law and order in an increasingly chaotic and crime-ridden city, he seems to relish the task.

“Let all the heat fall on me, not you,” he reassured the police captains seated around the conference table. “Don’t worry when the VIPs get rude and aggressive with you. Don’t worry if a minister stops you. Let it be my problem, not yours.”

The link between sidewalk muggers or drug sellers and wealthy, influential Afghans who roar around the capital in dark-tinted SUVs may not seem immediately apparent. But officials say much of the street-crime wave is controlled by bosses with political connections, whose patrons are easily able to intimidate or bribe police.

In Dasht-i-Barchi, a crowded, working-class district that has suffered from frequent terrorist bombings and proliferating street crime, residents said they had seen the “wanted” banners strung across intersections, but that they would never dare to pass on information about a local criminal, for fear that the person would get released and take revenge.

“People are afraid to raise their voices,” said Fazl Ahmad, 33, a driver waiting near an education center, now guarded by rings of armed police, where a suicide bomber killed 24 people on Oct. 24. “People are scared of the Taliban, but they don’t live here,” he said. “Thieves are everywhere, grabbing money and phones. How can a poster help?”

Less than a mile away, a small pharmacy stood beside a dusty alley, its door padlocked. No police were in sight. Until Oct. 11, a young doctor named Sayed Muzaffer Haidari worked there, often treating patients in the evenings. That night, a group of robbers grabbed him outside, stabbed him multiple times and slit his throat, then stole his phone and wallet and escaped on a motorbike.

Haidar Shah, 45, who owns a grocery next door, witnessed the killing and was still visibly shaken two weeks later. Like other nearby merchants, he said he was now closing up before dark. He said people want to help the police fight crime, but that political pressure and corruption often intervene.

“When a criminal is caught and reaches the police station, in a few minutes the police get a call from some powerful person and he is released,” Shah said. “If the government is serious about changing this, it would help a lot. Otherwise, the whole new program is just a dream.”

Kabul’s mayor, Daoud Sultanzoy, said he strongly supports the anti-crime project but that it faces a daunting array of problems, from the recent release of thousands of imprisoned Taliban fighters to the hidden “chains of relationships” that protect criminal behavior.

“The key is to bring sustainable change, but we have just a few months to give people a taste of it,” Sultanzoy said. “We are not living in a normal time. People are worried what will happen in the peace talks and the American election. There is such a heightened sense of vulnerability that even a single mugging becomes a big deal. We have to prove we can govern. Then people will respond.”

Saleh’s theory of small changes having a big impact is also evident in his relations with Kabul’s police force. Hoping to improve their morale and performance, he has instituted a code of conduct that includes keeping uniforms neat and avoiding the appearance of collusion, such as dining with a member of parliament.

At the recent morning meeting, one police commander said he had gone to meet with a local political official at his request, and Saleh interrupted him. “You made a mistake,” he said. “If he calls you to come and solve a problem, let him come to you. Do not lose your dignity.”

In Shahr-e Now, where poor children have spent recent days picking through mounds of twisted metal, concrete and glass where the restaurant had stood, some onlookers said the authorities had gone too far and had disrupted the area’s economy. But a retired man who sells used books on the sidewalk nearby had a different view.

“I think they have done a great thing. This park should belong to the people, not to the businessmen,” said Abdul Samedi, 69, as he swept glass shards away from his spot. “People should be able to sit here in peace, have a picnic and maybe read a book.”

A Kabul student survived an attack on his classroom. Two years later, his brother died in a suicide bombing at the same place.

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