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Afghanistan: When Cops Become Robbers
Residents of several provinces complain that law-enforcement officials are little better than the criminals they’re supposed to be driving out.
By Bashir Babak in Nangarhar and Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 170, 29-Apr-05)
While the Afghan police say thousands of bandits have been disarmed in recent years, many in the provinces insist their lives are still ruled by armed men. The trouble now, these people say, is telling the bandits from the police.
Most complaints come from herders and farmers whose crops and flocks are “taxed" by local gunmen. Local residents say these gunmen use threats, beatings or torture and operate under the protection the local police.
“Armed men still rule in some areas, and the police don’t want to sever their relations with their old friends,” said Qayoum Babak, a political analyst in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
About 450 kilometres to the southeast, in Kunar province near the Pakistan border, herdsmen fought a three-day skirmish in March against the forces of local commander Haji Sardar. Fed up with his tithe of every twentieth goat and every tenth sheep, they burned his compound and ran him out of their village, Mazar Dara.
"There were no casualties, but their centre was set on fire, and the commander escaped along with his friends," village elder Malik Gulan told IWPR.
Kunar governor Asadullah Wafa said he didn't mind that the herders had taken the law into their own hands. He said his priority was getting rid of armed gangs, whether they enjoyed local police protection or not.
"The communities must help us take them out," he said.
IWPR has turned up similar complaints in the eastern provinces of Laghman, Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar, as well as Faryab and Sar-e-Pul in the north.
“Our only hope was the police, but now we see that the local police are largely supporting the local commanders,” said Mohammed Asef, who helped form a committee in Faryab province to submit a complaint to the interior ministry.
Asef complained that police recently arrested but then quickly released a well-known outlaw named Samad, who had been accused of attacking local shepherds and stealing 40 sheep. Now, Asef said, Samad has become more brazen than ever, but the local authorities insist there’s nothing they can do.
"We still haven't received any documents or evidence against commander Samad," Colonel Sayed Hassan Ziarati, the Faryab provincial police chief, told IWPR.
Authorities in neighbouring Sar-e-Pul province likewise said they had received complaints against a gang leader named Manan, but not enough evidence to arrest him. But Sayed Mohammad Saami, head of the Human Rights Commission in northern Afghanistan, said his organisation had received 20 complaints about Manan alleging theft, looting and torture.
"The police were formed out of the local ex-militia group," said a resident of Tabar village in Sar-e-Pul, who asked his name not be given for fear of retaliation. "They've just put on the uniforms. They still can't disobey their ex-commander's orders."
In March, more than 50 lorry drivers alleged that they were beaten and robbed by police at a checkpoint on the highway between Mazar-e-Sharif and Jowzjan.
One of the drivers, Raz Mahammad, claimed that police beat him when he told them he had no money and that conditions were worse now than in the early Nineties.
"In those days, if you told the gunmen that you didn't have any money, they would release you," he said. "They wouldn't beat you like today's police."
The commander of the security post denied anyone was robbed. He said officers accused of wrongdoing were sent to Kabul for investigation.
On March 29, about 2,000 people demonstrated in Balkh for the arrest of a local leader, Baba Sayeed, whom they accused of collecting illicit taxes and looting.
The demonstrators were asked to put their complaints in writing, said General Khalilullah Ziayee, Balkh province’s security chief.
Abdul Ghafoor, a farmer and herdsman in the Barg-e-Metal district of the eastern Nuristan province, said some commanders were taking one-tenth of all crops in his area.
"We give them wheat, corn, cheese and opium," he said. "If we don’t, we will be beaten."
Gang leaders have financial arrangements with some village elders and maliks, the local administrative chiefs, he alleged.
"We are poor and helpless people. We can't say anything, and the commanders are paying shares to the elders and maliks," said Ghafoor. "That’s why they keep their mouths shut."
In Laghman province, nomadic herder Akhtar Mohammad said his local commander's take was one out of every 15 newborn lambs.
The shepherd also sees little point complaining to the authorities, since he sees no difference between them and the extortionists, "They are ears belonging to the same horse."
Bashir Babak is an IWPR staff writer in Nangarhar. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff writer in Mazar-e-Sharif.