By an eerie coincidence, the very day I was writing my review of Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living”, the N.Y. Times reported on the assassination of a warlord who figured prominently in his book. The Times might be good at reporting the facts but they tend to be disjointed. The article below quotes Anand on why Matiullah was killed but fails to place him into the broader context of Afghan politics. The passage from “No Good Men Among the Living” that follows the NY Times article will give you a better idea of how people “succeed” in Afghanistan, which is the same way that Tony Soprano succeeded but with the added complication of overlapping with some progressive steps forward, including his support for Heela’s candidacy as the first female senator in Afghanistan. If you’ve read my CounterPunch review of “No Good Men Among the Living”, you’ll recall that she was a courageous woman who defied paternalistic oppression—thus antagonizing both the Taliban and the miserable warlords like Matiullah Khan who they sought to overthrow.
From his beginnings as an illiterate highway patrol commander in Oruzgan Province, Mr. Khan started a militia operation that made millions of dollars securing military coalition supply convoys through a decade of war and turmoil. He obtained so much influence during his years as a private commander that even before 2011, when he was anointed police chief of Oruzgan by President Hamid Karzai, who hailed from his Popalzai tribe, he could freely appoint government officials in the province.
The Afghan government remained silent about Mr. Khan’s death on Wednesday night and through much of Thursday, referring all questions to the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, who did not respond to requests for comment. Accounts of Mr. Khan’s killing obtained from members of Parliament and other officials varied, though Mr. Khan was said to be in Kabul on official business, staying at a downtown hotel, the Safi Landmark.
Around 8 p.m., he was walking in the streets of Kabul’s Police District 6 when a person wearing a burqa approached and detonated a suicide vest, according to a senior Afghan security official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation. Officials who saw Mr. Khan’s body said his chest had been wounded by shrapnel.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday afternoon, a seeming insurgent success after trying to kill Mr. Khan at least six other times. Still, while the attack bore all the hallmarks of an insurgent hit job, some warned that Mr. Khan had numerous rivals within the government.
An outpouring of condolences followed news of Mr. Khan’s death, even from people who in the past might have criticized his heavy-handed influence.
Dost Mohammad Nayab, the spokesman for the governor of Oruzgan, said it “will take 14 years to fill the gap he leaves behind.” Hajji Mohammad Essa, an elder in Tirin Kot, said, “He was like a mountain for us.”
For years, Mr. Khan enjoyed unparalleled influence in Oruzgan, where he gained a reputation as a fierce enemy of the Taliban. Villagers and elders came to ask his assistance or seek his guidance.
He became a classic symbol of the American-backed strongman turned government official, a hallmark of the long war in Afghanistan.
Like his counterpart in Kandahar Province, Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, who is widely accused of human rights abuses and running illicit businesses, Mr. Khan enjoyed the support of coalition military officials, who found him an indispensable ally in their fight against the Taliban.
“He was representative of a new breed of warlords,” said Anand Gopal, the author of the book “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” “These are people entirely created by the international presence.”
Anand Gopal, “No Good Men Among the Living”, pp. 252-257:
In rural Afghanistan, people discuss roads the way we discuss the weather—before they head out for work or at the mosque or in the market. On any given day, highways are prone to sudden tempests of violence between the warring sides. They can be rendered impassable by roadside bombs, or impromptu insurgent checkpoints, or trigger-happy American convoys. (“We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” US war commander General Stanley McChrystal commented in 2010, “and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat.”) Next week’s travel can be as unpredictable as next week’s skies.
If the roads attracted so much violence, it was because without them there could be no resupplying of American bases, and therefore no American mission. And with no American mission, there would have been no Matiullah Khan, no meshr [leader]. But what exactly was he the leader of? By 2009, he had become the most powerful person in Uruzgan Province and one of Washington’s closest allies—all without holding a government position.
In the summer of 2011, I rented a car in Kandahar city and set out for Uruzgan to learn who exactly Matiullah was. I started on the city’s out-skirts, in a mud-sodden field filled with eighteen-wheelers, sixteen-wheelers, cabs with two trailers, Indian-made trucks festooned with ruby-colored mirrors and dangling metallic tassels—all of them bearing fuel or other crucial cargo for US troops, and all waiting to travel the eighty treacherous miles north to Tirin Kot. Just a few years earlier, the truckers told me, such a trip would have been a probable death sentence. The route was then under Taliban control, so trucks often ended up as charred heaps, dotting the roadside like signposts in some ravaged alien land. Drivers were losing their heads and the American base in Tirin Kot was being starved of supplies. “If you ask me what I worry about at night,” said American general Duncan J. McNabb, “it is the fact that our supply chain is always under attack.” As the insurgency grew stronger in 2006-7, and the Americans sent in more troops, requiring more supplies, the problem only multiplied. The Kandahar-Tirin Kot road became one of the most dangerous highways in the world. But everything changed in 2008, when an illiterate militiaman began organizing his cousins and friends to protect the trucks. His name was Matiullah.
He was a man of humble origins who, unlike Jan Muhammad and other Soviet-era mujahedeen warlords, made himself entirely in the shadow of twenty-first-century American power. In the 1990s, he was operating a taxi on the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway, occasionally moonlighting as a driver for Taliban commanders. He may have been poor, unschooled, and seemingly without political ambition, but as a member of the Popalzai tribe and a nephew of JMK, a world of opportunities opened up for him in the wake of the US invasion. He joined Karzai’s 2001 campaign to capture Uruzgan, and by the following year ha had worked his way into his uncle’s militia, commanding an elite Taliban-hunting unit. With no actual Taliban around, however, this effectively meant life as a hit man knocking off JMK’s rivals. Soon he was providing security for the perimeter of the main US base in Tirin Kot and accompanying American special forces missions. In 2007, he was appointed to head a short-lived highway police force, and when it was disbanded a few months later, he appropriated its guns and trucks and continued to patrol the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway on a fee-for-service basis. In no time, he was supplying heavily armed men—most of them relatives or fellow tribesmen—to protect trucks hauling American sup-plies into Tirin Kot. The Taliban proved no match.
It was noon at the truck depot when we spotted the seemingly unending stream of desert beige Ford pickups heading toward us, Afghan flags whipping in the wind. Some had Matiullah’s image pasted decal-style to their cab windows, but most were unmarked. The supply trucks fell into place behind them, and we were off. The convoy drove along a canal as wide as the highway itself, its waters shimmering a brilliant cerulean blue against the dull brown scrubland rolling away into the distance. An hour into the trip, we passed through the shadow of a massive concrete dam. It was here that Jason Amerine’s unit had called in the wrong coordinates almost ten years earlier, bombing themselves and nearly killing Karzai.
Farther north, the mud houses and rutted dirt paths by the roadside disappeared and we were in open country, with barren slopes and a naked, treeless horizon. Perched here and there on the slopes were small teams of Matiullah’s gunmen, part of a private army thousands strong financed through his contracting business. For every truck escorted, he charged the Americans $1,000 to $2,000. With hundreds of trucks heading for the US base in Tirin Kot weekly, he was pulling in millions of dollars a month—in a country where the average income is a few hundred dollars a year. You could not move a truck into Uruzgan without his permission. “No one leaves without paying,” said Rashid Popal, another trucking contractor. “Matiullah will kill anyone on this highway, Taliban or not.” When another private security company, the Australian firm Compass, once attempted to escort US supplies up the highway, they were met by a hundred or so of Matiullah’s heavily armed men, who demanded $2,000 to $3,000 per truck for “passing rights.” The exchange grew so heated that the US military was called in. Eventually a settlement was negotiated and the trucks were allowed to pass, but the message was clear enough: Matiullah Khan owned the highway.
Our convoy passed through a defile that opened onto the earthen bowl where Mullah Manan’s forces had battled Jason Amerine’s Green Berets for control of Uruzgan. We arrived in Tirin Kot as dusk fell, with-out a shot fired en route, without encountering a single roadside bomb or illegal checkpoint. American officials believe that Matiullah’s success hinges in part on a protection racket, in which he pays off certain Tali-ban commanders not to disturb his convoys—meaning that the United States, by hiring Matiullah, is indirectly paying its enemies.
Under Matiullah Khan, Tirin Kot was a changed town. Using his windfall funds he gobbled up real estate, elbowing aside his exiled uncle as the major landowner in the area. He leased bases to the Americans and financed bazaar shops. Soon, just about every business transaction of note in the city required his imprimatur. “Nothing happens in Tirin Kot without him,” Hajji Shirin Dil, a wholesaler from Kabul, told me. “You can’t make a single dollar without his permission, without giving him a cut.”
With Jan Muhammad in Kabul, Matiullah quickly monopolized the political scene as well. Yet he was eager to distance himself from his uncle’s ruinous regime. JMK’s excesses had eventually turned the Dutch’ and other NATO allies against him, and Matiullah was keen to keep in the foreigners’ good graces. He built schools, established radio stations erected mosques, sent poor children to university in Kabul, settled Ian disputes, and protected widows like Heela. Through his militias and construction companies, he also provided jobs for thousands.
As with his uncle, however, governance was a sideline to Matiullah’ principal occupation: fighting “terror,” with no holds barred. When roadside bomb once went off near his convoy, killing one of his me Matiullah leapt out of his vehicle in a rage and grabbed a bystander—shopkeeper in the wrong place at the wrong time. Matiullah tied him the rear bumper of his pickup truck and drove around town. When t body was returned to the family, it was barely recognizable. In anoth village, Matiullah captured a suspected Talib (who, locals claim, was actually just a poor farmer) and took an already radical measure emasculation—chopping off his beard—a step farther: he smashed the man’s chin. And in yet another incident, Matiullah’s men attacked a madrassa suspected of being a center of Taliban influence. Dozens were taken hostage and executed, most of them young boys.