Security in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province has improved significantly this year. While there were some 30 Afghan casualties evacuated from the district headquarters between November and February, the pace slowed dramatically in March, with only two medevacs in about a month’s time. Additionally, the frequent small arms engagements experienced by US patrols have tapered off to getting shot at “about once a week,” according to one April assessment by a US infantryman who patrols the notoriously difficult Zangabad area. And a number of Taliban commanders have been killed or captured, including the killing of Taliban’s district shadow governor by Special Operations Forces on March 31.
The change is attributed to factors beyond the expected seasonal lull in Taliban attacks: a grassroots uprising against the insurgency has bolstered the ranks of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which has enabled intelligence gathering and allowed the ISAF-ANSF alliance to hold on to cleared territory; and the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad, Panjwai’s energetic new district chief of police (DCOP), has driven progress.
As DCOP, Mohammad is responsible for recruiting and managing both the minimally trained ALP militia and the Afghan Uniform Police, a more trained national police service. While Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) units also operate in Panjwai, the ALP and the AUP are widely acknowledged as the most effective security forces in the district. The reasons: local knowledge of the enemy and the terrain, and local leadership; Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad is originally from Panjwai and he is an Achekzai tribesman. The DCOP has used his relationships to capitalize on local disaffection with the Taliban by engaging local leaders who have made a stand against the insurgents. Hajji Abdul Wudood, the man acknowledged as sparking the local uprising in the village of Pehinagan and driving cooperation with the police, is Mohammad’s distant cousin and a fellow Achekzai.
Despite the recent success of the police, there are drawbacks to the force relative to other security forces. While US advisers and Afghan government officials and security personnel state that corruption and abuse in Panjwai do not rise to the worst levels in Afghanistan — those that tend to drive civilians into supporting the Taliban — they do exist, and are more prevalent among the police than other forces. Local cops more often tax individuals on the roads, for example, taking money or more often simple items like cigarettes and food. One Afghan soldier speculated that the cops are forced to confiscate supplies from civilians because the local police are not provided enough to eat through official channels.
An internal ISAF assessment of Mohammad compiled when he was the district chief of police in nearby Maiwand district lends credence to the assertion, mentioning that “the DCOP is … accused routinely by his soldiers of withholding money from checkpoints that is meant to be spent on food.” The report provides context for these accusations, however, by noting that “he also provides logistical support for the [Afghan Local Police], and this food could simply be being spread among more checkpoints than it was designed for.” Given both the regional penchant for low-level corruption and the lack of adequate logistical support from the Afghan government to its security forces, either explanation is plausible.
The police chief’s local ties also have a mixed impact on grassroots efforts against the Taliban. Mohammad’s Achekzai tribal lineage and his familial relationship with General Abdul Razziq, the famed warlord and current police chief of Kandahar province, present a challenge to unifying all of the district’s tribes against the insurgency. When Razziq was a highly effective colonel in the border police and the de facto strongman in Spin Boldak, a district to Panjwai’s southeast which contains Afghanistan’s second-largest border crossing with Pakistan, Mohammad was Spin Boldak’s district chief of police. Razziq is widely known to have profited immensely from illegally taxing border traffic, selectively allowing smugglers to pass through the border, and conducting his own trafficking operations, some of them inevitably related to the drug trade flowing from Afghanistan.
Internal ISAF reports imply that Mohammad, “rumored to be Razziq’s cousin,” was party to similar activity as police chief in Spin Boldak, noting that “he was subject to allegations of corruption.” In May 2011, after Mohammad “came under pressure from both the [Afghan Ministry of Interior] and the Taliban,” Razziq moved him to the police chief position in Arghistan district, followed shortly by an appointment to police chief of Maiwand district. Notably, Maiwand is the opium breadbasket of Kandahar province, and “several unconfirmed reports” indicate [Mohammad] took money from drug smugglers while in that position.
Nevertheless, Mohammad was a successful district police chief in Maiwand. ISAF reports rated him as “aggressive, professional and effective” and judged that he was responsible for significantly improving security. He was eventually moved south to his current position In a bid to improve security in the hotly contested district, a move that the DCOP was reluctant to make. Beyond any political and business arrangements that he may have been forced to leave behind in Maiwand, Mohammad claimed reluctance to work in Panjwai because of his local ties to the area; as a hometown boy and Ashekzai, he feared he would be forced to fight family members, according to one senior US Army officer.
A more prominent reason for Mohammad’s hesitance may be the history of bloody intertribal rivalry in the district, however. In 2006, Canadian forces enlisted the help of then Colonel Razziq and his border police to assist with anti-Taliban efforts. Razziq gathered his men, largely an Achekzai tribal militia, rolled up from Spin Boldak to Panjwai in force, and wound up killing both Taliban and civilians belonging to the rival Noorzai tribe, according to histories by both Dr. Antonio Giustozzi and the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. In fact, the Achekzai-Noorzai feud has much deeper roots, as Taliban-allied Noorzai tribesmen were responsible for killing Razziq’s uncle and driving many members of his Achekzai tribe from their homes and across the border into Pakistan during the rise of Taliban to power in the 1990s.
Thus, Mohammad’s local tribal ties, as well as his relationship to Razziq, complicate his efforts in the district. As the district police chief attempts to establish the ALP and AUP as trusted forces in Panjwai and organize local disfavor with the Taliban into a security movement, members of the Noorzai tribe resist joining with the police due to the long-running feud. This infighting presents a steep challenge to spreading and solidifying the grassroots movement against the Taliban, especially after ISAF forces draw down.
The Long War Journal interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad on March 25 at his sitting room in the Panjwai District Police Headquarters.
The Long War Journal: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, your public service, where you’re from?
District Chief of Police Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammad: My name is Sultan Mohammad. I am from Kandahar province, Panjwai district, Zangabad area. Shabozo village. My tribe is Achekzai. I am 48 years old. For the first year after [the American invasion in) 2001, I was a soldier, then I became a police officer for the past 10 years until now.
Before the US invasion … my brother and I were both mujahedeen fighting against the Russians, and also during the Taliban regime we had a relationship with the Americans. We traveled [and made our home] back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I fought against the Taliban [before 2001] as well; from [Panjwai], they pushed us to Helmand, from Helmand they pushed us to Delaram. From Delaram they pushed us to Farah … and all the way down to Herat.
LWJ: Why did you fight the Taliban? What about the Taliban organization caused you to fight them?
DCOP Mohammad: The first time when the Taliban came trying to take over Kandahar province they took over some parts of Kandahar … we heard from them that they are very good people, they said they would be respecting all of the Muslims. Soon though, we saw how they were treating our mullahs, our religion. We also saw the (Pakistani) ISI in Kandahar City, and that’s when we started fighting against the Taliban. Because there was ISI from Pakistan with them and they came to our country. Everyone knows who they are and where they came from. Everyone knows, the foreigners [ISAF forces] know, Iran knows that the ISI came to Afghanistan with the Taliban.
LWJ: You’ve been DCOP since January. How was security when you got here, how is it doing now, and how has it been trending?
DCOP Mohammad: Before I got here, the security situation was not good in the bazaar, which is very close to here. At that time, the insurgents were attacking often, and it was a bad situation. After I’d been here a while – and you can ask the Americans how the security situation was before me – nowadays it’s getting very, very good. One man can even travel alone on a bike in the evening for 30 kilometers. Or one to four of my guys can jump in a truck and travel anywhere, even if it’s dark.
[Opens a folder and displays a series of photographs of captured weapons and explosives caches] This is from the village of Kaklan, my [US] mentor already knows about these caches of IEDs that we found there. We have found 2,729 of these kinds of IEDs, since January.
LWJ: How have you been so successful in finding these bombs?
DCOP Mohammad: The reason for the success is because while I have been away from the district for the past 11 years, a lot of people were asking me to come home. When I got here, I went to the villages and talked to the people and the elders, and I was very respectful. Then one of the elders showed me 75 IEDs in one day; Hajji Mohammad from Sperwan showed me 45 IEDs, and a lot of other people are helping me to find the IEDs.
I will tell you there are three [important] things: our country, our God and our job. If we are doing these three things honestly, everything will be good. Also, [we have to do right by] these people who have raised up against the Taliban. I am very disappointed by our government, because these people are expecting some support from the government. And they never received anything from the government.
LWJ: Are they starting to get any support from the government?
DCOP Mohammad: The only support they got from the provincial governor was some (agricultural assistance); wheat and flour and cooking oil. The governor spent like 400,000 Afghanis for that. And it’s not enough. Also, Special Forces help the people a little – and Zangabad is not the only area we need to support. We need to support [the villages of] Talakan, Mushan, Sperwan.
LWJ: Do you have hope that more assistance will come from the Afghan government?
DCOP Mohammad: They have promised assistance. General Merwis, the 205th Corps Commander and governor and General Razziq have promised they will support the uprising. We are also getting help from public health, they opened a clinic for the women, and also the minister of education will open up some schools as well.
LWJ: How many police officers do you have, and along with the support you get from the Afghan Army, do you feel like you have enough forces to secure the district?
DCOP Mohammad: I have 450 police officers, 60 NCOs , about 30 officers and 300 ALP. All the time whenever we do an operation we coordinate with ANA, ANCOP all together and do joint operations. Sometimes if we need help from our counterparts, we are asking them for medical services, air support they are helping us, but we aren’t asking them for help in our operations.
LWJ: Do you think you will be able to sustain these operations at the same pace after the Americans are gone?
DCOP Mohammad: If the Americans leave, we will go forward, and we will be doing the same things that we are doing now. But we still need American support; our government is weak, we don’t have enough income we don’t want what happened when the Russians were here to happen again. When the Americans supported us, once we defeated the Russians, they disappeared; the Americans went home and left us. I don’t want this to happen again, so still we need their support.
LWJ: But most troops are leaving in 2014? So will financial support, and Special Forces support be enough?
DCOP Mohammad: I guess if the Americans leave the Special Forces in each province and district to support us, along with financial support, it will work because our government is weak and they can’t bring us supplies on time. So they can help us with fuel or ammunition, things like that.
LWJ: Can you describe who the enemy is, who the insurgents are right now? What are their motivations and why are they fighting the government and attacking your men?
DCOP Mohammad: During the Russian times, when we were fighting the Russians, our homes were in Pakistan. We were living there and fighting here. Then the Mujahedeen who were here later, after the Taliban came (president Karzai etc.) — I came with them from Pakistan. Everyone knows the enemies are from Pakistan. They are living there and getting support from Pakistan. When Karzai was elected President, his house was in Pakistan and he moved back to Afghanistan. [Former Kandahar provincial governor] Gul Agha Sherzai when he became the governor of the province he left Pakistan for Afghanistan.
LWJ: But you are saying the enemy is also from Pakistan?
DCOP Mohammad: We don’t have any more enemies from Afghanistan. The only enemies we have are from Pakistan. There are many groups that work under the ISI of Pakistan. And some of our Afghans are there, being trained by Pakistan, who sends them here.
LWJ: Do you think their motivation is religious, or is it otherwise?
DCOP Mohammad: If it’s really religious, then why don’t they attack all the Americans when they are getting supplies from Karachi, Pakistan? The Taliban don’t do anything over there [as the supplies are] on the way, but once they enter Afghanistan they are attacking and burning their vehicles. The Pakistan Higher Scholars Shura, their chief in Pakistan was saying suicide attacks and attacks on the Afghans are permitted. The chief of the Afghan scholars asked back, ‘Why is it only legal in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan?’ We have it in Afghanistan a higher religious scholars shura – Pakistan has the same people, they were saying it is legal to do [attacks in Afghanistan].
LWJ: So what is their goal with the attacks?
DCOP Mohammad: It’s not a new thing – the past 4 years Pakistan has been trying to bring Afghanistan under its control. When Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, Pakistan did not tell them what to do because they had a good relationship with them but once this government took over and we tried to prevent them from controlling Afghanistan, that’s why they send those suicide attackers and other attacks.
LWJ: Different topic: everyone farms here. Farming is a big part of the economy, and poppy farming is a big part of the farming economy, but [poppy] is illegal. So when government forces destroy the [poppy] crop, how do they avoid angering local farmers who grow it to make a living? How do you win the cooperation of the people if you take away a source of income? Does [the poppy eradication] cause tension?
DCOP Mohammad: We know it is illegal growing poppy anywhere, before me the DGOV (District Governor) told the local people to not grow poppy and if they do, they will destroy it again. They grow it anyway. If the DGOV puts out the order to not grow it and they continue to grow it, it means they aren’t listening. Whenever someone put an order to not grow it, they grow it anyway.
The other problem is that the US Embassy or foreigners are spending a lot of money from the department of counternarcotics; they are giving them GPS, trucks, fuel, tractors, everything to eradicate the poppy. The problem is, they give an estimated target for each district; for example, for Panjwai district 300 hectares need to be eradicated. For Zhari district, 600 hectares, for Meiwand, 700 hectares need to be eradicated. But these [farmers] are expecting , “OK, mine is not going to be included in these 300 hectares. Hopefully, they will leave my poppy to grow.”
So once they are eradicating, some parts of the poppy are staying because they only have permission to do 300 hectares. So this is the problem: if you order farmers not to grow poppy, everyone should stop growing poppy and people should listen; instead [the government] just says “we will eradicate 300 hectares, and leave all the others.” This gives the farmers hope that “it won’t be mine” that is destroyed. Also, if they make them a bridge, roads and the water dam and irrigation canals for the farmers, I don’t think they will grow just poppy because when the irrigation system is working well, they will hopefully be growing some other crops.
LWJ: What do you think of the US soldiers working here in the district?
DCOP Mohammad: They are doing a good job. Whatever they are responsible for, they are doing their best jobs; both Special Forces and regular army, they are doing their jobs. They are having a lot of different meetings with the locals and politicians; they have not caused any problems for the local people here in Panjwai since I’ve arrived here. In some other districts, maybe they have caused some problems, but I don’t know.
LWJ: You haven’t heard of Americans causing problems since you’ve gotten here. Before you arrived, 17 murders that happened in two villages that were attributed to the American Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. How has local opinion reacted to that incident, and what is their opinion now? Have they forgiven it, do they accept it, are they still angry?
DCOP Mohammad: Can you give me information about the guy who did these murders?
LWJ: He is accused of killing 17 civilians in two villages a year ago.
DCOP Mohammad: My relative Mohammad Nayeeb, Mullah Wazir, a couple of members of their family were killed. So the Americans took them to the United States, now they are back and they told me that the guy who did the murder, he is not an American, he is not an Afghan; he did it to put distance between Afghans and Americans to keep our relationship separate. Now the relatives are back [from the US] and they are happy he is in jail. They went to America to testify in court, and also the Americans paid $50,000 per family member who was killed. So now they are happy the guy is in jail.
[Note: The interview was cut short after running into the call to prayer, after several delays due to a green-on-blue incident that evening.]
Bill Ardolino’s forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, will be published by Naval Institute Press on May 15. The book has received a ‘starred’ review from Publishers Weekly. All of the author’s proceeds from the first edition will benefit the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.