Conflict & Justice

A half-staff kind of weekend

No Memorial Day weekend here, no family barbeques to start the summer, no gleeful beginning of white-shoe season.

But U.S. President Barack Obama’s directive that U.S. flags be flown at half-staff until noon on Monday is particularly fitting for this land of endless conflict.

It’s been a weekend of mayhem all around: a major police commander killed in the north, a disastrous airstrike in the south, and an empty threat by a desperate but weak president in the center.

An airstrike in Helmand province killed 14 civilians, all women and children. At the same time Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that NATO cease its night raids against the Afghan population, although NATO did not seem to be paying very close attention.  

A suicide attack in Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province, shocked the nation. The primary target appeared to be Gen. Mohammad Daud Daud, a well-known military commander who was in charge of Afghan forces in the north.

At least six people died along with Daud, including two German soldiers, the police chief of Takhar, Gen. Shah Jahan Noori, and several others. The German military chief for northern Afghanistan, Gen. Markus Kneip, was injured, as was the provincial governor, Abdul Jabbar Taqwa.

The attacker wore an army uniform, like so many killers in Afghanistan these days. Over the past few months, several major incidents have involved perpetrators wearing regulation khaki, complete with official insignia, and carrying weapons in sensitive areas.

The Taliban claim to have infiltrated the armed forces; the government insists the attackers are just masquerading as soldiers.

This has been a public relations bonanza for the Taliban, who have now demonstrated that no one anywhere is safe as they unleash their spring offensive, “Operation Badar.”

“They will get them all,” said one Afghan observer. “By the time this is over, a whole generation of Afghan officials will be gone.”

My interlocutor did not seem to think this would be a bad thing.

“It’s a whole mafia that is being targeted,” he insisted.

The deceased General Daud is now being lionized as the great hope of the north, the strongman who could defeat the Taliban. He is described as “charismatic,” “well-regarded,” “powerful,” and “controversial.”

The “controversy” part springs from Daud’s widely alleged links to the drugs mafia. As Deputy Minister of the Interior for Counternarcotics, the post he held before he went back to his home base in the North, he was known as the wolf guarding the henhouse.

Karzai, now in Turkmenistan, issued a statement saying that he was "deeply grieved" by the deaths.

"The martyrs of this wild attack were the true sons of this country who have been working tirelessly for the prosperity and honor of this country," he said.

But those of us who have been here for a while had a slightly different reaction to the death of the well-known general.

Daud was never openly charged with anything; he angrily denied all allegations, and was too well insulated by his exalted position for anyone to try and topple him.
Graeme Smith, the award-winning journalist who reported from Kandahar for Canada’s Globe and Mail, had Daud in his sights years before he was finally able to crack the story.

Briefly stated, Smith’s tale is as follows: In 2005, a man named Sayyed Jan was arrested in eastern Afghanistan with close to 190 kg of heroin, and a letter of protection signed by the Counternarcotics chief, General Daud.

The paper trail pointed to close connections between Daud and some of the major druglords in the country; Smith cites a letter from Daud to the then-governor of Helmand, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, asking the governor to assist Sayyed Jan.

Helmand is famous as a center for poppy and the products that come from it: the United Nations estimates that close to half of the world’s heroin originates in Helmand province.

Sher Mohammad is best known for being caught with 9 tons of opium in his offices in the governor’s compound in 2005.

But when the international forces needed someone to bring order to the North, they turned to Daud. The Taliban have been making more and more incursions into areas previously thought secure, such as Takhar.

Daud, who is from Takhar originally, was seen as someone who “could get the job done.” Any notion that he might be tied to the drug mafia that is, in part, funding the Taliban were set aside.

“We have had to get into bed with some pretty bad guys in the name of counter-terrorism,” a Drug Enforcement Agency official told me in a background interview several years ago.

The Taliban most definitely did not target Daud because of his alleged drug-trafficking credentials; it is much more likely that they are eliminating anyone who could pose a threat to them. 

But it does not necessarily follow that anyone who is bad for the Taliban is good for Afghanistan. 

Those whose help we enlist now to battle the insurgency may very well have their own agendas for the post-international-forces phase of Afghan history.

That is, at times, a very scary thought.