Western forces target the Taliban, but for many Afghans the biggest threat comes from criminals and complicitous police
by Mark Sappenfield and Anand Gopal
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Hajji Habib Lal is a successful businessman in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, importing fine ceramic plates from Germany and France. He also owns an AK-47 assault rifle.
Mr. Lal’s son has already been kidnapped once – returned after 13 days for a $20,000 ransom. But Lal still gets death threats by phone, and a few days ago, thieves tried to break into his house. Only a few randomly fired shots from the AK-47 stopped them.
For the Afghans whose hearts and minds America and its allies are trying to win, the greatest enemy in many cases is not the Taliban, but criminals and the police who are often seen as being complicitous with them.
Even in areas where the government holds sway, law and order is rapidly deteriorating, stoking the frustrations that feed Afghanistan’s insurgency.
“Our perception of security priorities is different from that of the vast majority of Afghans,” says Andrew Wilder, author of “Cops or Robbers?” a 2007 report on police reform for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank in Kabul.
The steady decline in law and order – particularly murders and kidnappings – has accelerated this year. In the prosperous western trading hub of Herat, rising crime has led investors to pull out of the area. Some 150 of the province’s 250 factories have closed, according to the Union of Herat, a traders association. The province’s parliamentary delegation has threatened to resign if the government does address the situation.
In Kabul, a Christian aid worker and two businessmen have been shot in recent weeks. Kidnappings have also become commonplace, with a prominent banker, a relative of the former king, and two foreign workers – including a Canadian journalist – abducted over the past few months. The journalist, Mellissa Fung, was freed after four weeks. But many businessmen are fleeing.
Hafizullah Sherzay might soon be among them. The construction-company owner has lived through the worst of Afghanistan’s recent history. Neither a civil war nor the Taliban’s austere regime compelled him to leave.
Yet after seeing many friends and colleagues kidnapped in recent months, he says he is seriously considering moving to Dubai. “If this security situation persists, it will be impossible to stay,” he says.
Earlier this year, criminals abducted the nephew of Mr. Sherzay’s business partner. The family paid a $400,000 ransom and left the country.
About 60 businessmen are kidnapped per year, mostly by organized criminal syndicates that demand huge ransoms, according to the Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce. With many businesses wary of entering such an environment, private investment in the country dropped almost by half from 2006 to 2007, estimates the Afghan Investment Support Agency, based in Kabul.
“Businessmen are coming to us and complaining about security,” says Salaam Qazizada, one of the ministers of parliament from Herat who has threatened to quit. “Everyone who has the money to do so is leaving the country.”
The government is trying to address his concerns. Last month, the Ministry of Interior sent a commission to Herat to investigate the lawlessness and announced the creation of an antikidnapping police unit.
But many lawmakers and experts worry that the police are a significant part of the problem. Some members of parliament have accused police officials of releasing convicted criminals for bribes. In evidence of this, security officials revealed that gang members only recently released from prison kidnapped a wealthy former presidential candidate last month.
Corruption in the Afghan police force is “pervasive,” a 2008 RAND Corp. study found, based on interviews with US and NATO officials involved in police training from 2004 to this year.
The Afghan government headed by President Hamid Karzai has been unwilling to take strong action against corruption in the Ministry of Interior, which governs the police, say Mr. Wilder and others. This has been compounded by a lack of oversight from the international community, which has focused on counterinsurgency.
“Local law and order were their concerns, not ours,” says Wilder.
There are signs that this is changing. In 2007, the US earmarked $2.5 billion for the police, more than it did from 2002 to 2006 combined. Moreover, mounting pressure on Mr. Karzai forced him to replace his Interior Minister last month – a move hailed by the UN’s top envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, as helping strengthen the Afghan police.
For his part, businessman Lal in Kandahar says there is much work to be done. “This [current government] is a government of thieves,” he says. “During the Taliban rule we never had these sorts of problems…. I’m not defending the Taliban movement, but we have to accept the truth that there were never any problems for civilians and businessmen.”
He went to the police for help, but he says they did nothing. Instead, he says he traveled to Herat himself to uncover the criminal syndicate that abducted his son. “I showed the thieves to the [intelligence agency], who arrested them,” he says.
He could leave for Dubai, but feels bound to stay and protect all his family. “If I leave and abandon my sisters, my parents, and my land it will be a big shame for me,” he says.
So he goes with his children every day to school and picks them up afterward. If his family goes shopping, he joins them.
“I don’t have any enemies, only criminals that try to harass me,” he adds. “But everyone in Afghanistan has this problem, so why should I leave?”