[R-G] Undercover with Afghanistan's drug-trafficking border police

Sid Shniad shniad at gmail.com
Sat Nov 21 11:23:24 MST 2009

Harper's Magazine
         December 2009

Letter from Kandahar
The master of Spin Boldak

Undercover with Afghanistan's drug-trafficking border police

*After the first round of national elections closed on August 20, the men
forcibly took Spin Boldak’s ballot boxes into his house for “safekeeping”
overnight. It was just one of the many reports of electoral fraud in
Kandahar Province, which polled overwhelmingly for President Karzai,
according to the independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. The count
from Spin Boldak’s polling stations: Karzai, 8,341; his main challenger, Dr.
Abdullah Abdullah, 4.*

By Matthieu Aikins <http://www.harpers.org/subjects/MatthieuAikins>

Matthieu Aikins is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York

When I arrived in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan
Province, I found the city’s old bazaar shuttered in preparation for Ashura,
an important day of mourning in the Shia calendar. In the past, Ashura had
served as an occasion for sectarian fighting in Quetta, and so a cordon had
been erected; I had to seek police permission, I was told, in order to
photograph the procession. The following day, still dressed in Western
clothes, I set off on foot from my hotel toward the courthouse. Perhaps
because tourists have become a rare sight in this violent city, a Toyota
Land Cruiser stopped just ahead of me and two men in the front beckoned to
me. Their plump, clean–shaven faces were unthreatening, so I walked over to
chat. When they learned I was a foreign visitor, they invited me for a
sumptuous lunch, and later we drove around the city’s crowded bazaars and
toured a restricted area of the military cantonment. I decided not to
introduce myself as a journalist; they seemed to accept that I was simply a
young traveler interested in poking around their rough corner of the world.

A few days later, one of the men, Jahanzeb, introduced me to his cousin,
Sikander, who soon began taking me out around the city himself. As I had
already discovered, Pashtuns are a frank and friendly lot with visitors, and
one night, cruising around in the Lexus that Sikander used as a mobile
office, he confided to me that he was shipping forty *mon,* or two metric
tons, of opium once a month from the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak. The
drugs were carried by a convoy, a few dozen heavily armed men in Land
Cruisers, through the desert into Baluchistan and then into Iran. Although
the police in Afghanistan and Pakistan were bribed to give the convoy safe
passage, the Iranian police were not, and encounters with them out in the
desolate borderlands often turned into violent, desperate battles. Once the
convoy made it across the border, the opium was delivered to a group of
Iranian Baluchis. Sikander didn’t accompany the convoys personally, but by
organizing and funding the operation, he said, he was making between
$125,000 and $250,000 in profits each trip.

At twenty-seven, Sikander was prematurely owlish, with shaggy coarse dark
hair, a full mouth, and sly, almond eyes. His lanky frame moved with grace,
and he handled guns and luxury vehicles with confident ease. Sikander’s
father also was a smuggler, slain by rivals when Sikander was a child. But
his family remained well connected with top police officials in Baluchistan,
and they, together with his ties to fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan, allowed
him to carry on his lucrative operation.

The most important of Sikander’s connections was Colonel Abdul Razik, the
leader of a tribal militia and border police force that extends across
Kandahar and Helmand provinces—which produce 80 percent of Afghanistan’s
opium, which in turn is nearly 90 percent of the world’s crop. Sikander was
taking care to cultivate his relationship with the colonel. “I am growing a
baby tiger,” he told me. “When it gets large, I will gift it to Razik.” At
thirty years of age, Razik was the most powerful Afghan Border Police
officer in the southern part of the country—a former child refugee who
scrambled to power during the post-9/11 chaos, his rise abetted by a ring of
crooked officials in Kabul and Kandahar as well as by overstretched NATO
commanders who found his control over a key border town useful in their war
against the Taliban. With his prodigious wealth, loyal soldiers, and
connections to top government officials, Razik was seen as a ruthless,
charismatic figure, a man who brooked no opposition to his will. I asked
Sikander if he would take me to Afghanistan for a day to show me Razik’s
operation, and he agreed.

Two months later, on a hazy morning this past March, we arrived in the town
of Chaman after four hours on a crumbling road over the Khojak Pass. The
town’s Afghan counterpart, Spin Boldak, sits just a few kilometers away,
separated by a high concrete arch and a few dozen rifle-toting guards. As we
paused for a break, squatting down in the dust of a truck yard for a late
breakfast of bread and sour butter, the deep boom of an explosion echoed
from the direction of the border. We all cringed at the sound. Sikander
swept up the blanket we were eating on, and we walked back though the
hard-packed, greasy yard to the car. A consultation ensued with a man
dressed, like us, in a traditional long tunic; he leaned in through the
driver’s window to speak urgently in Pashto.

“It is confirmed,” Sikander said after the man left. He swiveled around to
where I sat in the back seat with Jahanzeb, his cousin. His lips were pursed
together. “There was an explosion at the border,” he told me. Jahanzeb,
younger and with more delicate features, fixed his eyes on me as well.

“Oh, Matthieu,” he said mournfully. “You are a big problem.” They had
planned to avoid formalities by smuggling me across the border; now, because
of the explosion, the guards would be on high alert. A few more of
Sikander’s friends came over to the car, and as they began to discuss a
plan, Jahanzeb turned to me occasionally to ask questions in English. Do you
want to go back? Do you want to go across on a motorcycle? I didn’t want to
go back—it had taken me weeks of hanging around Quetta to arrange the
trip—so we decided that Sikander and Jahanzeb would go ahead and send for me

After a few tense hours in Chaman, a white Corolla with a gold plastic
armani air-freshener on its dashboard arrived for me. The driver, tall and
clean-shaven with a gap-toothed smile, looked me over as we accelerated
north. “Do you speak Pashto?” he asked me. I shook my head. “Urdu?”

“I speak Persian,” I offered in that language.

“Then just don’t say anything,” he muttered in Dari, the Afghan dialect of
Persian. He examined my half-Asian features and wiry beard, which together
gave me the look of an Afghan from the north—an Uzbek or Hazara, perhaps—and
then placed his red embroidered cap, a typical Pashtun accessory, on my

At the checkpoint, cutting into a side lane, my driver wove, honked, and
waved his way past the black-clad Pakistani and camouflage-clad Afghan
guards. They waved back in recognition. We drove around the arch and onto a
wide, rough-paved highway swirling with dust and traffic. “How are you, my
dear?” the driver asked in Dari, grinning widely. “This is Afghanistan!”

On the latest United Nations Department of Safety and Security map, which
color-codes Afghanistan to denote levels of risk for U.N. operations, we
would have been, just then, in a tiny island of “high” orange surrounded by
a wide sea of “extreme” red. The orange island is Spin Boldak and the road
to Kandahar city; the red sea stretches across most of the provinces of
Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan, and farther to the southeast. This
schema is illustrative of four striking facts. First and foremost, it
depicts how a ferocious and increasingly sophisticated insurgency—the
“neo-Taliban,” as many now call them—has spread across the predominantly
Pashtun south and southeast. Second, that red sea also corresponds with the
indefinite deployment of 20,000 additional U.S. soldiers, sent here during
the months leading up to the eighth anniversary of the 2001 invasion, in
October. Intended to bolster the International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF), a patchwork of different nations, the increase was a belated
recognition of just how badly the country has fared after years of neglect
and mismanagement. Third, all the red regions on the UNDSS map serve as a
rough approximation of the areas with opium under cultivation, representing
a billion-dollar industry whose tentacles grip both the neo-Taliban and the
fledgling Afghan state, from foot soldier to government minister. And last,
our little island of “high” orange in the sea of “extreme” red is Colonel
Razik’s private domain. Together, these four facts—the intensifying
insurgency, the massive deployment of international troops and assistance,
the opium, and Razik’s relatively secure territory—go a long way toward
explaining why an uneducated thirty-year-old warlord remains firmly
entrenched as an ISAF ally and drug trafficker at a crucial border crossing
like Spin Boldak.

The Afghan-Pakistani border region has long been awash in opium, which is
grown in Afghanistan and then generally smuggled west to the Balkans, via
Iran and Turkey, or shipped out of the port of Karachi to the Gulf states
and Africa. The trade boomed during the Eighties, when both the CIA and the
Pakistani government were happy to turn a blind eye to the drug operations
of the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, since it helped fund the war
against the invading Soviet Union. After the Soviets left, the drugs
remained, and since then opium production in Afghanistan has increased
fourteen-fold, from around 500 tons in the mid-1980s to 6,900 tons this
year. Recent counternarcotics efforts have dramatically reduced cultivation
in the north and east of the country, and so both cultivation and
trafficking have shifted to the south, where security is most tenuous.

Like much of Afghan life, drug operations tend to be organized by tribal and
family affiliations. Colonel Razik has built his own militia around his
Adozai, a prominent branch of the Achakzai, a Pashtun tribe. Historically,
the Achakzai, along with a rival tribe, the Noorzai, have controlled the
smuggling routes around the Khojak Pass, one of the two major mountain
passes that connect the Middle East with the Indian subcontinent, the other
being the more famous Khyber.

My driver, as it turned out, was Razik’s paternal cousin, also named Abdul
Razik—a twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant in the Border Police force, whom the
locals, when they want to distinguish him from his slightly older relation,
call Small Razik. Small Razik lived a cross-border existence: he had three
wives and two houses, one in Chaman and one in Spin Boldak, and he carried
both a national-identity card from Pakistan and an Afghan passport.

After stopping to pick up a bearded, heavyset man, we veered off the
pavement, away from the screen of shops that lines the highway and onto a
rutted dirt trail that led us out to the desert. We halted about a hundred
yards from a squat, mud-walled fort flying the Pakistani flag. To the south
were the spindly peaks of the Khojak Pass, which I had just traversed. To
the north and west the desert extended in a haze-shrouded plane stubbled
with rocky outcroppings. “That is Pakistan,” Small Razik said, indicating
the fort. The heavyset man got out, and we watched him amble slowly toward
the border post.

Razik turned to me suddenly. “Do you know what I do?” he asked. “I am a
smuggler.” He said it proudly—it is, after all, the natural heritage of his
tribe, which has straddled the border since the British drew it in 1893. “I
take cars and things to Pakistan.”

Didn’t he have problems with the Pakistani police? I asked. Razik beamed.
“No problems! I just give them money. You see that man?” he said, waving
toward our former passenger, who had by now reached the post. “He is the
commander of that fort.” Razik hopped out and walked after the man, leaving
me alone in the car. As I sat there, a small boy flogging a worn donkey rode
by on a brush-laden cart; out of curiosity, I opened the glove compartment,
and found a garbage bag stuffed with Kalashnikov rounds.

Colonel Abdul Razik’s rise exemplifies a classic Afghan narrative: the
sudden ascent to power through violence and foreign patronage. Born in Spin
Boldak around the time Soviet troops first entered Afghanistan, Razik grew
up during a period of unprecedented social disruption. His family’s fortunes
soared when Esmat Muslim, a warlord from the same Adozai branch of the
Achakzai, came to prominence in the region. A former military officer who
had been trained by the Russians, Esmat became a mujahideen commander during
the early 1980s and organized a force drawn mainly from his tribe; Razik’s
uncle Mansour became one of his principal lieutenants. Notorious for his
treachery and cruelty, Esmat shattered the delicate peace that had existed
between the Achakzai and Noorzai smuggling clans, and he eventually sided
with the Communist government in return for control over the border trade.
In the end, Esmat was driven out of Spin Boldak in 1988 by a combined
mujahideen offensive, and later died of cancer in Moscow.

With the collapse of the central government in the early 1990s, Kandahar
descended into anarchy. Local warlords divided up and pillaged the province.
Even the city of Kandahar itself was split among several commanders, and
throughout the province roads were strangled by hundreds of checkpoints at
which theft, rape, and murder were common.

It was in reaction to such depredations by the warlords that the Taliban
emerged, in 1994, from the districts around Kandahar city. Their first major
victory was the capture of Spin Boldak on October 12, 1994, an event
encouraged by the Pakistani trucking mafia, who saw the group as a means of
clearing the roads north to Central Asia. Consequently, the balance between
the Achakzai, who were linked to the traditional aristocracy, and the
Noorzai, who were more congenial to a radical Islamist movement, swung
again. Noorzai tribal figures such as Mullah Akhtar Jan Noorzai, a former
commander in Spin Boldak, and Hajji Bashir Noorzai, one of the region’s
largest drug smugglers, became influential supporters of the Taliban. (In
April, Bashir Noorzai was sentenced to life in a U.S. prison on
drug–trafficking charges, after having been lured to New York City by
federal agents.) Razik’s uncle Mansour, who had survived Esmat’s departure
by rejoining the mujahideen, was hanged from the gun of a tank north of Spin
Boldak by the Taliban. Razik’s father also was killed, and his family, along
with many Achakzai tribal leaders, fled into exile in Pakistan—until the
U.S.-led invasion arrived like a thunderbolt.

In November of 2001, the CIA paid Gul Agha Shirzai, who had been the
ostensible governor of Kandahar during the chaos before the Taliban, to
assemble an anti-Taliban militia in Quetta with the goal of capturing the
province. Shirzai put together a force that drew mainly on Achakzai
tribesmen. “The Americans said, ‘We will help you take your country back
from the terrorists,’” recalled Fayda Mohammad, the commander of this
Achakzai contingent, when I visited him on a return trip in May at his
modest, somewhat dilapidated two-story house in Spin Boldak. Abdul Razik
also had been part of the unit, but few remember him from that time; he was
then about twenty-two years old and completely obscure. “No one knew who he
was,” said Abdul Wali, a Mohammadzai tribesman who had been a fighter with
the group and later joined the Afghan National Army.

The Americans had given the group cash to buy weapons in Pakistan and
directly supplied more by helicopter—along with a group of Special Forces
soldiers—once the militia had infiltrated Afghanistan and occupied
Takht-e-Pul, a strategic pass between Spin Boldak and Kandahar city. With
U.S. airstrikes clearing the way, Shirzai’s forces advanced to the airport.
The provincial capital itself was in the process of being handed over, after
extensive negotiations between Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, to Mullah
Naqib, a well-respected retired mujahideen commander. But American advisers
had come to believe that Naqib was too close to the Taliban, and so they
encouraged Gul Agha Shirzai—against Karzai’s wishes—to wrest control from
Naqib and retake the governorship of the province. Naqib, fearing U.S.
airpower, backed off.

Shirzai, who is from the Barakzai tribe, had relied heavily on the Achakzai
for muscle, and now they wanted to claim their reward. “There was a deal
between me and Gul Agha,” Fayda told me. “He went to Kandahar city, and he
said, ‘You and your tribe take the security of the border.’”

That summer saw the return of widespread opium cultivation in the south of
Afghanistan, after the Taliban had banned it the year before. With stocks
running low, the price paid to farmers for opium shot up to $250 per kilo at
harvesttime, compared with $28 in 2000. The nascent central government had
little influence; every warlord was running his own small fiefdom, and the
economic incentives were clear. Fayda Mohammad, tasked with policing one of
the world’s largest drug-smuggling routes, soon found his job impossible to
do with any honor. He and his men would stop trucks full of opium or hashish
only to find them under the protection of prominent officials. On one
occasion, he claimed, he was forced into releasing a truck under direct
pressure from a powerful minister in Kabul. Another driver carried a letter
from Bacha Shirzai, Governor Shirzai’s brother.

As a result of his obstinacy, Fayda Mohammad says, he was gradually
marginalized by Gul Agha Shirzai and other players in Kabul and Kandahar. A
number of influential Achakzais I spoke to agreed, describing Fayda as an
honest man in the wrong job; others said that he was simply ineffective at
distributing resources to his tribesmen, who then pushed him out. In any
case, about nine months after his appointment, Fayda left as the top
commander of the Achakzai tribal militia.

A grand Achakzai tribal jirga was convened to choose a replacement, and the
group settled on the twenty-three-year-old Abdul Razik. Since the American
invasion, Razik had distinguished himself in bravery and tactical ability,
and had been made a minor commander. As a candidate for the chief position,
he would dispel any rivalry among the assembled commanders. He seemed simple
and honest, and, since his father and uncle had been killed by the Taliban,
he could be relied on to fight steadfastly against them.

“I said, ‘Among you, this young man Razik looks innocent. We will put him as
the new commander,’” recalled Hajji Ahmad Shah, one of the elders who
presided at the jirga and is now Spin Boldak’s parliamentary representative
in Kabul. Razik was duly crowned with a turban in the traditional manner.

Others took a more cynical view of Razik’s appointment. “They thought that
Razik was nothing, that they could control him,” said Mohammad Naeem Lalai,
a former Border Police commander who was present at the jirga.

But whether the elders believed Razik to be honest or merely naive, they
were wrong. Razik would quickly move to expand the force’s involvement in
the enormous opium traffic pouring through the region, and in the process
would grow powerful enough to defy even his own tribal elders. Meanwhile,
his abilities as a commander, and his fighting force that remained highly
effective in the absence of a national army, soon made him indispensable to
the central government and the ISAF.

In Spin Boldak, Small Razik and I made our way to a dusty lot of used SUVs.
Entering a showroom made from a shipping container, with a sign reading
shoram, we sat cross-legged on the floor to share tea and bread with the
owner, Samiullah. Chubby and elfin, Samiullah had become one of the
wealthiest men in Boldak by way of a string of car dealerships, office
buildings, and construction projects; his father, Assadullah Wafa, was a
powerful official in Kabul and the former governor of Helmand Province.

Sikander and Jahanzeb arrived, pleased to see me. But there was a hitch:
Colonel Razik had suddenly gone to Kandahar city on urgent business. Now the
two had to go back to Quetta, and if I wanted to see the colonel I would
have to wait here in Boldak as Samiullah’s guest.

“We will be back for you in a few days,” Sikander said, “or they will bring
you back. Don’t worry, you can trust these men.”

During my stay, Spin Boldak with Samiullah began to seem like a theater of
the absurd. Each day, I’d inquire as to the whereabouts of Colonel Razik,
only to be told he was in Kandahar, or Kabul, but would be coming very soon.
And each day, our routine would be the same—up early in the morning for
breakfast, before driving to the “shoram,” where I’d spend hours swatting
flies on the veranda while prospective buyers languorously conducted their
business with Samiullah.

I was learning, however, that Boldak is a special sort of border town. The
big business there is cars—right-hand-drive cars, to be precise, used cars
bought mainly in Japan and shipped in duty-free via Dubai. Afghanistan is a
left-hand-drive country, but the vehicles are intended for Pakistan. They
are sent overland from Karachi in sealed containers, unpacked in Spin
Boldak, and sent right back across the border, with forged papers and
baksheesh given to various officials along the way.

This may seem like a strange journey, but it’s a simple matter of
comparative advantage. Under the Afghan Transit Trade agreement, which dates
to 1965, Pakistan allows Afghanistan-bound goods to traverse its territory
duty-free. Afghanistan is a free port with minimal duties, whereas in
Pakistan taxes and customs can double or even triple a vehicle’s cost. This
price differential, combined with widespread corruption and inefficient law
enforcement in both countries, has created an enormous market for smuggling.
In fact, the smuggling of goods may be the biggest economic sector in
Afghanistan, larger even than the opium trade, according to World Bank

As a result, places like Spin Boldak have become markets for all sorts of
goods to be smuggled back into Pakistan. Each day, new shipping containers
arrived, and Samiullah and I would often go to watch them being cracked open
and unloaded. The haul was not just vehicles. It was all the cast-off crud
of the First World, anything conceivably worth being shipped here: used
microwave ovens, guitars, DVD players, bicycles, car stereos, TV sets, Beta
camcorders, keyboards, propane stoves, motorized wheelchairs, generators,
winches, children’s toys, clothing. I watched one bent, beturbaned old man
hauling a tangled bundle of PlayStation controllers slung over his shoulder
like a bushel of thatching.

Once empty, the shipping containers find a second life as workshops and
dwellings. A vast container town called Weish had grown up along the highway
to Pakistan, a whole ecosystem of smuggling—from big dealers, like
Samiullah, who also kept offices in Dubai and Japan; to the tamper-wallahs,
who specialized in changing a car’s serial and chassis numbers; all the way
down to grime-covered little boys who scampered around wielding wrenches the
length of their skinny arms, banging away at old Toyota transmissions.

Maintaining a sort of order in this chaos was Razik’s Border Police, who
protected the trade and in turn fed off it. The Border Police were so
involved in smuggling that the duties of several commanders who frequented
the showroom, Small Razik included, seemed to consist entirely of brokering
goods. When I asked them why they were never in uniform, they told me they
suited up only for major engagements. Their days were spent sizing up cars,
gossiping on the showroom’s veranda over cups of chai, and sealing deals.
Toward the end of each afternoon, a group of boys would arrive with various
permission chits, fake registration documents, and receipts for the petrol
taxes paid to Razik’s force, and the boys and the commanders would round up
a convoy of vehicles destined for Quetta.

Of course, some Border Police officers were engaged in the serious business
of securing Spin Boldak. The most active I met was Commander Hajji Janan,
who wore a U.S. Army combat uniform with a captain’s insignia and a 1st
Infantry Division patch. Janan had been a police officer in the Taliban
regime before he sensed the changing winds of fortune, shaved his beard, and
joined his tribesmen in the new border force. Today, he roams around town in
a green police Dodge Ranger, accompanied by a posse of five young soldiers
carrying grenade launchers. One day at lunchtime, I watched as he set up a
checkpoint on the highway in front of the showroom, where he ate and chatted
with the other commanders while his beardless, swaggering troops accosted
drivers. Most of these young men had joined the force when they were sixteen
or seventeen, which for the oldest among them, Ahmad Shah, was five years
ago. Not that they were green—they had all seen intense combat in the hilly
scrublands that bordered Pakistan. They took their work seriously. Shah, the
sergeant of Janan’s little squad, was particularly proud one day when he
caught a carful of Baluchis concealing a Kalashnikov and a pistol.

The most consistently uttered praise of Colonel Razik in Spin Boldak is that
he has maintained a level of security unparalleled in Kandahar Province. The
town is now far safer than Kandahar city, an hour and a half’s drive north.
“There is no water, no trees, no gardens here,” one refugee from Helmand
told me, “but there is *amniat,*” pronouncing the Persian word for security
as if it were a sacred name. Razik’s success was attributed to his prowess
in combat—“He was always at the front of the fighting,” said a cousin of
Samiullah’s—and also to his equally well-known ruthlessness. Stories abound
of men chained to the rocks at Takht-e-Pul and then executed with rockets;
of long stretches spent in Razik’s private prisons; of thieves’ corpses
being left, on orders, in the streets for three days.

Essential, too, were groups like Commander Janan’s, which, relative to
typical Afghan police, were trained and paid better. Nor was Razik the only
one who found them useful. The Border Police’s hand-in-glove cooperation
with the local ISAF forces in Boldak was evident the first day I met Janan.
That evening, Samiullah got a call and handed me his phone. A somewhat
baffled-sounding American accent came through on the line: “Hi, yeah, is
this Matthieu? This is Captain Cowles, with the U.S. Army. We heard from
Hajji Janan that there was a Canadian citizen alone here in Spin Boldak,
and, well, we just wanted to make sure that you were all right.”

I assured him that I was, but the next morning Janan came by the house and
asked if I would come to the ISAF just outside of town. “It is optional,” he

I got in the truck and we rode out with his men to Forward Operating Base
Spin Boldak, which is manned by a mix of Canadian, U.S., and Afghan National
Army soldiers. A gruff American sergeant named McDermott drove out with an
interpreter to meet us and bring us back to the base. I noticed that Ahmad
Shah and his crew were allowed to bring their weapons, though McDermott
frisked me.

Captain Cowles, a young and solicitous type, got me a soft drink. I produced
my passport, and the officers started questioning me, with a combination of
suspicion and concern, about what I was doing in the region. I couldn’t say
that I was a journalist in front of Janan, for whom the interpreter was
translating our conversation, but I managed to convince them that I wasn’t a
spy, or worse. “We thought maybe it might be another case of that American
Taliban, what’s his name, Lindh,” said Tim Bonnacci, a Canadian Army
captain, only half in jest.

“You know, this is a battle space,” Cowles told me. I said I was fine, since
I was under the protection of the local Achakzai tribe. “Well, this is a
mixed Noorzai and Achakzai area, so you should be concerned,” he said. While
a Canadian sergeant went off to photocopy my passport, some of the officers
spoke privately to Janan in a corner. I sat down next to Cowles and asked
him if perhaps Janan’s wearing a U.S. Army uniform—with the Stars and
Stripes on it, no less—might be sending the wrong message. “Oh, the locals
know who he is,” answered Cowles. I said I meant that his policies and
actions might be interpreted as being American. “I don’t think there’s any
worry about that,” he said, sweeping the air with his hand. “Hajji Janan is
one of our best guys. We don’t go anywhere without them.”

The sergeant returned with my passport, and we all stood up to go. “Be
careful with these guys,” he muttered to me, eyeing Ahmad Shah, who was in
turn eyeing some of the gear on his webbing. “Some of them are pretty
rough.” I made a joke about how their weapons always seemed to be loaded and
switched to full auto, with the safeties off. “Yeah, we see them come in all
the time for treatment for things they’ve inflicted on themselves,” the
sergeant said.

Cowles, McDermott, Janan, and I got back in the pickup truck and rode back
out to the perimeter of the base to say our goodbyes. “Whoa, no hugs, man. I
don’t do hugs,” said McDermott, fending off Ahmad Shah’s embrace. Cowles did
return the hug, though, and Janan asked if I would take his and Cowles’s
picture. The Americans shook my hand.

“Okay, nice meeting you,” Cowles said and then turned to his interpreter and
Janan. “Now tell him to take our friend out to the desert and kill him.” He
burst out laughing before the interpreter could translate. It was the sort
of slightly hysterical laugh that one probably acquires near the end of a
rotation in a place like Spin Boldak.

Mohammad Naeem Lalai, a thirty-five-year-old Achakzai from Spin Boldak,
joined the Border Police about the same time that Abdul Razik did. He and
Razik once were close friends, but they had a bitter falling-out that led to
Lalai’s quitting the force in February of last year. Lalai told me he had
become disgusted with Razik’s corruption and had tried, unsuccessfully, to
persuade him to change course. Others I spoke to told me that Lalai and
Razik had simply quarreled over prestige and money. Whatever the case, Lalai
nursed his grudge for a few months in Kandahar and then moved to Kabul,
where he decided to join the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan (CNPA),
a relatively new, centrally run police force dedicated to fighting drug
cultivation and trafficking. Lalai was well connected, having spent time in
prison during the Taliban regime for his work with Jamiat-e-Islami, the
principal party within the Northern Alliance, and so he was offered his
choice of postings. “I said, ‘Send me to my province,’” he told me.

Sitting in a friend’s apartment in Kabul, Lalai spread out a sheaf of
documents that corroborated his story: documents detailing drug busts in
Spin Boldak, commendations from the ministry for his work, and his promotion
to major with the CNPA. Pulling up his shalwar kameez, he showed me further
proof of his efforts—four bullet scars from an assassination attempt in
September of last year. A bodyguard at his friend Zalmay Tufon’s house had
fired on him as he was leaving. Tufon’s son shot back at the bodyguard,
paralyzing him, and when they dragged him into the house, they later
claimed, he confessed that Abdul Razik had offered him $100,000 to kill

After his recovery, Lalai continued hounding Razik in Spin Boldak. But if
the ways of the old Afghanistan had failed, the ways of the new Afghanistan
soon frustrated his plan. According to Lalai, and to other sources who back
up his account, Razik sent Assadullah Wafa, the former minister and governor
of Helmand, to Kabul to lobby for Lalai’s transfer. Lalai was summoned to
the capital. “Razik doesn’t have any problems with Kabul,” he told me,
“because he has enough money to pay all of them.”

Idling around Kabul, waiting for his next posting, Lalai was now trying to
undermine Razik as best he could. Two months before our meeting, he
presented his evidence at a CNPA conference and also showed it to his boss,
the deputy minister of the interior for counternarcotics, General Mohammad
Daud Daud (who has himself been documented, in an investigation by the *Globe
and Mail,* as having links with drug smugglers), as well as to a number of
Western advisers to the CNPA. Lalai has received no response yet, but he
remained hopeful that the advisers, at least, would take interest. “They are
slow,” he said. “What we do in one day, the foreigners do in one month.”

Lalai estimated that Razik pulls in between $5 million and $6 million per
month in revenues, money he has invested in properties in Kabul and Kandahar
and also abroad, in Dubai and Tajikistan. The racket itself is run directly
by a select group of his commanders, who facilitate drug shipments and
collect payment from the smugglers. Lalai showed me a list with their
names—Janan was among them—and the names of the five biggest drug dealers in
Spin Boldak. He said that Razik’s men also had imported shipping containers
full of acetic anhydride, a chemical used in heroin manufacturing, from

Lalai was the only person I found who would openly accuse Razik of drug
smuggling. The conjoined mention of “Abdul Razik” and “drug smuggling” by a
Western journalist in Kandahar was enough to cast a chill over most
interviews. But on condition of anonymity, two other Kandahari
politicians—Achakzai tribal elders with clean reputations and who were
widely respected—made similar assertions to me about Razik’s involvement in
drug smuggling, his private prisons, his vast wealth, and his entanglement
in a network of corrupt high officials and major drug smugglers. An official
at the Kandahar office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission,
who asked not to be named, agreed that Razik was operating his own prisons
and conducting extrajudicial executions.

I also spoke to one of Razik’s current commanders, who was initially
extremely reluctant and agreed to meet only on the basis of absolute
anonymity—Razik would kill him if he knew he was talking, he said. Still, he
came forward because he felt that the corruption had swelled to monstrous
proportions, and he was anguished about the worsening security situation
that was costing the lives of more and more of his men. He said that even as
the commander of a company-sized force in a volatile border zone, he was
powerless to stop the convoys of drug smugglers that ran through his area.
Not only were they better armed than he and his men; some smugglers had
shown him letters of protection signed by Razik himself. Many of these
convoys, the commander said, were in fact made up of green Border Police
pickup trucks headed for the heroin laboratories in Helmand Province’s
Taliban-controlled areas. Others were unmarked Land Cruisers headed south
into Baluchistan.

“These men are destroying our country,” he said.

Razik’s clandestine smuggling operations have spilled over into the allied
fight against the Taliban, thereby bolstering the widely held perception
that the ISAF and the central government are favoring certain tribes and
marginalizing others. Soon after he assumed power at the border, Razik began
to feud with elements of the Noorzai tribe, particularly the Sultanzai, a
rival smuggling clan spread between Spin Boldak and Chaman. One notorious
incident took place during the summer of 2006 in Panjwaii District, a
volatile area just west of Kandahar city. A predominantly Noorzai district,
Panjwaii is a lush river valley crisscrossed by thick orchards and
mud-walled compounds, and it provides an excellent springboard for attacks
on Kandahar city. During the course of the summer, Taliban fighters had
infiltrated the valley, and eventually the district governor, an Achakzai,
called in Abdul Razik’s border force.

What followed was a debacle. The Noorzais, fearing their tribal enemies,
rose up and joined forces with the Taliban. Razik and his men responded to
the unexpected resistance with brutality. “They were killing women and
children,” said Ustaz Abdul Halim, a Noorzai and former mujahideen commander
who lives in Kandahar city. “After that, everyone was with the Taliban.”

Capitalizing on the tribal dynamics, the Taliban installed a Noorzai, Mullah
Rauf Lang, as their commander in Panjwaii District. Later that fall, newly
arrived Canadian troops in the area would launch Operation Medusa, a
large-scale assault that killed hundreds of fighters and scores of civilians
in weeks of close combat and withering bombardments. Today, the area remains
one of the most violent in Kandahar Province—the Canadians suffer many of
their casualties there and have recently abandoned two untenable forward
operating bases in the area—and anti-government sentiments still run high.

On my tenth day in Spin Boldak, word arrived that Colonel Razik had
returned. This fact was also evident from the increased security that
appeared along the highway in front of Samiullah’s guesthouse, which was
near the main Border Police station. Samiullah, Small Razik, and I drove
over to Colonel Razik’s massive family compound, a walled mud-brick warren
set back from the main road. Several heavily armed Border Police watched us
alertly as we pulled in—Razik has been subject to numerous assassination
attempts. They waved Samiullah through, and we pulled into a parking lot
full of expensive SUVs.

The colonel’s grandmother had just died, and the place was crammed with
those angling to offer condolences. We joined the flow of mourners down a
set of narrow interior walls, passing through several more cordons of
security. Small Razik stopped to chat with the guards, who seemed older and
harder than the youths I had met around town. These were Razik’s
praetorians, a “rapid reaction force” that he took around with him to tamp
down crises.

At last we reached an inner compound where a final set of guards was
frisking the arriving guests. We were allowed to pass through unmolested, in
deference to Samiullah. Here, more than a hundred men were sitting under a
canopy of raised fabric, some of it camouflage, in a courtyard large enough
to fit not only this sizable crowd but also half a dozen armored Land
Cruisers. Virtually every household in the district had sent male
representatives to pay their respects to Razik’s family. Scores of men,
neatly done up in their best silk turbans and waistcoats, were coming and
going under the billowing canopy.

“That’s Rahmatullah Sangaryar,” Samiullah whispered to me, pointing to a
heavily bearded man in a dark waistcoat. “He was a big man in the Taliban.
The Americans took him to Guantánamo.” Sangaryar had been repatriated in
April of last year.

We sat down on a stone ledge near the edge of the crowd. A young boy brought
over some bottled water and asked us if we’d like tea. I craned my head to
catch a glimpse of Razik. “He’s over there,” said Samiullah, pointing to a
raised dais where the elders were sitting. From my perch I could only see a
row of backs. Now and then a singsong Arabic cadence would pierce the soft
murmur of the crowd, who would cup their hands together in supplication as
prayers were recited for the deceased grandmother.

At last, Samiullah took me by the hand and, picking our way through the
seated congregation, we approached the dais. As we got closer, I became
aware of a young man sitting amid the whitebeards and knew immediately that
this was Colonel Razik. The elders made space for me, and I got down on the
dais. “This is Matthieu. He is a Canadian guest,” said Samiullah.

Razik and I contemplated each other for a moment. He looked even younger
than his thirty years and had a boyishly handsome, guileless face with a
square jaw and clear eyes. It was not at all the face of a fire-breathing
warlord. A tuft of short hair poked out from under his hat in what was
nearly a widow’s peak. He was dressed simply, in a white cotton shalwar
kameez and a gray pinstriped waistcoat. Only his full mouth, with its crop
of slightly crooked, strong-looking teeth, gave any hint of his great vigor
and violence.

Pausing in his conversation, Razik greeted me with a reserved tone, and we
shook hands. I told him I was a friend of Sikander’s, and he said I was
welcome here. I thanked him for his men’s hospitality.

A grim irony of the rising pro-Taliban sentiments in the south is that the
United States and its allies often returned to power the same forces
responsible for the worst period in southerners’ memory—the post–Soviet
“mujahideen nights.” In the case of Gul Agha Shirzai (now governor of
Nangarhar but still a major force in Kandahar), the same man occupied the
exact same position; in the case of Razik, nephew of the notorious Mansour,
it is the restoration of an heir. By installing these characters and then
protecting them by force of arms, the ISAF has come to be associated, in the
minds of many Afghans, with their criminality and abuses. “We’re doing the
Taliban’s work for them,” said one international official with years of
experience in counternarcotics here.

In the initial scramble to invade Afghanistan in 2001, there was a certain
pragmatism to enlisting the mujahideen, who represented the best means of
taking over the country in the absence of a substantial U.S. ground
presence. But those troops were diverted to Iraq, and the ISAF was cobbled
together slowly, arriving too late and with too few soldiers to upend the
warlords’ rule. Canadian forces didn’t deploy to Kandahar until 2006, and
even then their contingent of 2,500 was stretched far too thin to control
one of the most critical provinces in Afghanistan; the base at Spin Boldak
was largely abandoned for seven months at the end of 2006, when troops were
needed for the offensive in Panjwaii.

“We were facing the worst-case scenario in 2006—a conventional takeover by
Taliban forces,” said Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, the Canadian
commander of ISAF forces in Kandahar Province. He was proud that his
country’s small contingent had been able to hold the insurgency more or less
at bay. But he admitted that the life of the average Kandahari had become
less secure as the Taliban began to tighten their grip on Kandahar city. “I
don’t have the capacity to make sure someone doesn’t rip their guts out at

Military officers like General Vance find themselves in a peculiar fix when
confronted with characters like Abdul Razik. These entrenched figures hold
posts or wear uniforms whose legitimacy must be respected. But many of those
who maintain their power through corruption and coercion were originally
installed by the U.S. military—a fact not lost on Afghans, who tend to have
longer memories than Westerners here on nine- or twelve-month rotations.

I asked General Vance if he was aware that Razik was directly involved in
the drug trade. “Yes,” he said. “We are completely aware that there are a
number of illicit activities being run out of that border station.” He had
few illusions about Razik, with whom he interacts directly. “He runs
effective security ops that are designed to make sure that the business end
of his life runs smoothly, and there is a collateral effect on public
order,” he told me. “Ideally, it should be the other way around. The tragedy
of Kandahar is that it’s hard to find that paragon of civic virtue.”

Indeed, honest people in Afghanistan don’t often occupy the halls of power,
and they don’t usually have the resources to be the first in line for big
development contracts. Should one’s security restrictions allow one to
stroll the streets, however, one will find them there, pushing carts of
vegetables, positively begging strangers to join them for a cup of tea that
might cost them half their day’s salary. If one looks a little harder, one
will find them in crumbling little homes, so unlike the palatial “poppy
palaces” of Kabul’s new elite, dwellings such as Fayda Mohammad’s in Spin
Boldak, or Hajji Ahmad Shah’s in Carte Nau Market, a poor area on the edge
of town: places of exile, to which honest men have been marginalized either
by force or by choice. In other cases—such as that of Malalai Kakar,
Kandahar’s top female police officer, who was shot in September of last year
by unknown assailants, or that of Alim Hanif, chief judge of the new Central
Narcotics Tribunals Appeals Court, killed outside his house in Kabul by
masked men—the honest Afghans will be found in the cemetery.

As for Razik, he remains alive and very much the master of the borderlands.
Occasionally, outside forces will annoy him: in July, CNPA teams, working
with DEA mentors, raided two caches of hashish in Razik’s territory,
arresting one of his commanders in the process. But Razik is hardly at odds
with his government. After the first round of national elections closed on
August 20, his men forcibly took Spin Boldak’s ballot boxes into his house
for “safekeeping” overnight. It was just one of the many reports of
electoral fraud in Kandahar Province, which polled overwhelmingly for
President Karzai, according to the independent Election Commission of
Afghanistan. The count from Spin Boldak’s polling stations: Karzai, 8,341;
his main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, 4.

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