an independent journalist that has reported from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
New revelations about a U.S.-backed warlord in Afghanistan are raising questions about whether the United States has violated its own laws in its aim to defeat the Taliban. The Atlantic magazine reports the United States, under both former President George W. Bush and President Obama, has actively supported the police commander in Kandahar, General Abdul Raziq, despite knowing of his involvement not just in corruption and drug smuggling, but also in major human rights abuses including killings and torture. Raziq has been a key figure in the U.S. strategy of supporting Afghan warlords in order to weaken the Taliban, working closely with U.S. special forces. He was promoted to head the police in Kandahar earlier this year after playing a key role in the U.S.-backed assault on the Taliban one year ago. The allegations against Raziq include responsibility for the torture of two teenage boys and the killing of 15 people in 2006. According to an investigation by our guest, Matthieu Aikins, for The Atlantic, the United States has continued supporting Raziq despite having been aware "of credible allegations that Raziq and his men participated in a cold-blooded massacre of civilians." [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: New revelations about a U.S.-backed warlord in Afghanistan are raising questions about whether the U.S. has violated its own laws in its aim to defeat the Taliban. The Atlantic magazine reports the U.S., under both President Bush and President Obama, has actively supported the police commander in Kandahar, General Abdul Raziq, despite knowing of his involvement not just in corruption and drug smuggling but in major human rights abuses including killings and torture.
Raziq has been a key figure in the U.S. strategy of supporting Afghan warlords in order to weaken the Taliban, working closely with U.S. special forces. He was promoted to head the police in Kandahar earlier this year after playing a key role in the U.S.-backed assault on the Taliban one year ago. The allegations against Raziq include responsibility for the torture of two teenage boys and the killing of 15 people in 2006.
AMY GOODMAN: According to The Altantic magazine, the U.S. has continued supporting Raziq despite having been aware, quote, "of credible allegations that Raziq and his men participated in a cold-blooded massacre of civilians," unquote.
Well, we’re joined now by Matthieu Aikins, the reporter who broke the story for The Atlantic magazine. He’s been on Raziq’s trail for years, going undercover for Harper’s Magazine in 2009 for a story on corruption allegations surrounding Raziq and his forces. An independent journalist, Matthieu Aikins has reported from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: So tell us first just who Raziq is and how he’s risen to power.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, Abdul Raziq sort of exemplifies the warlords that have come to power with the return—sorry, the fall of the Taliban in 2001. So, though he’s from a younger generation, his uncle was a notorious warlord who was kicked out of southern Afghanistan by the Taliban. And subsequent to the U.S. invasion, he came back and rose to a position of incredible power and wealth as a result of the explosion of the opium trade and his control of a key border crossing in southern Afghanistan. So, as a result, he’s been this sort of indispensable military ally, due to his large, personally loyal militia, and has been at the heart of our partnered efforts with the Afghan security forces there.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: How much did the U.S. know about him, initially, say, from 2001, from the fall of the Taliban?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, the U.S. sort of gradually came to figure out who these allies actually were. I think, initially when we went in there, there was quite a lot of ignorance about who it was that we were working with. But over the years, quite a lot of allegations have emerged about Raziq’s involvement in the drug trade, corruption, and also rumors that he was involved in much darker things, in killings, extrajudicial killings, and torture and other human rights abuses. U.S. officials have always sort of denied this in public, but as we present in the article, there’s evidence that they’ve known about credible allegations of a massacre for the past five years.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the two young boys who you met with who were tortured.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: So, this summer I met with two young men, whose names obviously I didn’t use in the article, but we called Najib and Ahmad, who had been tortured by Raziq’s forces in July. They had been picked up and—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly who his forces are and how significant his position is now.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right. So Raziq has a sort of border police/tribal militia that was loyal to them at this border crossing, right? But in May, when the previous police chief of Kandahar province was assassinated, Raziq was actually appointed to be police chief of Kandahar province, which is arguably one of the most strategic provinces in Afghanistan. So, as a result , he brought this border police/militia into the city with him, and they’ve sort of taken over security and, as I show in the piece, have brought a lot of the brutal methods of the borderlands with them.
So, as an example, these two young men were picked up when some employees from their restaurant were accused of bringing food to the Taliban. They were held. They were—one of them was beaten brutally while hung from the ceiling. And then, eventually, they were taken to a basement room in the governor’s compound and had electric wires attached to their feet and were electrocuted, all in an effort to make them to confess to something that they were innocent of. Eventually they were taken before Raziq himself, and he seemed to decide that they were in fact innocent, so they released them. And as I was told by a sort of sympathetic member of the police force who served as a source, this is what they do to them when they’re innocent. Imagine what they do to the guilty.
So this is not just a single case. There is credible evidence that this is part of a systematic campaign of human rights abuses that has taken place in Kandahar right now. And in fact, part of the evidence for that is that the U.S. military themselves have suspended transferring detainees to forces in southern Afghanistan as a result of some of the things they’ve heard.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a video made by NATO’s broadcasting arm earlier this year. The video is a profile of Abdul Raziq, casting him in a very positive light. Although acknowledging he’s faced widespread accusations of abuses, the video goes on to praise Raziq’s approach to fighting the Taliban.
NARRATOR: There have been a number of reports linking Raziq to drug smuggling, wile human rights activists accuse him of brutality against the rival tribes and the Taliban. Raziq makes no apology for taking a hard line against insurgents.
GEN. ABDUL RAZIQ: [translated] There are those who are destroying our country. Whoever they are, we will not surrender to them. We have no choice but to defend ourselves and our country. They are not Taliban. They are terrorists. It is a war imposed from the outside. The enemy’s main base is not in here; it’s in Pakistan.
NARRATOR: At a press conference in Kandahar, Abdul Raziq is seen as something of a celebrity. Young police officers and tribal elders fight to have their picture with him. They describe him as a hero, not afraid to die for his country. For NATO’s part, he has been an ally fighting the insurgency and helping to provide safe passage for supplies coming in from Pakistan. Since last summer, numerous operation have taken place in districts surrounding Kandahar city. Having been uprooted from many areas, the Taliban has resorted to carrying out attacks within the city itself. The pressure is on the new chief of police to repel the insurgency. But General Raziq is up for the fight.
GEN. ABDUL RAZIQ: [translated] We are Muslims, and we believe that when we have faith, when our hour comes, we will die, we will not survive. The enemies are trying, but we are also trying to defend our country from any situation. Whether we die now or die after an hour or after a month, we shall defend our country. We will pay for the country with our lives. I think the future of Afghanistan will be good.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a video made by NATO’s broadcasting arm earlier this year. Matthieu Aikins, can you respond?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, you know, as they make clear in that video, there are very compelling security concerns in Kandahar province right now. So there’s no doubt that there needs to be a very strong effort by the Afghan government, by the international forces, to protect civilians, to bring security and stability. But the question is, is whether it’s inevitable that we have to partner with people who are grossly violating human rights and who are undermining the rule of law actively. And if that’s the case, which seems to be the choice that we’ve made over the past couple years in our partnership with Raziq in Kandahar—
AMY GOODMAN: That the U.S. government has made.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: That the U.S. government has made, yes—then what does that say about the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police that we’ve supposedly been building, if we have to partner with the sort of warlords, drug militia to fight the Taliban? And so, I think that’s a false—a false choice, that we have to partner with human rights abusers. And I think there’s ways to promote the rule of law that ultimately will bring greater stability and security, because, don’t forget, this insurgency is motivated by oppression and brutality, just as much as it’s motivated by other factors.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But from your research and the people you spoke to, your time in Afghanistan, how unusual is the case of Abdul Raziq? In other words, how does he compare to other warlords that the U.S. has partnered with all these years?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, he certainly represents a meteoric rise, a rags-to-riches story, just in his youth and in the fact that he was nobody personally before 2001. In another sense, he’s quite typical, in that he represents the return of this old guard, old order of warlords that was the catalyst for the Taliban movement coming to power in Afghanistan. However, let me say that these kinds of abuses, the severity of the abuses that we’ve uncovered, they might have been a little more common during, for example, the war against the Soviets or the civil war period, but in post-2001 Afghanistan, to the credit, I think, of the new government and the international community, we haven’t really seen the large-scale massacres by government security forces. So this is not at all the rule in Afghanistan; it’s not typical for people to do this sort of thing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also mention in the piece—you mention the Leahy Amendment. Can you explain what that is and why, at least in the case of Abdul Raziq, it has not been applied?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, why it hasn’t been applied is a good question. But the Leahy Amendment was passed in 1997, named after Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in response to abuses by the Colombian military. But essentially what it does is it forbids U.S. funding or training for foreign military units where there are credible allegations of gross human rights violations. So, that would seem, in this case, because we’ve shown that the U.S. government has been aware for five years of credible allegations of gross violations of human rights, that the kind of training and funding we’ve given to Raziq is in contradiction to the Leahy Amendment, therefore against the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Blackwater.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, Blackwater has trained a lot of different police and army units in Afghanistan. They’ve had big contracts. One of those contracts that they’ve had has been to train the border police in Spin Boldak. They and Dyncorp have both, at various points in time, had trainers in Spin Boldak, which is Raziq’s sort of home turf. There’s a training center there where his men are trained. So, unfortunately, you could see that they’ve had a—they’ve had a role in this, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Go back to 2006 and the massacre, and the role of Raziq in that massacre.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, in 2006, during the Persian New Year, which would have been March 21st, 2006, the day prior, a man named Shin Noorzai, who was sort of a tribal rival of Raziq’s, arrived in Kabul with 15 of his companions. They were lured by another associate of Raziq’s to a house where they were drugged, they were bound, driven to the border, taken to Spin Boldak, taken out to the desert near the Pakistani border, and shot to death. It was then made to look as if they were Taliban insurgents infiltrating across the border. And this sort of cover story was put out because the killings were too big to hide, that Shin Noorzai—Mullah Shin, as Raziq called him in the AP—had been a Taliban insurgent. Now there was actually a police investigation by the Afghans into this that uncovered the truth. It was suppressed at the highest levels of the Karzai administration. And it was, you know, something that a few different European capitals and the U.S. embassy were aware of at the time.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I wanted to ask you about Pakistan. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence, of supporting the Haqqani militant group in the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Mullen was speaking before a Senate panel.
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Internal Services Intelligence agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy. We also have credible intelligence that they were behind the June 28th attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and a host of other smaller, but effective, operations. In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What relationship, I’d like to ask, has the U.S. itself had with the Haqqani network? The group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, apparently worked with the U.S. in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, absolutely. Congressman Charlie Wilson, who was sort of one of the most vocal advocates of supporting the Mujahideen called Jalaluddin Haqqani "goodness personified." So, much like the Pakistanis see them today, the U.S. once saw them as an effective tool to place military pressure on Kabul. So this is a classic example—
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s similar to Osama bin Laden.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right. And this is a classic example of blowback, right? So, there is this longstanding relationship, and it should really give us pause about the kind of people that we support today, because we don’t know what sort of consequences we might be engendering tomorrow. There absolutely has been a criminalization of these networks as a result of 20, 30 years of war, which is something we’re seeing on both sides, in the Afghan government and in the Taliban.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu, how did you get around Afghanistan?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, I am fortunate enough to sort of blend in with the locals as a result of my mixed Asian heritage, so—and I speak a bit of Dari, so I sort of dress up—play dress up and just travel very low profile with some good friends. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Matthieu Aikins, international freelance journalist, covered Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran for publications including Harper’s Magazine, The Walrus. His latest piece, "Our Man in Kandahar," is published in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine.