In a reply to a recent article in the New York Times, our guest author discusses different approaches of how different NATO countries deal with what could be labeled ‘allied illegitimate armed groups’. By Bette Dam (*)
Last weekend the New York Times wrote an interesting pieceabout the head of a private army in Uruzgan province, Matiullah Khan, who is – with support of the US Special Forces– a rising star in the south (Dexter Filkins, ‘With US Aid, Warlord Builds Afghan Empire’, 5 June). Instead of building a representative government, the NYT concluded, the US Special Forces decided to rely on strong tribesmen, taking their illegal militias, corruption and drugs-trade for granted.
Reading this article, you get the idea that Uruzgan is led by the US military. And that supporting gunmen is the Western policy in that area. But that’s not the whole story.
In Uruzgan, like in other provinces probably, other NATO-members have tried to sideline these gunmen. Take the Netherlands as ‘lead nation’ in Uruzgan. With their 1500 soldiers and around ten Dutch diplomats, they worked for four years on another track. Instead of supporting Matiullah, they tried to balance his power by including other tribes in order to create a halfway representative government and satisfy more groups than the one Matiullah belongs to. This led to a tug-of-war that even made it into policy papers in Washington. Whereas McChrystal’s new strategy largely corresponds with what the Dutch did in Uruzgan, the American Special Forces in the field continue to have their own approach.
From 2006 on, the Dutch have tried to repair the effects of the US Special Forces’ actions. Matiullah’s relative Jan Muhammad who was appointed provincial governor in 2001 started to play tribe against tribe. Like his colleagues in Helmand and Kandahar, he unleashed a political and tribal war by excluding personal rivals, opponent tribes and those who didn’t want to be loyal. It was especially Jan Muhammad’s access to and close relationship with their tribe-affiliate, the President, that made them strong. The US Special Forces often acted on their desire. The marginalized Afghans, facing exclusion, an unfair governor and rapidly increasing corruption, decided to fight – in many cases out of self-defense.
When the Dutch took over the PRT from the US in 2006, governor Jan Muhammad was relieved of his post on the Netherlands’ request, in an attempt to get the excluded groups back into the political arena. But his right-hand man Matiullah – some Dutch soldiers only call him ‘M’ – managed to stay in Uruzgan, although the Highway Police of which he was the local commander was dissolved. He had enough money to keep ‘his’ fighters together, managed to turn some into a private security company and became Jan Mohammed’s ‘Forward Operating Base’ in the province.
Although the Netherlands is ‘lead nation’ in Uruzgan, there policy is not ‘leading’. The US Special Forces continue to support the ‘monopoly’ of networks like then one of Matiullah and Jan Muhammed. Matiullah’s generosity with money for the sick, poor and jobless Afghans impresses the Americans. He has his own shura (‘ the Uruzgan government is full of thieves’ and ‘I will do it myself’, he explained to me) to do this. “He is powerful, and knows how to share power”, some from the Special Forces told me in December.
It must have been strange for Afghans to see the ‘West’ falling apart in their province. In a society full of rumors and with a keen sense of where power and conflicts lie, the disagreements in the camps reached the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people easily.
So while the Dutch were able to block repeated attempts by Karzai’s office and the Special Forces to make Matiullah chief of the provincial police, the US hire him with his increasing militia and let him hunt his self-chosen enemies, which are often people the Dutch considered ‘reconcilable’.
And while the Dutch decided not to meet ‘M’ formally, so as to not further undermine the flailing government organs, US soldiers visit his house almost every day, exchange presents with him (like fake-gold watches from Dubai) and openly scoff at the Dutch.
In December 2009, when the Dutch forces arrested a man who neglected a stop sign in the capital Tirinkot, US Special Forces stormed into the prison when they found out that the arrested was a nephew of Matiullah. Let him go, the commander demanded. The Dutch set him free. The Afghans, again, didn’t know what to say.
Something similar happened even with Matiullah himself. In summer 2009, relations soured after the Dutch suspected him of being involved in an attack on one of their convoys on the road from Uruzgan to Kandahar. Seven Dutch soldiers were wounded in heavy fighting. There have been regular allegations (see also the NYT article) that in his role as the de facto and only protector of the Kandahar-Uruzgan highway, Matiullah sometimes creates fake enemies and fake fighting in order to stay in business and to keep the price of security high.
The US Special Forces got furious when they read these accusations in an internal document. A SF commander decided to take Matiullah with him to the Dutch Civilian Representative (he is generally not invited to visit the Dutch camp). While M was watching, the US and the Dutch ended up in a shouting match. Matiullah could leave the camp, without further questions.
Now the end-game has started in Uruzgan, at least for the Dutch. They are leaving as ‘lead nation’ because of a weak government back home that collapsed over Afghanistan. The US is set to take over. It is not yet clear whether this means that the US SF will now be able to follow their line unopposed, or whether some other parts of the US administration will stick to ‘the Dutch line’ and try to limit the influence of such actors.
Will the four-year Dutch presence in Uruzgan end up as a footnote in this province’s history? When I talked to Matiullah in December, he reacted excitedly when I asked him about the Dutch’s return home: “I wish they had left yesterday.”
(*) Bette Dam is a Dutch freelance journalist. She has visited Uruzgan (and other Afghan areas) regularly and is the author of ‘Expeditie Uruzgan: De weg van Hamid Karzai naar het paleis’ (Expedition Uruzgan: Hamid Karzai’s way into the Palace‘), Amsterdam and Antwerpen, 2009 (in Dutch). You can follow her reporting on www.bettedam.eu and/or www.twitter.com/BetteDam.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020