Political Landscape

The End of a Police Chief: Factional rivalries and pre-election power struggles in Kunduz


In the beginning, it looked like good news: had Kunduz police chief, Khalil Andarabi, been sacked because he had led Afghan Local Police (ALP) and militia units on a looting rampage against civilians? If this were the case, it would have meant that the bad track record of the Local Police and illegal militias was finally being acknowledged and acted upon. A second look, however, finds that the situation is much more complicated. AAN’s guest author and researcher Lola Cecchinel tells a tale illustrating the intricate power plays in Kunduz and Baghlan before the elections.

The end of Major General Mohammad Khalil Andarabi’s career as the police chief of Kunduz province most probably began last September when he ordered a purge operation in the Kunduz district of Dasht-e Archi. This operation provoked outraged reactions: the complaints of residents reached the media and the issue was ultimately raised in the Wolesi Jirga (the Lower House of the parliament) in Kabul.

The raid was originally aimed at routing out Taleban, but became more of a looting rampage. It involved prominent militiamen such as Nabi Gechi, a former jihadi commander from the Qala-ye Zal district (a portrait of him here and AAN analysis of his role here) as well as illegal armed groups from the districts of Kunduz and Khanabad. Among them were militia men of notorious commander Mohammad Omar known as “Pakhsaparan” (wall crushers) and allied to jihadi leader Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf’s Dawat party as well as men of the Aqtash illegal commander Yusuf Arjal. One of the villages entered by the militias was Bajaorai, a place known for the presence of Taleban commanders. There, as residents told AAN, the militias looted houses, stole motorbikes, jewelry and money from both men and women, as well as taking wheat and sheep. Some people fled their houses. Wazir Khan, a resident of another village raided by the armed groups, said that members of the ALP took motorbikes, four vehicles, cash and numerous mobile phones.

According to Andarabi, who was interviewed by this author in January 2014, groups in addition to the ALP needed to be mobilised to support the Afghan forces since the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) were “not able to stand alone against the Taleban in the district” who had attacked and taken control of several check posts in the course of the previous month. Andarabi told AAN that he had expressly ordered the commanders of the militias to refrain from fighting with the Taleban – this was to be the sole responsibility of the official security forces. The illegal armed groups were supposed to assume purely defensive positions on the roads and in the villages, scaring off the Taleban and demonstrating that even with the departure of foreign troops, the people of the province could mobilise against them. Andarabi suggested that this show of strength was also a means of reinvigorating the morale of the army and police. In his own words, approximately 1500 men were deployed to peacefully demonstrate the strength of the government and its allies. Andarabi continues to describe the operation as a huge success.

Witnesses of the operation, however, have a very different take on the situation. According to informants contacted by this author, elders from Dasht-e Archi went to the house of provincial governor Anwar Jegdalak to complain but were told that the groups had been ordered by the Kunduz authorities to “do whatever they wanted to do in order to demolish the Taleban”. In fact, government officials proudly claimed in the media that a number of Taleban had been injured, captured and killed. One local informant told AAN he had heard that “many insurgents have been killed and 23 were captured alive”. Police chief Andarabi was quoted as saying that the district had been “completely cleaned from the enemies of this country” and that “45 Taleban were killed and wounded”. Nevertheless, a month later, he was dismissed.

Andarabi made a bold move in Dasht-e Archi and Imam Saheb districts, mobilising the Afghan Local Police without consulting the Kunduz ALP chief Sayed Dawod Hashimi, and sending some of the most notorious criminals of the province on what came down essentially to be a branding patrol. But if Andarabi was not asked to leave for having orchestrated a massive plunder, why was he sacked? There are several accounts and interpretations, all of which in one way or another are convincing as well as useful in apprehending the multiple layers of power struggles at play in Kunduz’s provincial and district politics.

One interpretation seems to be that the police chief was dismissed not only because of the purge operation in Dasht-e Archi, but also because of similarly ruthless raids conducted roughly around the same time in Imam Sahib district, where ALP and ‘freelance’ militias from Khanabad district (1) were involved in looting houses and abusing civilians. If Andarabi were sacked because of these violations, it would be good news – a sign that the ALP’s poor track record in protecting civilians was finally being acknowledged and acted upon and a warning that state authorities are not to use illegally armed group to push their goals through. Since the early days of its establishment, ALP and private militias in Kunduz have been a source of tension and violence. As elsewhere in the north, the creation of local police forces has empowered local commanders at the expense of the population, which is now caught between ruthless insurgents and predatory police (see an earlier AAN analysis here).

Some in Kunduz firmly believe Andarabi was discharged because of the pressure from the media and some MPs from Kunduz, especially Eng. Kamal from Kunduz province, who had outragedly protested about his conduct. And however unlikely it is that Andarabi is now persona non grata within the state authorities (Andarabi mentioned in the interview with this author that he was now “being considered for police chief in Faryab”, a position he held previously): the fact that such operations were publicly condemned and used (as a pretext?) for removing him, remains remarkable.

Not compliant enough for the strongmen?

Yet, there is another interpretation of his dismissal, namely that he was pushed out for political reasons by the two most powerful figures in the region: Mir Alam, one of the most influential powerbrokers in the Kunduz and Baghlan area, and First Vice President Marshal Qasim Fahim, Mir Alam’s political patron in Kabul. Mir Alam controls several militias in Kunduz district itself as well as ALP and non-formal militia commanders in the Pashtun-majority districts of Chahrdara, Khanabad, Aliabad and Dasht-e Archi, who are bound to him through their affiliation with Jamiat-e Islami. He thus runs a de facto power structure parallel to the government in Kunduz. These networks also allow Vice President Fahim to maintain his local power base in the key province of Kunduz, a critical factor in the upcoming elections in spite of the fact that he is no longer standing as a candidate.

Mir Alam is known to be a long time opponent of Andarabi. Although he does not hold any official position within the province’s security apparatus, he was clearly sidelined by the self-confident manner in which Andarabi ran the province’s security affairs. Local informants say that it is likely that Mir Alam joined hands with Fahim to oust Andarabi. They assert that, in the light of the upcoming elections, both Mir Alam and Fahim would undoubtedly prefer a provincial chief of police who is more responsive to their own interests in the province.

Jamiat versus Hezb-e Islami – a multi-layered powerplay

Factional rivalries are playing strongly into the ‘politics of appointments’, not only in this region. It makes sense, therefore, to examine former police chief Andarabi’s affiliations. A Tajik from the Andarab area of neighbouring Baghlan province, he served from 2003 as the commander of the highway police brigade for the northern and north-eastern regions and later, as provincial chief of police in Faryab and Samangan. From there, he was transferred to the same post in Kunduz in December 2012. Andarabi replaced Samiullah Qatra, a man well regarded by the local German PRT and a Jamiat supporter who had been pushed out by Vice President Fahim; Qatra was sacked for having attempted to arrest two of Mir Alam’s militia commanders responsible for killing 12 civilians in September 2012. (2)

According to the recent AAN report (‘Local Afghan power structures and the international military intervention’) that focuses on Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces, Andarabi became Mir Alam’s fierce enemy at the time of the jihad when, as the son of the famous Hezb-e Islami commander Juma Khan, Andarabi was fighting in the Hezb ranks. They also clashed over the control of drug traffic routes when Andarabi was commander of the highway police; both are said to have been heavily involved in this ‘business’.

Even so, the conflict between these two men needs to be seen in an even wider context. Andarabi’s home region in Baghlan province is home to many prominent jihadi commanders. Tajiks from Andarab have been dominating the structures of power in Baghlan since 2011 in addition to exerting considerable influence in neighboring Kunduz province. After his appointment as provincial chief of police (President Karzai has supported Pashtun Hezb-e Islami figures and groups in Kunduz and Baghlan in an attempt to neutralize the influence of the Tajiks in the two provinces, more here), Andarabi is said to have assigned his followers numerous positions within the local administration and police apparatus. Some of these men were also affiliated with Hezb-e Islami. These appointments were much to the annoyance of Jamiati Mir Alam who had been the main figure allocating positions of power before Andarabi’s appearance on the scene. At the same time, Mir Alam’s myriad commanders and militia groups (particularly in the districts of Kunduz city and Khanabad) constituted a resolute challenge to Andarabi’s authority as chief of the security forces in the province.

The looting during the operation in September last year cast a negative light on Andarabi, thereby granting his rivals the opportunity to push for his dismissal. It seems as if Fahim waited until President Karzai made a short visit to Tajikistan in October when, in his capacity as acting head of state (which includes the authority to make appointments), he terminated Andarabi’s appointment as provincial chief of police.

On 24 October 2013, General Ghulam Mustafa Mohseni was officially inaugurated as the new security chief of Kunduz province. Originating also from Andarab, he is the brother of the late Rasul Khan, chairman of the Provincial Council for two consecutive mandates until he was killed in a suicide attack in May 2013 (read AAN analysis here) (3). Although both hail from the same Andarab district of Baghlan, Andarabi and Mohseni are known rivals, as reflective of the factional fragmentation in the area (read more here).

The sacking of Andarabi may well combine elements of all of the above-mentioned factors – pre-election positioning, civilian protests, political meddling from Kabul as well as personal and factional rivalries. It also occurred in the context of a broader reshuffle of high officials in Kunduz and Baghlan with factional implications. In November last year, Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani, another Hezb-e Islami follower from Baghlan, replaced Jamiat-affiliated provincial governor Jegdalek in Kunduz, while Aminullah Amarkhel (also from Baghlan, but not affiliated with any faction) replaced Assadullah Sherzad as provincial chief of police of Baghlan. Baghlan’s political instability cannot be better illustrated than by the successive appointment and dismissal of its provincial governors, government and security officials. Since the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001, no less then 10 different provincial governors have served in Baghlan.

The revolving door is likely to continue turning in the northeast, before and after the elections. If the two current foremost powerbrokers in Kunduz manage to maintain control over polling stations in the province, a post-2014 scenario would not exclude Mir Alam – a man deemed responsible for much of the instability in Kunduz – from moving into the position of new provincial police chief.

 

(1) These are private militias from the Aqtash area of Khanabad district in Kunduz, not the ALP. This area is the most violent in the whole district. There is daily fighting between various militia commanders who were initially supported by the local government to repel insurgents from the district. Taleban are present, too, in specific areas of Aqtash (Chahrtut, Janat Bagh), and are said to often strike deals with commanders for territorial control.

(2) Qadirak and Faizak, two commanders of Mir Alam, opened fire on civilians in the village Kanam-e Kalan in Kunduz district on 2 September 2012, killing 12 and wounding eight (read this AAN dispatch for more detail). In response to this massacre, the residents of Kanam as well as members of civil society in Kunduz demonstrated and demanded the commanders’ prosecution. This incident embarrassed Mir Alam, who publicly disavowed both Qadirak and Faizak, while privately maintaining contact with them. When he came to know about Police Chief Qatra’s intention to arrest the two commanders, Mir Alam requested Vice President Fahim’s intervention. Days later, Qatra was replaced by Khalil Andarabi as Kunduz chief of police. After Qatra’s demotion, the then deputy chief of police, Ghulam Farhad, decided to arrest Mir Alam’s two commanders, but was opposed by Andarabi. Shortly after Ghulam Farhad was sacked. However, an alternative version of events is that Ghulam Farhad was dismissed due to his involvement in drug trafficking and armed clashes with the border police in which a policeman was killed and others wounded.

(3) The Mohsenis are a powerful clan in Baghlan province with influence across all key areas of the government. They are well regarded as former jihadi commanders and tough anti-Taliban fighters. Mustafa Khan Mohseni became a wealthy and powerful figure in the province, collecting taxes from the population and abusing his powerby commanding and using his illegal armed groups whenever he felt it was necessary. Once the men from Andarabi managed to get a firm grip on local governance in the province, they reportedly seized government and private land, established several businesses and engaged in the trafficking of drugs and arms throughout the province. Another Mohseni, Azim Khan Mohseni, also a former mujahed, was elected in the wolesi jirga in 2010. Rasul Khan Mohseni was elected for two consecutive mandates as the Chairman of the Provincial Council. He established himself as the de facto ruler of Pul-e Khumri, controlling the police forces and securing government positions for many of his relatives.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape