Since the complex attack on Uruzgan on 28 July 2011, people in Tirin Kot have been jumpy. So last night, 7 August 2011, when around 9 pm shooting was heard throughout the city people feared the worst. It turned out to have been traditional congratulatory shooting in the air, saluting the appointing of Matiullah Khan as the new Chief of Police of Uruzgan. AAN member Susanne Schmeidl discusses the background and possible implications of the appointment.
Matiullah replaces Fazl Ahmad Sherzad, a Nurzai originally from Farah province, who was only appointed four months ago on 1 April 2011. Sherzad had replaced Juma Gul Hemat who was relieved of his duty after longstanding complaints about massive corruption. With the appointment as police chief Matiullah is finally there where he has wanted to be for a long time.
Matiullah has sought the position of provincial chief of police in his home province for years. He came very close to it in 2007, but reports of past brutality against other tribes blocked the move. The matter was never really laid to rest and rumours of his possible appointment (although always denied by him) became more intense towards the end of 2010. During those years Matiullah’s security responsibilities had increased, as had his power and influence within the province. He played an important role in retaking Gizab in 2010 and clearing roads in Char China (Shahidi Hassas). His close links to Australian and US Special Forces, who coordinate their activities with him and recently flew some of his men to Australia for training, was locally interpreted that he also had international support for his quest.
According to an 18 June 2011 article in one of Australia’s leading newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Australian officials have canvassed him [Matiullah] many times about possible positions within the Afghan government.’ But, the article goes on, the US had blocked the recommendations for him to be made Chief of Police. This may have been because the previous US Ambassador, General Karl Eikenberry, criticized NATO for propping up local strongmen such as Abdul Raziq (Kandahar Border Police commander, recently also appointed as Chief of Police in Kandahar), who in many ways has a background similar to Matiullah’s.
In a twist of fate, recent events that struck Matiullah and his family may have removed the last hurdles to him becoming Chief of Police.
First, the death of his uncle, Jan Mohammad Khan, who was killed by suicide bombers in his home in Kabul on 17 July 2011 (alongside his protegée Mohammad Hashim Watanwal, an MP representing Uruzgan) removed a person rumoured to have been resentful of his nephew’s rising star and thus opposing his appointment out of fear that he would outgrow him even more. Furthermore, some felt that for Matiullah Jan Mohammd Khan was an embarassing reminder of pre-2006 times in Uruzgan when a witch hunt aginst Ghilzai leaders had been waged by his uncle. Matiullah’s role in those operations continues to cast a shadow over his ‘reformed’ persona, even though he has tried to make up for past wrongs by supporting widows and university students and talking the language of conflict resolution.
Second, the complex attack in Tirin Kot, on 28 July 2011, which among others focused on Matiullah’s compound, shook the town’s elite, in particular as the Afghan National Security Forces had not been able to fight off the Taleban insurgents without the help of US and Australian Forces. And last but not least, the reinvigorated lobby of pro-government leaders arguing that deteriorating security in Tirin Kot meant that the situation was at its worst since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, may have provided the final push to convince both Karzai and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan to appoint a strongman capable, in their view, of reigning in the Taleban.
Fazl Ahmad Sherzad, in the end, lasted just for over four months. In many ways it is a pity, as people did feel the wind of change entering Uruzgan after Sherzad’s appointment: the police was being paid, received proper uniforms, and overall were run more professionally. Sherzad might have gone far, if he had not been a thorn in the eye of Matiullah Khan.
There were of course, as always (and as always somewhat credible), also rumours of Matiullah intentionally allowing the security situation to deteriorate in order to prove the point that only he could provide security, but certainly not an outsider to the province. There were tensions between him and the outgoing police chief over the provision of security on the Kandahar-Tirin Kot road, his main source of income. Sherzad allegedly told him that it was the government’s job to secure that road and that he had no right to charge people for it. He also wanted Matiullah to take back his men that were still on the government payroll. None of this, of course, sat well with Mattiullah.
When asked if he would accept the position if offered, Matiullah is said to have replied that he would accept whatever Karzai decided and that he was ready to serve the people of Uruzgan (what else can you say). In all my discussions with him he always emphasised that it was not him who wanted to become police chief, but that it was the people of Uruzgan who wanted him to take up the post. That being said, he did of course feel qualified for the job, and he stressed that it would help him ‘bring order to his house’, which is how he referred to Uruzgan.
A year ago when rumours first surfaced, he shared some thoughts of what he would do as police chief: First and foremost, he would work to bring harmony between all of Uruzgan’s various tribes. Secondly, he intended to re-train all district and local police officials and replace the corrupt ones. In an interview in June, when I discussed the Afghan Local Police (ALP) with Matiullah, he expressed concern and said that if he were made police chief he would ensure that local ALP commanders would not be loyal to a particular group or tribe at the expense of the government and the people. He talked the talk, but it remains to be seen what his reign will look like, in the context of a precarious security situation.
Feelings about his appointment are mixed. On one hand there is the sigh of relief, as many hope that, if nothing else, his appointment at least means that Tirin Kot will not fall into Taleban hands. On the other hand it signifies a move backward, moving away from the hope of one day establishing a government made up of professionals – a hope that is still alive in besieged Uruzgan. There are also those who feel they may be marginalised again. Ghilzai leaders in Uruzgan, who in the past had felt severely sidelined, had welcomed the appointment of the outgoing (Nurzai) police chief Sherzad as a sign that marginalised tribes may finally have some support in government. The reaction of two of Matiullah’s most vocal opponents – Daud Khan (previous district governor of Chora and son of the late Rozi Khan) and Muhammad Nabi Khan (Tokhi strongman in the Darafshan valley), who have had differences with Matiullah in the past – will be important to watch. Both openly expressed their opposition to the appointment in the past and have threatened that they would not allow his men into their area, and may even open it up to the insurgency if pushed too hard.
Matiullah’s new appointment is part of a trend that is both old and new, aligning the de facto monopoly over the use of force with the de jure one. The province will no longer be troubled by the rivalry between the de facto strongman and the police chief, but the appointment might open up new, and revive old rivalries and tensions. It is unclear how Governor Omar Sherzad will position himself vis-à-vis Matiullah, possibly playing out an amplified version of the rivalry found in many provinces and districts between governors and chiefs of police as to who really rules the area. In the end it also remains to be seen what the effect of Matiullah’s rule will be on the insurgency and the precarious position of marginalised tribes: whether he will be able to turn the tide of violence that has recently shaken the province; or if worse is to come.
Some more information on Mattiullah’s background (original sources unknown) can be found here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020