The Afghan Local Police (ALP) commander in Shajoy district, Zabul province, Haji Gul Agha, has been killed in a Taleban ambush, along with four of his men. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary had been researching Gul Agha’s record as his was an interesting example of locals managing, with great difficulty, to get rid of an abusive ALP commander and replace him with a man who was capable and respected. This was to be a dispatch on how they managed to do this. It is now also something of an obituary for Haji Gul Agha.The late Haji Gul Agha, ALP police chief for Shajoy district, Zabul. Photo: Pajhwok.
More than 200 tribal elders from different parts of Zabul province came to Hilal Chena village in Shajoy district to attend Haji Gul Agha’s funeral. They were joined by officials, including Daud Gulzar, advisor to the president, and Daud Asas, advisor to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and Zabul MP Hamidullah Tokhi. The government has started an investigation into the killing, but it seems, (details given by the district governor) Gul Agha had been driving his car when the Taleban ambushed him at about eight in the morning in the Kalakhel area, which is about three kilometres to the northwest of the district centre, on 18 September 2016. He and four of his men were killed. The Taleban have said they carried out the attack.
Shajoy, a vast plain of a district, is strategically important. Bordering Ghazni province to the north and Zabul’s provincial centre, Qalat, to the south, it lies on Highway 1 which connects Kabul with Kandahar and Afghanistan’s south and west. Because of Highway 1, Shajoy also functions as a centre for several other districts of Zabul as well. This is a green, fertile district and most people are farmers, owning orchards of apples, grapes, apricots and mulberries, vineyards and cultivating wheat and other crops. The district is particularly famous for its grape and raisin production.
The district is also important for the Taleban, who use it as their main transit (and supply) route between Pakistan and Uruzgan and Ghazni provinces. Taleban fighters crossing from the south to Loya Paktia also go through Shajoy. In terms of territorial control, the Taleban control most of the district’s rural areas while the government’s control is limited to the district town and the highway. The government forces generally do not venture out into the rural areas, the ‘Taleban territory’.
The district has contributed some senior Taleban figures. Mawlawi Jabbar, who comes from Shajoy, is a former Taleban commander and current member of the Taleban leadership council in Quetta. He is the main military commander of Taleban fighters for Shajoy district. He does not come to the district himself, but gives order to the fighters from Quetta. Since he is not in Afghanistan, he has deputised responsibility for operations in Shajoy to Mawlawi Abdullah Habib and Mullah Qodus respectively as his first and second deputies. The Taleban shadow governor for Shajoy is Mullah Muhammad Ali Qismat. All of these Taleban are Tokhi by tribe.
On the government side, the main influential figure against the Taleban is MP Hamidullah Tokhi, who is known in the area as a good friend of the Americans. Although, not from Shajoy district, his tribal relations and his role as MP, linking locals with the government in Kabul, makes him influential. He generally has support among the Tokhi, parts of the young population and among people who have more interaction with the government, particularly those who are in need of his help in Kabul. Although, the main Taleban supporters in this district are also Tokhi, they are generally found among people with a religious background, students of religious madrasas or imams. The main tribes in Shajoy district are Tokhi and Kharoti; other small tribes include Taraki, Andar, Sulemankhil, and Hotak. Most of the ALP forces are Tokhi. (1)
In the various districts of Afghanistan where the ALP operates, people’s experience of it has been mixed: in some places, it protects people, contributing to stability; in others, it behaves as a predatory militia, with locals powerless to protect themselves or get abusive commanders removed. In Shajoy, residents have seen both types of ALP.
The ALP was established in 2011 in the northwest of the district, in Chena (also known as Hulan Rabat), a spread-out area with around 3000 families living in more than 500 villages. Its first commander was Muhammadullah. He had joined the Afghan National Police (ANP) in the early years of former president Hamid Karzai’s administration and before coming to be ALP chief in Shajoy, had worked as police chief of Siori district, also in Zabul. He and his family apparently did not support any of the jihadi parties in the fight against the Soviets in 1980s. He is Tokhi, originally from Chena area, but has lived most of his life in Zabul’s capital, Qalat.
Muhammadullah got the job because of his good relations with both American special forces and certain provincial officials. According to Shajoy district governor Wazir Khan, the Americans at the time suggested him to Zabul Police headquarters as ALP commander for Chena. His appointment was not made in accordance with regular procedures. According to a Human Right Watch report from 2011, the Ministry of Interior and US Special Operations Forces should have ensured ALP members were nominated by a functioning shura in the area. A US official interviewed by Human Rights Watch said shuras were critical for ensuring the ALP did not replicate the problems with earlier ‘local defense forces’, which had been unrepresentative and disconnected from local communities and prone to predatory behaviour. “There have been many attempts to establish similar programs,” the official said. “The key is a functional representative shura… If a shura is recognized as representative then we begin [the ALP process].”
American Special Operation Forces, at the launch of the ALP in Shajoy, assured the population there would be accountability for the ALP through the district chief of police and that the elders could report any issues to him (see PRT reporting here). The PRT commander at the time, Lt Col Andy Veres, said, “The program leverages the experience of familiarity with the local community, the approval process of elders and the village shura, proper equipment and training from the Ministry of Interior, as well as a command structure under the District Chief of Police.” Obviously this system did not work.
Local residents and the district governor told AAN the appointment of Muhammadullah had not followed these procedures. He was simply introduced by the Americans. There had been no shura to consult, nor was one established, and there was no vetting of his forces. Such flouting of the rules happened in other provinces, as well, with similar outcomes, as detailed in this USIP report).
The importance of political backing
Muhammadullah’s relationship with American special forces began when he was with the ANP, first in Shajoy and later as police chief of Siori district. There, his relations with the US military developed as the Americans closely worked with him and consulted him on operations. The American soldiers thought that, as he was from Chena area, he would be a reasonable choice for ALP commander there. There were, however, early indications that his appointment might be problematic.
While serving as district police chief in Siori, Muhammadullah killed four people whom he said were Taleban fighters, with the help of Americans – at least that is what locals said he told them after he was appointed in Shajoy. One resident of Chena said Muhammadullah bragged about how they had thrown the bodies into a well. He reportedly also killed an ANP officer in Siori. According to Shajoy district governor Wazir Khan, the man had an argument after Muhammadullah refused to approve the officer’s request to take a post in another district. They scuffled and Muhammadullah beat the officer on the head with a stick. This resulted in a serious injury and the officer died after five days in hospital.
Multiple sources told AAN that Hamidullah Tokhi, who at the time was a Kabul-based MP, also played an important role in Muhammadullah’s appointment. Since Tokhi had good links with the Americans, his support was important. Several residents of Chena said that Hamidullah Tokhi had supported Muhammadullah’s appointment in early 2010 in order to secure votes for himself in the upcoming 2010 parliamentary election. He did indeed get most votes in the province, but was disqualified by the Electoral Complaints Commission (and then reinstated as MP by the Supreme Court in early 2011, (details here).
In the summer of 2013, Ghulam Sakhi Roghlewanai became police chief of Zabul and also started building relations with Muhammadullah. Local residents told AAN Roghlewanai had received considerable revenues from his links with Muhammadullah. For example, one source told AAN about a checkpoint Muhammadullah had set up on Highway 1 where his men would charge trucks, as well as untaxed cars that had been imported for spare parts and were being transported in shipping containers. One source claimed that the then-police-chief of Zabul received a monthly cut of around 7000 USD, while another said it was 200,000 Pakistani rupees (a little under 2000 USD).
The support of such influential figures made Muhammadullah a strongman in the area, who could not be easily removed.
Behavior of ALP forces under Muhammadullah
On paper, Muhammadullah had an ALP force of 180, for which he received accommodation and food allowances. When a new district chief was appointed in Shajoy in 2012 and asked Muhammadullah to present all his policemen, he presented only 80. When Muhammadullah realised the new police chief – whom he formally reported to – might create problems, he asked provincial officials to help replace him. He also told the Americans that if the police chief continued in his post, he would not work with them anymore. According to locals, the new police chief was replaced within 18 days.
There were also consistent reports of abuse by Muhammadullah. When he arrested people accused of having links with the Taleban, he would often beat them and then ask the victim’s relatives to pay 200,000 Pakistani rupees for their release (roughly 2000 USD). On one instance, in the summer of 2014, his forces arrested three persons (Nurullah, son of Abdul Rahim from Sarwar Qala, the son of Pir Muhammad from Ahmaq village, and Ezatullah from Akhundzadakhel village). When relatives asked for their release, Muhammadullah told them he would move them to Qalat for further interrogation. However, they were never moved to Qalat, but instead were killed. AAN was told Muhammadullah’s forces first severely beat the men and then, later on the same day, killed them. Most of the reported incidents of abuse happened after 2013, after the US soldiers based in this district left.
Muhammadullah unfortunately acted as a role model for his forces. They were given a free hand to beat civilians and extract money from them, without fear of repercussion. ALP forces were responsible for several cases of abduction, extortion and murder. For example, in 2012, ALP men abducted two girls, one from Lower Jafar village and another, the daughter of a butcher, from the district centre. In 2014, an ALP man abducted a girl from Bazargan village. She had been engaged to him in the past, but he had been unable to pay the bride price. Once the man abducted her, Muhammadullah forced her parents not to ask for anything in terms of bride price or wedding celebration. Another ALP man abducted a girl from Tauskhel village who was engaged to a man from Sautkhel village. When the parents and relatives of the girl complained to Muhammadullah, he threatened them and forced them to accept 25,000 rupees (a little under 250 USD) as compensation. Locals said Muhammadullah himself had also taken a girl, from Khwazak village, and married her as his second wife.
The misbehaviour of the ALP was not limited to the abduction of girls and women. They also forced people to provide them with bread and other food and pay a sum of money twice a year, which they claimed they needed to buy firewood. They also forced people to fix a light bulb on top of their houses, so that the streets would be lit at night and the ALP could see people’s movements. House owners who failed to do so – the area has no electricity and not all people could afford a generator or solar power system – were forced to pay 2,500 rupees (24 USD). If the house owner refused, he would be beaten and if he complained that the fine was too much, the ALP would tell him to pay double. (Sources also told AAN that ALP men were responsible for robberies and breaking into people’s houses, but did not provide any exact examples.) Last, but not least, according to three sources, in the spring of 2015 in Seh Bandi area, some ALP men asked a Kuchi man named Nur Muhammad to give them a sheep because the commander had asked for it. The Kuchi told them he would go and see the commander himself first, but the ALP did not let him visit Muhammadullah and killed him on the spot instead. They took three sheep. After they killed the Kuchi, the ALP people fired shots so they could pretend the man was killed during a fire-fight with the Taleban.
Security-wise, the situation in Shajoy was poor during Muhammadullah’s time as ALP chief. Taleban fighters carried out numerous attacks on ALP posts, which resulted in the killing of many ALP men and policemen. According to Shajoy’s district governor, the Taleban fighters, in particular, attacked the ALP posts in the villages of Manda, Se Bandi, Syedan, and Lilizi in Chena area. The bad security situation in Chena area also affected the atmosphere in the district bazaar and the regular reports of attacks and ALP/ANP casualties affected morale.
Sources gave several different reasons for the bad security situation. First of all, the mistreatment by ALP forces contributed to the area destabilising. For example, when the ALP men asked people for money, they would feel angry and disrespected. Some of the people then joined the Taleban, while others tacitly supported them.
Others said that Muhammadullah actually did not want the situation to improve, because the worse the situation, the more support he could get from the government, which he could then use for personal gain. For instance, AAN was told, if there was an attack in which a hundred bullets were fired, Muhammadullah would report the loss of 500 bullets to the local government. If there was an attack, people said, he did not seriously try to control the situation and would send only a few men.
Local people’s complaints
ALP abuses and general insecurity galvanised the local population to take action, but their initial efforts came to nothing. According to local sources, people repeatedly complained to officials in Qalat. They did so quietly because they feared repercussions from the ALP back home. People also raised the problems with a high-ranking delegation sent from Kabul in early 2015. The delegation was comprised of Zabul MP Abdul Qadar Qalatwal, head of the president’s complaints commission Asadullah Wafa, representatives from NDS, IDLG, MOD and presidential affairs, and head of Zabul Provincial Council Atta Jan. Qalatwal also said the delegation met residents of Chena area. He told AAN, “The main complaint of the local residents was that the ALP forces abducted young girls and forcibly married women. Also, they complained that the ALP men were forcing them to pay money and provide them with food.”
Asadullah Wafa, who headed the delegation to Zabul, also recalled the complaints about the misbehaviour of the ALP, but said he could not remember any details as it was already more than a year ago. He said the delegation completed its report and submitted it to the presidential office, but did not follow up on whether the people’s complaints were dealt with.
According to local residents, nothing happened – mainly because Muhammadullah still had the backing (although it was already waning) of Provincial Police chief Ghulam Sakhi Roghlewanai, MP Hamidullah Tokhi and Zabul governor Muhammad Ashraf Naseri. According to Provincial Council Chairman Atta Jan Haqbayan, however, the government did not act because there was no suitable person to replace Muhammadullah and they feared the area could fall into Taleban hands.
The appointment of a new commander; the role of the people
Since Muhammadullah had strong supporters, it was difficult for locals to get him removed. But over time, the ALP commander did lose support. The American special forces left the area in the autumn of 2013. The ALP district police chief’s relationship with Hamidullah Tokhi also weakened, as there was no immediate election and he became less important for the MP. Police Chief Roghlewanai, another supporter of Muhammadullah, was replaced in early 2015. Also, as complaints increased, Tokhi started to fear for his image, according to locals who spoke to AAN.
The new police chief for Zabul province was General Mirwais Nurzai, who is from Farah province. He was with the border police in Kandahar and then, for two months, the police chief of Farah province. After he was appointed, he sent members of the provincial council to Shajoy to observe the situation. Based on their findings, he decided, in the summer of 2015, to remove Muhammadullah from the ALP and appoint him as ANP police chief of Shajoy, instead. This, however, did not improve the situation. As Shajoy police chief, Muhammadullah still controlled the ALP and during the four months he worked in this position, he carried on with his old behaviour. For example, once, after the Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers killed a Taleban commander around October 2015, several people from Shajoy bazaar went to the condolence ceremony. When Muhammadullah learned about this, he arrested several shopkeepers, some of whom he sent to Qalat jail. Others he released, after they each paid him 30,000 rupees (285 USD).
After this, the people from Chena area, who had been suffering from ALP abuses for so long, decided it was the right time to act. Along with the shopkeepers who had had money extorted from them, they went to Qalat and demanded Muhammadullah be removed from the district. The chair of the provincial council said: “After this incident, we told the Zabul police chief that Muhammadullah did not have the ability to improve the situation in Shajoy and that it would be better to remove him from the district completely.” As a result, the Zabul police chief and the provincial council members started seriously thinking about an alternative to Muhammadullah.
Choosing a new ALP commander
Officials in Qalat began consultations with provincial council members and tribal elders from Shajoy, particularly from Chena area. According to the head of the provincial council, Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council members decided to choose someone from the area who had lived there and who would understand the situation. But it was not easy to find an alternative to Muhammadullah. No one from the area was keen to take up the responsibility, and it was difficult to identify someone with sufficient local support. After consultations with local people, finally, the officials, with the help of the provincial council members, chose Haji Gul Agha, another Tokhi from the Chena area, who was in his mid-50s – so seen as elderly.
Haji Gul Agha was born in Hilal Chena area and grew up mostly in his own village. He and his brothers are mostly busy with farming, owning many orchards and a large amount of farmland in Hilal Chena. Haji Gul Agha had no links with any political parties and had good connection with the tribal elders in the area, a tribal elder who requested not to be named said. Like his predecessor Muhammadullah, Gul Agha was also uneducated, but he had the benefit of having lived in the area all of his life and was, according to the locals, a respected man. Gul Agha had been involved in solving local disputes long before the ALP forces were introduced to Chena, and had often gone to meet officials in Qalat to complain about the ALP. According to one villager from Chena, “People know Gul Agha as a problem solver. He resolves problems and disputes with the help of other elders in the area.”
Gul Agha initially refused, as he remembered the problems that occurred in the time of Muhammadulah and was not sure the people would support him. He told those who asked him to take the job that he doubted he would be able to control the situation and change the behaviour of the ALP forces. It took three meetings with tribal elders from the area to convince Gul Agha to accept the position.
Gul Agha finally agreed in September 2015, but with several conditions: he wanted the local community to support him as ALP chief; he wanted the elders to make sure the young men from the area joined the ALP and; he asked the elders to advise him and share information on militant activities. After the participants of the meeting accepted these conditions, he was introduced to the Zabul police chief, who officially confirmed his appointment and gave him a written order to start his work as ALP commander. The official approval of his position by the police chief, the governor and the provincial members soon followed. The Zabul ANP chief changed the district police chief at the same time and Muhammadullah was fired from his post.
According to residents in the area, Gul Agha did not need the job to get rich, as he was already wealthy, but he accepted it because of the elders’ repeated requests and encouragement. They admitted he was not a fighter, as he was not as young or energetic as his predecessor, but his deputy, Bakht Muhammad, was. Bakht had worked as deputy of Muhammadullah and there had been no reports of misbehaviour by him. He is also from Chena and a relative of Gul Agha. Meanwhile, the ALP chief himself functioned more as a tribal elder, discussing issues with the other elders and trying to find solutions for any problems.
Reform and ALP behaviour
When Gul Agha took charge of the ALP, the local people not only supported him, but also agreed to certain rules. For example, if anyone in the area abducted a young girl, they agreed that the ALP commander, with the help of the tribal elders, would detain the person and make him pay 2,000,000 rupees (more than 19,000 USD) to the parents of the victim and make an apology.
According to Haqbayan, the situation in the area improved considerably after Gul Agha took over the ALP, largely due to cooperation and information-sharing of the local population. He also said no abuses had been reported after the appointment. When AAN asked MP Qalatwal about the situation, he said, “When people do not call me to complain about the situation, it means they are happy.” A local imam in Qalat told AAN an old man from Shajoy bazaar had described the situation as “as peaceful as during the realm of King Zahir Shah.” Exaggeration aside, local residents had not reported any dissatisfaction with the new commander.
One of the reasons the situation improved was that Gul Agha identified the ALP militia men who had been responsible for past mistreatment and dismissed or fired some of them. He also appointed new leaders to different areas. For example, he replaced one policeman, Khanjari from Sarwar Qala, and placed him under the command of someone he trusted, named Babo, so he could no longer ask anyone for money. In another example, Gul Agha disarmed and fired three ALP men who had robbed people and who were based at an ALP post in the area called Haji Sahib Qala. One source said the new commander even sent newly recruited ALP militias to Qalat for training, which helped change their behaviour. He also stopped the previous practices of asking locals to provide bread and food, forcing them to place a light bulb on their houses and demanding illegal money.
The changes brought by the new commander and the improved behaviour of the ALP forces seem to have encouraged people to support the ALP. In other parts of the district, people also said they no longer feared going to Chena area. A resident of Janda area from Ghazni province in a meeting during last Eid ul-Fitr told the author that local people in his area were also talking about the new situation and improved behaviour of the ALP in Chena.
According to the district governor, the rate of Taleban attacks and casualties went down. Speaking before Gul Agha’s killing, he said that, other than an attack on a police post on 9 August, 2016, which left two ALP men wounded, there had been no attacks on ALP posts after Gul Agha was appointed mainly because local people were cooperating with Haji Gul Agha and sharing information about the movement of Taleban fighters.
Numerous reports have been written about the ALP abusing local people in different parts of the country. Several themes emerge as to why this can happen. As in Shajoy, by-passing local shuras and not consulting locals is often a short-cut to disaster. The backing or involvement of senior officials may also strengthen the hand of those ALP who misuse their power and enjoy effective impunity. An abusive ALP can often result in worsening insecurity which, in turn, can pave the way for militants to connect with the local population, carry out attacks on government institutions and inflict considerable casualties on government forces. Abusive, unaccountable ALP forces can badly erode support for the government.
The residents of Shajoy were lucky, for a time. A confluence of factors, most importantly the rearranging of local power relations, both locally and in Kabul, meant that, suddenly, their demands for change were heard and acted upon. This may be difficult to replicate in other areas, as most ALP commanders are well-connected with senior officials inside the government. The case of Shajoy also illustrates, however, the positive impact a well-respected commander, who has the support of the community and who consults with local leaders, can have in an area.
We will never know how Gul Agha would have fared in the long run, given the many pressures on any ALP commander. For now, local people are worried. “His death has had an adverse effect on the community,” said one resident of Chena. “People are disappointed. They wonder who will fill this vacant post. The worry is that it would be difficult for any newcomer to maintain the situation as peacefully as Haji Gul Agha did.”
The district governor told AAN that, for the meantime, Gul Agha’s deputy, Bakht Muhammad, would be leading ALP forces in the area. A decision on a permanent successor, he said, would be taken after consultation with the tribal elders who had helped in the appointment of Haji Gul Agha. Officials who came from Qalat for the funeral also assured locals they would consult them on Gul Agha’s replacement. Local people would be given the chance, the district governor told AAN, to choose whoever they thought might be able to control the district and the ALP.
Haji Gul Aghan, son of Munir Akhundzada, from Hilal Chena village, Shajoy district of Zabul, is survived by two brothers, three sisters, four daughters and a son.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert, Borhan Osman and Kate Clark
(1) In case readers were wondering, the main mujahedin factions in Shajoy in the 1980s were Harakat-e Enqilab-e Islami and Hizb-e Islami. Harakat was generally more influential in the district due to the dominance of mullahs in the province who generally supported Harakat. The main Harakat commander in Shajoy was Hassan Khan (Tokhi), who at the time had more than 500 men (he die two years ago). During the civil war in 1990s, Shajoy witnessed factional fighting between Hizb and Harakat fighters in the Chena area, in particular between Hassan Khan and Hizb commander Rohullah Khan (both Tokhi); but the fighting was only for a short period because local influential figures managed to stop it. Right now, Hizb-e Islami still has supporters in Chena, but they are not involved in the ALP programme, as they have been in some other provinces.
Another famous figure from the district is Mullah Salam Raketi (Sulmankheil), the former Taleban commander and now member of parliament, who also ran for the 2009 presidential election and is based in Kabul.
(2) American Special Operation Forces, at the launch of the ALP in Shajoy, had assured the population that there would be accountability for the ALP through the district chief of police and that the elders could report any issues to him (see PRT reporting here). The PRT commander at the time, Lt Col Andy Veres, said, “The program leverages the experience of familiarity with the local community, the approval process of elders and the village shura, proper equipment and training from the Ministry of Interior, as well as a command structure under the District Chief of Police.” Obviously this system did not work.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020