When I read Matthieu Aikins’ brilliant reportage in Harpers (‘The Master of Spin Boldak’) about the mutation of a 1980s tribal militia into a drug trafficking network that survives to the day, I was reminded of an episode in 1988. I was living in Wazir Akbar Khan then. Around the corner was the house of a former mujahedin leader who had switched sides to the government.
Said to be in control of over some 4000 fighters from the Atsakzai tribe around Spin Boldak in Kandahar province, he was one of the biggest that ever did this. This made him a celebrity in the Afghan state media. His name was Ismatullah Muslim.
(read Aitkins reportage here)
In real life, things were much more complicated. Ismat Muslim and his men, residing in a big villa in WAK 15th Street, were famous for their hashish and vodka excesses and their unruliness. Sometimes at night, shots were heard from there. Nothing serious, said the old Kabul hands, they are drunk again.
But the incident that occurred on a sunny spring day in 1988 was special. Intensive small arms fire was reported around Ismat Muslim’s residence. Worried, because our families were at home not far away from the scene, a colleague and I decided to look whether they were safe. When our car had passed the compound which is now occupied by the British Embassy, we saw government soldiers with rifles lying flat in the ditches. Shots pinged over our car – actually the only occasion I was ever fired at in Afghanistan during 25 years. My colleague, a Berlin champion in truck racing, performed a U-turn with screeching tires.
Apparently, Muslim had had one of his frequent fall-outs with the government and wanted to return to Spin Boldak. The government did not let him go. He has been held under a kind of house arrest ever since he unsuccessfully tried to shoot his way into the November 1987 Loya Jirga for which he had not received an invitation despite his celebrity status.
The Loya Jirga had been convened in order to approve Dr Najibullah’s policy of national reconciliation. A major part of this policy was an offer to the ‘armed opposition’ to share power and, on a lower level, to lure over armed mujahedin groups to the side of the government with incentives and positions.
Ismat Muslim had taken the offer in 1984 and got the rank of a general. His men were given control of the Kandahar-Spin Boldak highway including the border-crossing at its end. The scenery in this dusty border town then must have looked not much different from what Aikens describes now: a dusty ‘market for all sorts of goods to be smuggled back into Pakistan’. The Afghan Transit Trade Agreement was in full swing already in those years. Opium was coming through from neighbouring Helmand where the Akhundzadas – the clan leading the local mujahedin of Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami which later joined the Taleban – already controlled the growing areas.
As Aikins reports, Colonel Abdul Razeq, the border police chief cum drug smuggler, is the son of a sub-commander of Ismat Muslim’s 1980s militia. Muslim was driven out of Spin Boldak by the mujahedin in 1998, fled north and died. His cousin Mansur Atsakzai, Abdul Razeq’s uncle, became the new leader of the tribe. He re-joined the mujahedin and was one of the members of the notorious ‘airport shura’ of Kandahar when the Taleban conquered it in 1994. They hanged Mansur Atsakzai. Abdul Razeq, still a young man, joined the fighters of US ally Gul Agha Sherzai and helped take over Kandahar from the Taleban gain. As Aikins reports further, he then was elected his tribe’s leader in a grand jirga. Soon he made a career under Karzai’s new Afghan government and became what Aikins describes as ‘an ISAF ally and drug trafficker at a crucial border crossing’.
As the Ismat Muslim/Abdul Raziq case shows, militias have a long life that can outlast the regime they are established by, especially when they are fuelled by the big Afghan drug and smuggling business. Then they easily mutate and spin out of control. They are the genies the sorcerer’s apprentice releases and cannot stop anymore.
Coming soon: Militias – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s Genies 2: A Look Forward
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020