Musa Qala District Police Chief Haji Abdul Wali, who is also known as “Koka.” Photo by Bill Ardolino/LWJ
Bill Ardolino interviews an Afghan National Police chief in the Musa Qala district in northern Helmand province. He discusses the state of the police, the security situation, the make-up of the Taliban, and his thoughts on ISAF and American withdrawal.
The District of Musa Qala in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is an area in transition. The overwhelming majority of its 30,000-plus (estimated) residents want peace – farmers simply want to farm, businessmen want to buy, sell, and trade – but popular sentiment hasn’t settled on the most likely path to achieve it. Some long for a return to the stability offered by Taliban, despite the baggage that came with their draconian rule. Others support the Afghan security forces, and by extension their Western allies, while retaining healthy skepticism of the civilian government. And most aren’t sure where to place their bet, and will studiously maintain neutrality until a long term victor begins to emerge.
Of all the factors influencing ISAF counterinsurgency effort in Musa Qala, American leaders assert that one of the bright spots is the presence of respected, relatively effective local security forces that stand as a viable alternative to the Taliban. Both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) in the district are comparatively well-reviewed by US advisors, presenting a legitimate face to the government and working well with Marine security patrols. While the Afghan police are generally regarded as tactically inferior and more corrupt than the Army across wider Helmand province, and in certain areas are viewed by citizens as a worse option than the Taliban, in Musa Qala their status is different, assert Americans. Here, the police are local Pashtuns, they generally do their jobs (despite some drug use noted by advisors – primarily hash or marijuana), and they exhibit low levels of corruption and rarely mistreat citizens, according to advisors. This combination of factors grants the ANP singular legitimacy as a security force in the district. Above all, their relative effectiveness stems from the will of one man, District Police Chief Haji Abdul Wali, who is more commonly known as “Koka.”
A former mujahid, Koka joined the Harakat-e-Inquilab-e-Islami (HII, or Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) in 1981 after his father and two brothers were killed by Russians. A major element of the Afghan resistance early on in the Soviet-Afghan conflict, HII was particularly influential in northern Helmand under the leadership of Mullah Nasim Akhundzada (Alizai). Koka himself fought the Soviet forces and remained otherwise active with the party until 1990. He later joined Jeemiiat Islami (Society of Islam) in 1996, and waged war against the Taliban with the support of Iranian intelligence. His war record against the Talibs involved a string of battles and several defeats, brief evacuation to Iran by the Iranian Secret Service, and then flight to Pakistan. He eventually returned to live in Musa Qala, and even briefly switched sides to join the Taliban in their fight against his former allies in Jeemiiat. This odd mutability was a consequence of local custom – he’d struck a deal to take the place of his brother, who had been conscripted into Taliban service. At the time, Taliban conscription campaigns were particularly acute in northern Helmand, including both Musa Qala and Kajaki districts, and even Maiwand district in neighboring Kandahar.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan, Koka rejoined the Jeemiiat, and served as Musa Qala’s police commander in 2001 -2002. His tenure ended when he was arrested by NATO forces for lying about the whereabouts of the district governor, who was wanted for questioning about suspected ties to a known terrorist. Koka was released after being incarcerated for 14 months at Bagram. He returned to find his home village again at war, weathering constant attacks by the Taliban, and he soon rejoined government service to fight his old enemies and brief allies. Following the conclusion of Operation Snakepit, the joint ISAF-Afghan operation to drive out Taliban forces occupying Musa Qala, Koka was reappointed as the Musa Qala district police chief in December 2007.
Koka now commands about 200 police officers manning 10 posts within the district, with an additional two posts and one checkpoint under request for construction. The police chief has unusual legal authority, arbitrating local business disputes and deciding the fate of nearly all prisoners in his jurisdiction, with the exception of those who have committed crimes against Marines. The police host approximately one prisoner per week in three small but clean jail cells.
“Generally if it’s minor offenses, he’ll have a shura and release the prisoner into the custody of elders, once they vouch that they’ll keep an eye on him,” explains Gunnery Sergeant Norman Wesolowski, an advisor with the Marine Police Mentoring Team (PMT). “But if it’s a significant criminal case, [the prisoner] will be taken to Lashkar Gah (the capital of Helmand Province) for further prosecution.”
Koka’s men receive timely pay and equipment from the provincial government in Lashkar Gah, and are not engaged in any large-scale corruption or shakedowns as far as the Marines can tell. The chief employs both carrot and stick to keep his men honest. The ANP are compensated and taken care of, and their commander ensures that they receive appropriate medical care when they are injured. But police officers are quick to tell interviewers that Koka will personally and publicly beat and imprison his men if they mistreat civilians. When one American official asked the police chief what keeps his men in line, he answered, “Me.”
US officials welcome Koka’s leadership and laud his efforts to secure Musa Qala. But they are also cognizant of how his significant power is growing along with his reputation and the ranks of his police force. If and when Musa Qala transitions to a district with effective civilian government, officials wonder how the police chief’s influence will work within that framework. But for now, in the midst of a shooting war and shaky stabilization efforts, Koka is most of the law in Musa Qala.
The interview with District Police Chief Haji Abdul “Koka” Wali follows.
The Long War Journal: How has security been trending in Musa Qala for the past year, and since the Marines have taken over in March?
District Police Chief Haji Abdul Wali, also known as Koka: Security is better, the best it’s been in some time.
LWJ: It’s my understanding that you have about 200 police officers. Is that force sufficient to secure the area?
Koka: Well, security is good, but if we had 200 more, security would be better in Musa Qala.
[Note: The ANP in Musa Qala are approved for up to 300 officers total, and a recruiting campaign is underway.]
LWJ: Do you get enough support from the Afghan government?
Koka: We don’t have any problems getting pay and equipment for the police force from the provincial government in Lashkar Gah. We don’t have any problems.
LWJ: Can you explain who the people are who are fighting? Who is planting the bombs, attacking Marines and your police officers?
Koka: There are Taliban in Musa Qala. They come in and contract people in the area to put in bombs in the ground and fight with Marines, police, and the Afghan Army. There are people who work with the Taliban in this whole area. [For example], some guy has two sons. One may be a shopkeeper, another might work with the Taliban. Musa Qala is different from other districts that have borders with other provinces, which have [foreign Taliban] coming from other provinces, and from Pakistan. The Taliban here belong to this district, they are mostly local Taliban.
LWJ: Do these locals do it for money, or do they believe in the ideology? Why do they work with the Taliban?
Koka: Well, I don’t know who the top leader is, and if they support [the Taliban] in Pakistan. But the Pakistanis send money, and the people here take it to plant bombs and conduct suicide bombings. It’s for money, because it’s not according to Islam. True Muslim people do not do this.
LWJ: So to clarify: the motivation for joining the Taliban in Musa Qala is money and not religious ideology?
Koka: I do not understand their goal, because there is no permission in the Koran to fight with innocent people. It is also caused by politics, because some local people don’t like foreign people, British, Americans, who are not Muslim, coming to this area. They have incorrect ideas that foreigners are here to take this area, and their behavior is not good, it is not in the Koran and it is not Muslim.
LWJ: What do most of the people around here think of the Taliban?
Koka: Local people have different opinions on the Taliban. Some people like them, and do business with them, and want them to take control of this area again. Some people -like those whose son or brother works with the police – like the police instead. And some people have no ties to the Taliban and no ties to the government, and they just want security, and a good place to live and work.
LWJ: And so how do you get to a point where more people support your police than the Taliban?
Koka: The local people like government, they like the police, they like the Afghan Army.
LWJ: But you said there are three kinds of people. Why do a lot of those people like the Taliban?
Koka: Well, some people want them to come back and take control again. Because the Taliban had control for seven years here, and some people want the Taliban back because they make less money now that there is a fight with the Taliban [instability]. And other bad things like drugs are coming back now that there is a fight with the Taliban.
[Note: poppy cultivation increased 663% in Musa Qala District between 2005-2008, according to the UN.]
LWJ: I understand the opium trade has gotten very big in Musa Qala, what is the government’s official position on the opium trade?
Koka: The government has made it illegal.
LWJ: But it’s so much a part of the culture and economy here. How do you change that?
Koka: Drugs and opium are not permitted under Islam. Since this is the case, why do the Taliban engage in the drug trade? Drugs are Taliban activity, not government activity or Islamic activity.
LWJ: But the farmers who have to put food on their table and make money – they might not want to help the Taliban, but they have to make money. How do you get them to stop growing poppy?
Koka: [Long term], drugs are not good for our economy. We need to find another way to build the economy. The international community needs to come here and help the farmers grow other crops, like wheat and other things.
[Note: ISAF and international development organizations have alternate seed programs that distribute large amounts of seed for crops other than poppy. Unfortunately, the farmers lack a distribution network as well as the ability to process or store some of these crops for sale, and don’t have easy access to the start-up credit available through the opium economy. These challenges make shifting farmers away from poppy more complex than simply distributing seed.]
LWJ: What do you think of the US Marines, and what do you think of their predecessors, the British?
Koka: I like both the British and the Marines, they are both good people. I spent two years with the British. They both have money, equipment and everything, and that is good. The Americans have more influence because they have more troops in Afghanistan. Both are good for me and my country, because they help us. I like the Marines because they are better fighters than the British, who don’t like to fight and attack the Taliban as much. But the British were better at getting me a flight to Lashkar Gah (the Provincial Capital) when I needed one.
LWJ: Any hard feelings about the Americans [ISAF forces] putting you in jail for so long?
[Koka slightly bristled at this question, and later complained to other Americans that ‘all the reporter wanted to ask me about was my time in jail.’]
Koka: A lot of people were arrested back then. By the time I was released, I had no problem with the people who arrested me, I forgave them. They thought I worked with the Taliban, but I did not. The people who arrested me did not have experience with this area.
LWJ: How long do you think the Americans will stay and how long would you like them to stay?
Koka: The Afghan government needs the Americans and people of other nations to stay for a longer time, because Afghanistan will be better when the Taliban is gone. But the Taliban are not our only problem – when they are gone we will still need the American people. We need to have more electricity, good roads, better farms, and reconstruction teams to stay here and help the Afghan people.
LWJ: How strong is the influence of the tribes?
Koka: When the Taliban controlled things, the tribes fought each other more, but now they work together. They all work with the government. Like my guys (the police), they are from different tribes but they help all people, not just their tribe.
LWJ: What’s the long term solution to securing Musa Qala and securing Helmand Province as a whole?
Koka: We need a lot more troops and outposts. We need to send more troops north and south to secure the borders of Helmand Province to keep the Taliban out. That is really important for us, because the insurgent [ringleaders] are coming from outside.
LWJ: What do you think of the Taliban? Your personal opinion?
Koka: We need the Taliban to go far away from Musa Qala, and far away from Helmand. Because when local people try to help build the government, the Taliban threatens them and kills them. This is not good, and it is not Muslim.
LWJ: How much Taliban intimidation is going on Musa Qala and how can it be stopped?
Koka: There are maybe 600 Taliban north and south of Musa Qala. More of them need to die before the fighting and intimidation stops.
LWJ: Why did you decide to serve your country and fight the Taliban?
Koka: I wanted to help the people and build my country.
LWJ: What needs to happen in order to finally secure and stabilize Afghanistan? And what do you think will happen?
Koka: I think the Coalition forces need to stay longer in Afghanistan to help the people. It’s good for everyone.
LWJ: So what happens if the Coalition forces begin to leave in 2011?
Koka: If they leave in a year the Taliban will be strong and it will be like before – the Taliban will take control again. If the Americans leave it will not be good. I am happy to have the Americans in my country. Look at Japan, the Marines are still there. It is very important for the Marines to stay here for a long time like that, otherwise the Taliban will become strong.
UPDATE: Piece revised with detail on use of illegal drugs by police.
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