Kabul residents have more fear of gangs than of Taliban

12/17/2008 12:02 PM

01/01/2010 5:14 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan — Ghulam Farooq Hussainkhel lives on the outskirts of the Afghan capital in the latest district to fall under Taliban influence. A teacher, Hussainkhel moved last year from a neighboring district after surviving three Taliban assassination attempts for opening two girls' schools.

Taliban forces now occupy positions just five miles away from his home in Charasayab and terrorize his neighbors at night with demands that they house and feed their forces.

Hussainkhel, 53, fears they could one day force him to close the school system he now runs in the modest suburb south of Kabul, a one-street town at the base of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The Taliban, however, isn't the biggest security threat, he said. It's the criminal gangs who roam the capital, kidnapping middle-class citizens for ransom.

"Ordinary citizens are more afraid of the criminals than the Taliban. It takes a long time before the Taliban and the Islamic Party can control an area. But the criminal groups can move in right away. They want to harass the educated people," said Hussainkhel, who has been a teacher for 31 years.

Kabul's growing crime problem is more than a security issue — it's a sign of a failing government. If government security forces — whom many charge with complicity in the crime wave — can't protect the populace from thugs, how can they protect remote parts of the country from an increasingly armed, financed and organized Taliban, residents say. More U.S. troops around the capital may not be the answer.

Residents have lived under Taliban control before and they know how to measure its influence, they said. They can cut deals. Criminal gangs roaming the streets, however, are new.

Independent observers said that there have been roughly 200 kidnappings here so far this year, but that's a fraction of the real total, since most go unreported. Some kidnappings are linked to the Taliban, the ransom financing their forces or arming their men.

"The kidnapping has helped finance the Taliban and at the same time damages the credibility of the government," said Fazlullah Mujadidi, a member of parliament who represents Logar province, which borders Kabul and where the Taliban has made some of its biggest gains.

The Afghan government, however, refuses to admit there's a problem. Gen. Alishah Pakteawal, the director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, has been the target of several assassination attempts, including a botched poisoning by a suspected criminal gang. And in the past three years, at least seven of his bodyguards have been killed in bombings and shootings aimed at him in what most suspect are attacks by gangs.

According to Pakteawal's statistics, only 10 people were kidnapped in Kabul in the first nine months of the year, eight of them released thanks to his police officers.

He scoffs at claims of police corruption and minimizes the fact businessmen in Kabul often walk only with armed bodyguards: "So what?" he said. "In every country, businessmen travel with guards."

Pakteawal himself relies on private guards for protection — none in a police uniform: "Trust me, the police are getting better," he said. "The people should trust them."

However, frustration is growing and complaints are multiplying about a government that seems increasingly incompetent. Water pressure levels are at their lowest levels in years, electricity is down to a couple of hours a day and the lines of people outside the Iranian and Indian embassies desperate for visas are growing daily.

More barricades are going up around Kabul, most recently in front of the ministry of Culture and Information following a recent attack.

The U.S. plans to add 3,500 more troops to Logar and Wardak provinces on Kabul's southern border, where the Taliban's influence has soared in the last two years. Residents, however, said the security situation has worsened as the number of forces here has ballooned since the 2001 invasion. That year, the U.S. had roughly 2,500 troops here. In 2005, there were 17,800 and now there are nearly 32,000. In all, there are 60,000 international troops here.

The additional 3,500 "helps somehow but not enough to make a change," said Abbas Noyan, a member of parliament who represents Kabul province. More troops won't prosecute gangs, drug dealers and end rampant corruption, he said.

Few trust the police. Hussainkhel, the teacher, for example, didn't contact police after someone threw an explosive device at his house in the first attempt on his life. When Taliban members planted another device on the route to his job, however, he reached out to Italian forces stationed nearby. He said they told him they couldn't do anything for him, so he moved.

"My personal view is that if more foreign soldiers are deployed here, that will not be very effective. They should move the forces to the border and stop Taliban from entering," he said.

At the root of the problem is that the Taliban and gangs can pay the Afghan police and army better than the Afghan government, though 40 percent of its budget comes from foreign aid. The average $100 monthly salary paid the Afghan army and police won't support their families, but they can earn extra pay by facilitating kidnappings or smuggling ammunition to Taliban fighters or criminal gangs, parliament members said.

Dr. Najib Ismat, 40, a cardiologist, was driving home from his clinic on an August evening when a car veered in front of him. Four armed men jumped out and grabbed him, blindfolded him, stabbed him in the stomach and drove off with him. Ismat said police officers at a nearby checkpoint saw the men grab him but did nothing.

"I told the kidnappers I am only a doctor, and I run a clinic. I am not a big business man. They told me that they paid a lot of money at the police checkpoints to get me, and they were going to get something in return for it." His family eventually paid a $150,000 ransom, and he was released after 19 days.

He suspects that relatives pointed him out to the gang. "Perhaps they received a small share of the ransom," he said.

After he was released, a neighbor's boy was snatched because his father is a businessman, he said. Another man was killed for his taxi. "These are not political kidnappings. This is for money. There is no security. What will 3,000 troops do?"

Ismat still runs his clinic but is training new doctors in the hopes he will one day get a visa to another country.

"Every moment I am there, I am terrified," he said.

Residents in some parts of Afghanistan said they're desperate for more troops, especially American troops. And U.S. military officials here are quietly just as frustrated as the Afghans.

"We are not moving fast enough for anyone, not the Afghans, not for Americans. It is frustrating," said a senior military officer who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft the military's new counterinsurgency doctrine for Iraq with then-commander Gen. David Petraeus, has pushed for more troops in Afghanistan, saying that American forces "can be a bridge" until the Afghan forces can stand for themselves. Nagl, a veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, said that while he understands Afghans' frustrations, more troops can help the deteriorating security situation.

The Taliban and criminal gangs are "taking advantage of the security vacuum. If there weren't a security vacuum, they couldn't move. This is why more troops matter," Nagl said.

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