A warlord, an illiterate drug smuggler, and a CIA-funded killer walk into a war.
That's not the setup to a joke — it's the punchline to America's failed intervention in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama said yesterday that US forces would be all but out of the country by the end of 2016. That may be America's best political solution to Afghanistan's military problem, but the reduced footprint will make it much harder to keep an eye on the less savory characters the Americans have used there to help fight al Qaeda.
In addition to throwing around the kind of money that would make Jordan Belfort blush — grossly misspent reconstruction dollars, self-described "money as a weapons system" tactics that have kept Afghanistan more corrupt than a Syrian presidential election — the US has pinned Afghanistan's security hopes on a motley group of bad actors and dangerous thugs who've been welcomed with open arms by American forces who are more desperate for a win than Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, General Abdul Raziq, and Commander Azizullahare are Afghan-centric counterinsurgency's Three Stooges — but with more human rights violations.
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All three of them have a long history of involvement with US forces, but Dostum has the longest. His forces were instrumental in helping the Americans defeat the Taliban in the early stages of the war, but his treatment of prisoners played out like a deleted scene from No Escape. And since locking up prisoners in shipping containers and leaving them to slowly die in the desert isn't the sort of jurisprudence the American government can (officially) condone, the US publicly distanced itself from the scariest man in northern Afghanistan — though there have been signs on social media that he would be brought back into the US fold with something more welcoming than an arrest warrant.
Dostum is Conan the Barbarian in a Conan O'Brien world. Sure, the US needed him around to drive the Taliban out of town, but they also needed someone to be charming at the fancy dress party afterward. In this case, that black-tie event is this year's Afghan presidential election, which has brought into focus the complications of Dostum's relationship with other Afghan leaders. In 2009, Dostum's current running mate, the presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, called Dostum a "known killer." But good politics trumps even the most damning rhetoric, which is why Ghani brought Dostum onto his ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
Abdul Rashid Dostum addresses a campaign crowd earlier this month. Image via AFP/Getty Images
Ghani clearly wished to acknowledge that past sins can be left behind. And wanted to help move the country forward. And hoped to rake in the many votes having Dostum's name on the ticket would elicit.
Dostum is simply the most public example of the US making deals with the devils they know in order to avoid an unacceptable outcome — another attack by al Qaeda on American soil. And in order to fight an enemy without scruples or conscience, the Americans have convinced themselves they need similarly tempered allies. Like Brigadier General Abdul Raziq.
The most memorable quote about Raziq is from an unnamed American official in Kandahar in 2010: "If you need a mad dog on a leash, he's not a bad one to have." Over the last several years, Raziq has enjoyed a meteoric rise from illiterate lower-level tribal strongman to a member of the upper echelons of law enforcement. Currently serving as the provincial police chief in Kandahar — the birthplace of the Taliban — Raziq has been very entrepreneurial, taking criminal malfeasance to the next level by allegedly involving himself in a variety of extra-legal enterprises including corruption and smuggling. This is what qualifies as "leadership" according to Colonel Robert Waltemeyer. "We're trying to promote integrity by watching [Raziq's] operations a whole lot more closely, but we don't want him to stop doing all of the good things that he's doing," Waltemeyer told the Washington Post in 2010. "We want to capitalize on his leadership."
Taking a cue from Dostum and his shipping containers, Raziq ran a prison system that would have made Warden Drumgoole proud. It got so bad that in 2011, the US quit turning Taliban suspects over to the police in Kandahar for fear that those prisoners would get the kind of treatment one normally associates with the world's finest extraordinary rendition destinations. Raziq is arguably the most troublesome example of America's questionable allies, since he's part of the Afghan national security forces, and as such enjoys the benefits of being part of a legitimate security institution.
The third Stooge does not — but you wouldn't necessarily know that based on how the US describes him. Commander Azizullah has not had the chance to shake hands with generals and colonels over the last several years, but based on official US military photos, it's clear that the Americans are big fans of his work, as his we-hate-all-the-terrorists uniform patches and tricked-out weaponry scream "US proxy Taliban hunter."
Azizullah's group in Paktika province on the border with Pakistan got more publicity than the US military bargained for back in 2011, when the Independent published the results of investigations into Azizullah's activities. The allegations included theft, rape, mutilation of corpses, and murder of both civilians and suspected Taliban. The allegations specifically named Azizullah, who operates as part of what the Americans term "local defense initiatives," or LDIs, which are pretty much Cliven Bundy supporters but with better guns.
Commander Azizullah looks for insurgents along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in 2010. Photo by Justin P. Morelli/US Army
The US military refers to Azizullah as an "Afghan national police commander," but such a position does not exist. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is the broad term for all Afghan policing agencies, none of which are themselves the "Afghan National Police." But calling people like Azizullah "police" is a long-standing practice of the American military and the CIA, an attempt to legitimize extra-legal organizations like Azizullah's unit so they can operate freely on the Afghan border and elsewhere. It's wise product branding, since "a militia with no oversight that rapes and kills people" makes for an awkward acronym.
Earlier this year, individuals wearing the same uniforms as Azizullah's "national police" were described by the US military as being part of a "Village Response Unit" (VRU), which has no official standing in any Afghan police unit. They were pictured providing support for the Afghan Local Police (ALP) who, while somewhat paramilitary in structure, are a recognized arm of Afghan security structures. Given the similarity in pattern to the "tiger stripe" camo sported by Azizullah in 2012, this is likely the same unit he has always commanded, just rebranded yet again.
The photographer took care to never show Azizullah's face, though the subject of a photo sports the same baseball cap and Oakley shades seen on Azizullah in 2012. Azizullah's tactics have won him few friends, and his actions have done more harm than good for the way Afghan civilians view the battle against the Taliban. The fact that he continues to operate in eastern Afghanistan with US training and support says a lot about the lengths to which the Americans will go to in order to achieve anything even resembling victory in the country.
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Although there are changes coming to Afghanistan — specifically, the first peaceful (so far) transfer of presidential power in the country's history — the fact remains that people like Dostum, Raziq, and Azizullah are very much part of the fabric of the country's past and will play significant roles in its future. Regardless of what happens in the Presidential Palace in the coming months, these men have proved themselves adept at leveraging US means to pursue their own ends.
Even if Ghani fails in his bid for the top seat in Afghan government, Dostum will find a way to retain power, just as he always has. Raziq's tenure as the provincial police chief in Kandahar is basically a lifetime appointment. And despite the CIA's public proclamations of pulling back from its bases in Afghanistan, the agency is likely to continue operations in the east and elsewhere for the foreseeable future. So Azizullah's VRU — or whatever it's called next time — will no doubt continue to take the lead against the Taliban in Paktika.
A reduced US presence in Afghanistan is likely to give people like Dostum, Raziq, Azizullah, and their CIA handlers the kind of freedom they need to prosecute the war in the way they want. Because as the world in general and the US government in particular stops paying attention to Afghanistan, and as the most pointless war in US history officially ends, the darkness left behind will offer the kind of environment where bad actors always thrive.
Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani
Top photo via US Army