KABUL — In a war-weary country steeped in cynicism, the re-energized Major Crimes Task Force of the national police seems plucked from central casting — down to the hard-boiled search for justice as it pursues the goal of rooting out government corruption in Afghanistan.
There’s the sharply dressed detective, guzzling pomegranate energy drinks while working into the night to nail the crooked cop suspected of selling off $140,000 worth of fuel meant for Afghan troops on the Taliban front lines.
There’s the team’s savvy but beleaguered boss, navigating a shark’s den of Kabul power brokers — some of whom the task force happens to be investigating for theft and bribery — in his efforts to get cases prosecuted and his 130 men more resources.
And, on the sidelines, there are the international donors, who watch with guarded hope as the FBI-designed team — once nearly dismantled for being ineffective — has become a central part of President Ashraf Ghani’s vow to reform the nation’s criminal justice system and give Afghans a much-yearned-for sense of security.
“We are like eagles; we’re waiting for our prey,” said Afghan National Police General Abdul Ghayor Andarabi, the task force boss. He was recently appointed to lead the team after it focused for years on what one NATO official disdainfully characterized as “stolen-license-plate cases.”
With Ghani shifting resources to focus more on the corruption he called “our national shame” in a speech in May, Andarabi proclaimed that his team could take down much of Afghanistan’s criminal underworld if it could only get new wiretap kits, button cameras, machines for lifting evidence from a suspect’s phone and, mainly, more manpower.
“We need resources,” the stocky general said inside a cavernous government warehouse on Kabul’s outskirts that serves as the task force’s headquarters. “We have been told we have full support from top officials. We’ll see if that happens in practice.”
NATO officials, at least, want that. They plan to highlight the Major Crimes Task Force at an international summit on Afghanistan to be held in July in Warsaw, where they will seek commitments for $4 billion more in annual security funding through 2020.
That summit, plus another one scheduled for October in Brussels that will address about $3 billion requested for Afghan reconstruction funds, may be Afghanistan’s last chance for significant aid from an international community frustrated by the lack of successes after several billion dollars already spent.
“It’s very important that we as the international community really focus on how we can support this government to govern independently,” said Douglas Keh, country director for the United Nations Development Program in Afghanistan, which runs a law-and-order trust fund that finances the Afghan National Police with $45 million per month.
“International aid has already started to decline and is likely to fall significantly over the next four years,” Keh said. “Then, what happens?”
U.S. Army Col. Craig Trebilcock, a judge in York County, Pa., working with NATO to help restructure Afghanistan’s law enforcement system, said the changes will allow prosecutors, judges and investigators to work in tandem on major cases.
“In the current system, where corruption really flourishes is in the gaps between the ministries,” Trebilcock said. “Because they don’t communicate and coordinate with each other very well, there is an opportunity anytime a case moves from one stage to the next for it to be lost track of, bribed away, or dismissed under some obscure and inane technicality.”
Maj. Abdul Tawab Aryan, an FBI-trained investigator, is at the spear point of the fight against corruption.
With Hollywood-ready looks and a taste for tailored suits, Aryan, 34, wears the jaded expression he saw on detectives played by Vin Diesel or Jean-Claude Van Damme in the American action movies that inspired him to join the Afghan National Police in 2007.
After several hard years in the provinces, he now runs the anti-corruption unit inside the Major Crimes Task Force.
Among the 87 cases the task force has brought to the Afghan attorney general’s office since February, the anti-corruption unit has arrested government prosecutors for soliciting bribes, police officials smuggling weapons and others in the government running counterfeit money operations.
One recent afternoon, Aryan took a swig of his tangy energy drink and grumbled about how he rarely gets to see his wife, 3-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter amid the constant pressure to work harder.
“My son, he can’t recognize his father,” he said, smiling softly.
He then dug into the case that is his latest obsession: a caper in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province where the provincial police chief — Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Fayeq — allegedly orchestrated the theft of about 60,000 gallons of government fuel meant for Afghan troops fighting the Taliban.
The chief did not respond to phone calls for comment but has claimed innocence in local news reports.
Aryan got a tip about the scheme from a paid informant. After he drove out to the Kapisa police station, he realized that someone had fabricated documents showing that the fuel went to government troops in various parts of the country.
In reality, the insider thieves had sold the fuel to a local pump station over several months, Aryan said.
“They saw me as a young, ambitious officer who might take money to stop investigating,” Aryan remarked, leafing through examples of the fake paperwork in a thick file that shows that additional fuel is still missing. “I showed some leniency to make them think I was eager to get paid. But, slowly, I kept investigating.”
The suspects were arrested in April. But the police chief, who has friends in the Afghan parliament, was back at his job within hours.
Aryan ruefully recalled how Fayeq smirked at him during a three-hour interrogation.
“He was sure he had some backers who would help him,” Aryan said. “He was correct.”
On average, Afghan police officers make between $176 and $221 per month, officials said. Major crimes detectives make between $294 and $353 per month.
Last year, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that a large portion of $300 million in payments meant for national police salaries could not be verified as actually having gone to the officers.
The report concluded that the money was either being skimmed by superiors or that payroll rosters were inflated with “ghost employees” who existed only on paper.
“If you look upstream and all you see happening is your work being auctioned off to the highest bidder, at a certain point you’re going to go: ‘Hmm, maybe I should be part of this because that’s how the system works around here,’ ” said Trebilcock, the NATO adviser.
Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the national police, said those problems are isolated. He noted that about 3,000 new recruits per month have signed on with national police during the past year.
“We do understand that they’re not getting a good salary for what they do,” Sediqqi said. “But we strongly believe that there is a willingness within the Afghan people to be part of this establishment.”
Doing something, anything, about the crime that has spread like weeds through their country feels satisfying, several of the hard-bitten detectives said — even if Andarabi calls their successes “a drop in the ocean.”
In the past few weeks, the team arrested a government prosecutor in Kabul who allegedly solicited several thousand dollars in bribes in exchange for dropping cases.
They also arrested the leaders of a kidnapping ring that earlier this year killed a 14-year-old boy after his father, a judge in Kapisa province, could not come up with $40,000 in ransom money.
“I think during the night about the sheer volume of cases,” said Maj. Mohammad Younus Mohammadkhel, who has investigated 10 abductions since March — with the victims including deputy ministers, businessmen and foreign-aid workers.
“The main goal of our team is to prevent such incidents,” said Mohammadkhel, fingering a picture of the dead boy.
There was good news that day for Aryan. The Kapisa police chief had been suspended from his job, a sign that he had lost support in Kabul.
Soon, Aryan said, trying out his English, “he will be in jail.”
Around him, his men went back to work.