Police and thieves pillage Helmand
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The strategy of the major United States and British military
offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province aimed at wresting it from the
Taliban is based on bringing back Afghan army and police to maintain permanent
control of the population, so the foreign forces can move on to another
But that strategy poses an acute problem: the police in the province, who are
linked to the local warlord, have committed systematic abuses against the
population, including the abduction and rape of pre-teen boys, according to
village elders who met with British officers.
Anger over those police abuses runs so high that the elders in Babaji just
north of Laskgar Gah warned the British that they
would support the Taliban to get rid of them if the national police were
allowed to return to the area, according to a July 12 report by Reuters
correspondent Peter Graff.
Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso and David Guttenfelder, who
accompanied US troops in northern Helmand, reported on July 13 that villagers
in Aynak were equally angry about police depredations. Within hours of the
arrival of US troops in the village, they wrote, bands of villagers began
complaining the local police force was "a bigger problem than the Taliban".
The brutality of the Afghan police toward the civilian population in Helmand
was no surprise to ambassador Ron Neumann, who was the US envoy in Afghanistan
from 2005 to 2007. Such abuses, including rape of pre-teen boys, "are part of
the larger problem of repression and oppression" in Afghanistan, Neumann told
Inter Press Service (IPS).
Neumann said the problem of police abuses against the population can be traced
to the creation of the national police after the overthrow of the Taliban
regime in late 2001. The Afghan police were not created afresh by US and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, Neumann recalls but were
"constituted from the forces that were then fighting the Taliban".
In Helmand province, the police came from the militia of the local warlord,
former mujahideen commander Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh, a member of the Alizai
tribe, who had dominated the province before the Taliban took control of the
Pashtun south in 1994. Akhundzada became the governor of Helmand province in
The rivals of the Alizai in Helmand are members the Ishaqzai tribe, who become
influential in the province during the Taliban period, as noted by Antonio
Giustozzi in his book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, published this
The restoration of Akhundzada to power gave the warlord and his militia the
opportunity to use the police to take revenge on their Ishaqzai rivals. If you
are the police under these circumstances, Neumann said, "you take the people's
land, their women, you steal from them - it's all part of one package".
The predatory rule of Akhundzada and his militias was interrupted for a second
time when the Taliban took control of large areas of the province in 2008.
The Scotsman's Jerome Starkey quoted a shopkeeper in the city of Lashkar Gah,
not far from the headquarters of the British and US Marine contingents in
northern Helmand on July 16 as saying that the Taliban "were good for the
welfare of ordinary Afghans, for poor people like us". The reason, he
explained, was that, "[i]n Taliban times, there was punishment for criminals".
The British and US forces in Helmand province appear to be unprepared to deal
with the popular anger over police abuses. The spokesman for the US 2nd Marine
Expeditionary Brigade, Captain William Pelletier, told IPS in an e-mail that he
had "no information about the allegations of misconduct" by police reported to
British officers, despite the fact that the Marine brigade's headquarters in
Helmand are right next to those of the British Task Force Helmand.
Pelletier had not responded as of Wednesday to an IPS query about popular
allegations to US officers of police abuses in the US area of responsibility in
The spokesman for the British Task Force Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel Nick
Richardson, asked in an interview with IPS about the grievances voiced by
village elders to British officers, said, "We are aware of those."
He refused to specify what grievances against the police had been aired to the
British, but said, "If there is any allegation, it will be dealt with by the
appropriate authorities." That meant the "the chain of command of the Afghan
national police", Richardson explained.
But the Afghan national police command has little real power over the police in
Helmand province. As of mid-2007 the national police command controlled the
appointments of only four of the 13 districts in Helmand province, according to
an International Crisis Group study in August 2007. The remaining nine were
evidently controlled locally - meaning that the Akhunzada was able to keep his
own men in position in most of the districts.
Although the IGC study did not specify which districts were not controlled by
the national police command, the districts which are the objects of the
US-British military operation in Helmand are especially sensitive because they
include the main opium poppy fields in the province.
Akhundzada maintains his power in Helmand in part because of a firm political
alliance with President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai was forced by British pressure to remove Akhundzada from office in
January 2006, after a British-trained counter-narcotics team found nearly 10
tonnes of heroin in the warlord's basement.
But Karzai also ensured that Akhundzada retained his full power in Helmand,
forcing Akhundzada's replacement as governor, Mohammad Daud, to accept the
warlord's brother Amir Mohammed, as his deputy. That signaled that Akhundzada
was effectively still in control.
Then Karzai began forming what would eventually be called "Afghanistan National
Auxiliary Police", the new recruits for which came straight out of Akhundzada's
500-man private army and those of other warlords.
By the end of 2006, Karzai had removed Daud, a favorite of the British, because
he was free of links with the drug lords. Karzai replaced him with an aged and
infirm official who was less likely to refuse to cooperate with Akhundzada.
As recently as September 2008, Karzai was hinting to Afghan members of
parliament that he would have reinstated Akhundzada had it not been for British
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's threat to withdraw British troops from Helmand if
Helmand province is the epicenter of the Afghan drug industry, which generates
an annual income for those who manage it estimated by the United Nations Office
on Drugs and Crime at US$3 billion. Much of that income is siphoned off by the
local warlords like Akhundzada who protect the drug lords' operations.
Although poppy fields in Helmand were supposed to have been eradicated under
official government policy, large areas of poppy fields owned by wealthy
farmers were untouched, as reported last April by the Telegraph.
Ambassador Neumann told IPS he believes the police should be excluded from
security responsibilities in the province. It is not clear, however, whether
British and US forces in Helmand will prevent the return of the very police who
committed crimes against the population in the province.
The US solution appears to be more training. United States troops in Aynak sent
the police stationed in the local police headquarters out of the province for
several weeks of training, replacing them with a unit they had brought with
them, according to an Associated Press report.
But British spokesman Richardson said that both the Afghan military and police,
who had been absent from the area before the British offensive in Northern
Helmand, "are returning to the area bit by bit".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.