Afghan general Abdul Raziq killed: Tribes and trust don't matter anymore in Afghanistan's warlord politics

The vast swathes of barren, dusty land and rocky ridges that form the most part of Kandahar province are among the most forbidding lands in the world. Yet the province has been a virtual freeway for invaders, due to the oasis formed by the confluence of Tarnak and other rivers in the south, allowing rest and recuperation on the way to the riches of India.

The Qaytul ridge that towers 1,400 metres, stands guard over this limited belt of green, and here can be found inscriptions that date back to the Achaemenids, to the Emperor Asoka and a still existing Buddhist Vihara that overlooks the old city. To the north lie the more fortunate areas, with major cities huddling around the few seasonal rivers that exist. To the south is the vast expanse of the desert, ending at the waterless escarpments of Spin Boldak and Shorabak.

This area of uninhabited wastes seems like the dragon country of fables. What it is, is warlord territory, at least over the last few decades, when a certain Mullah Omar — draped around his shoulders a Kharqa or a cloak — stood alongside the main mosque of Kandahar city, and believed to belong to the Prophet himself. This is the beating heart of the Taliban, and they’re not going to give up easily.

It is from here that provincial police chief Abdul Raziq virtually ruled the province of about 54,000 sq km, with less than a thousand villages. That should have come naturally to him, as an Achakzai, a tribe that was once part of the larger Durranis that once ruled Afghanistan. As such, he was a natural ally to the Karzais, who — though from a different sub-tribe — were part of this larger tribal constellation.

 Afghan general Abdul Raziq killed: Tribes and trust dont matter anymore in Afghanistans warlord politics

People attend a burial ceremony of General Abdul Raziq. Reuters

Indeed, his rise is apparent under the patronage of the Karzais' half brother, Abdul Wali Karzai, who himself ruled the province with an iron rod. Raziq benefited from that connection, moving from border chief in an outlying district to a trusted lieutenant, until Karzai was killed – ironically – by Sardar Mohammed, another trusted leader from the same tribe. That killing brought Raziq to the frontlines, until he was killed this week, by equally trusted bodyguards of Governor Zalmai Wesa, brother of another Karzai loyalist. Tribes and trust don’t matter anymore, and that makes governing Afghanistan a nightmare for anyone talking “stability”.

There is enough to show that Raziq had long gone past taking orders from President Ashraf Ghani. The New York Times reports his frequent criticism of the president, and the well-known fact that it was partly US intervention which kept him from being fired for corruption by the irate president. There’s a second reason. In Afghanistan, you can't easily fire a strongman who has contacts and feelers down to the lowest levels without having more trouble on your hands. Besides, it usually leads to a close relative or trusted junior stepping in, who uses resources – read US dollars and drug money – to keep the tribal chain intact and keep matters on an even keel.

A new strongman – probably Raziq’s brother – will not find the going easy. For years, it has been the Achakzais who have kept the rival Noorzais on the losing arc in the province. At some point, that state of matters will turn in favour of the latter, allowing a new strongman to emerge to start yet another cycle of violence. Welcome to Afghanistan, where yesterday’s warlord is today’s politician or police chief.

Warlords are dime a dozen in Afghanistan. But among them, it’s only the intelligent and usually violent who make it to the top. Just killing hundreds is not a qualification. If that were the case, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the butcher of Kabul and responsible for more deaths than anyone can count, should have made it to the top. Moreover, he has another negative in terms of true warlordship. Hekmatyar is a Kharruti Pashtun, way down in the ranks of those considered to be authorised to lead by tribal hierarchy.

Another requirement for your aspiring warlord is also typically Afghan. A man who literally fights his way to the top has more going for him than someone who lets others do the fighting for him. Raziq, for instance, was admired for his own fighting skills. He virtually led the US-backed thrust into Taliban strongholds in 2010, and won praise from the US and his patrons alike. The US praised him publicly, while then President Karzai gave him the rank of a Brigadier General virtually by direct order. That, his reported drug smuggling connections, and his almost personal proximity to his troops were enough to make him a natural leader.

Admiration from Afghan soldiers is rare, and not accorded to the faint-hearted. Accolades from such stalwarts such as former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh also speaks of his bravery, and lays tribute to the fact that under Raziq’s ‘rule’, much of Kandahar remained stable, much to the chagrin on his varied enemies. Certainly, the Taliban were not the only ones who wanted him dead, and some of the most bizarre assassination attempts previously — including a sofa bomb — attest to the importance of the police chief in the overall scheme of things.

These principles of warlordship also apply to the other side. Within the Taliban leadership, Sirajuddin Haqqani will sometimes outrank the actual Amir Mullah Haibatullah. The latter is a Noorzai from Kandahar, with a strong background of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. While his Kandahar base ensures him a leadership role, in terms of actual control, it is the mystique of the Haqqani name and the Darul Uloom Haqqania that has churned out hundreds of Taliban fighters that will hold.

Sirajuddin also has an impeccable lineage – his father Jalaluddin was one of the first to take up arms against the Soviets. His mother was a Saudi, which meant a backdoor to generous monetary support. At lower levels, shadow governors and other Taliban officials also have to measure up to what is required of them under very difficult circumstances, to put it mildly. This includes a form of “virtual administration”.

As ground level research indicates, Taliban governance doesn’t come after the capture of territory, it precedes it. A “shadow” government is just that — a slow infiltration well before actual physical occupation. This is not something that one can learn from management schools. It’s learnt on the job. And like such situations everywhere, it is the brightest — among the admittedly most violent and within tribal hierarchies — that usually gets the slot.

It is in this milieu that the US operates. Support to warlords is critical to control territory in a situation where troops are simply not available. This need only got more acute as the US drawdown commenced during the latter half of the Obama administration. Though this has since been marginally increased by the Trump administration in the beginning of the year, the ugly truth is that even if the US were to quadruple troop presence in the country, US generals would still need local strongmen to ensure that this control filters down to the ground.

That means tolerating or building up local warlords and navigating tribal politics in the process. The bad news is that it’s not just the US which follows such practices. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, several European countries, and in recent years, China have their links to the local power systems. The sum of this is that the president himself merely rules over Kabul, leveraging this position to get some authority elsewhere. In such a situation, it hardly makes a difference who comes to power in Afghanistan’s elections. It will merely mean a change of posters on the roads, and streamers on the streets. General Raziq is dead, but this is the real tragedy.

Updated Date: Oct 23, 2018 17:18:25 IST