An attack in Kandahar city has left the province’s governor, NDS chief and police commander, the unrivalled strongman of southern Afghanistan, General Abdul Razeq, dead. The commander of United States and NATO forces, General Scott Austin Miller who had just been meeting the three, was unharmed. The attack mimics earlier assassinations of officials and strongmen. With a slew of well-documented war crimes to his name, Razeq was also credited with keeping the south of Afghanistan relatively stable. Yet the repercussions of this assassination are difficult to underestimate and not just because the deaths of the province’s main officials came two days before an already shaky election, concludes AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig. (With input by Kate Clark and a short biography of Razeq by Jelena Bjelica.)
How the attack happened
The full details of the attack on 18 October 2018 are yet to emerge, but Afghan media reports, based on sources in Kandahar, and official statements by Afghan authorities, Resolute Support and the US military in Afghanistan (USFOR-A) have begun to make the contours of the incident visible.
The attack took place in the afternoon of 18 October at the governor’s compound, after a high-ranking meeting about election security had ended, and the participants were on their way out. “Provincial officials including the governor, the police chief and other officials were accompanying the foreign guests to the [helicopter] when the gunshots happened,” said Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, head of the Kandahar provincial council according to the BBC.
Spokesmen for the ministries of defence and interior said at a press conference later in the day reported by Kabul daily Etilaat-e Ruz that a member of Kandahar governor Toryalai Wisa’s bodyguard opened fire. They identified him as “Gulbuddin.” The Taleban, who immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on their website, said he was an “infiltrator” called “Abu Dujana.” According to officials quoted by the BBC, there were also at least two hand grenade explosions. Photos of the alleged assassin appeared on the social media but their source remained unclear.
According to the ministries of defence and interior statement, Razeq was killed along with the provincial NDS chief, Abdul Momen Hussainkhel, while Governor Wisa and the police chief of the southern zone, General Nabi Elham, were injured and hospitalised.
Resolute Support tweeted confirmation of the attack and reported that Gen Miller was “uninjured,” the attacker was “reportedly dead” and “3 Americans [were] wounded.” Later tweets by USFOR-A specified that those wounded had been “1 US servicemember [sic], 1 US Civilian and 1 [non-US] Coalition contractor” and that they had been “medically evacuated and are stable.”
The Associated Press quoted “Army Col. David Butler, who attended the Kandahar meeting with Miller, [saying …] Raziq […] was clearly the target, not the U.S. general. “It was pretty clear he was shooting at Raziq,” Butler told The Associated Press, adding that Miller was nearby but not in the line of fire.” And further
The delegates had just gathered for a group photo when gunfire broke out inside the provincial governor’s compound in Kandahar City, according to an AP television cameraman who was present when the shooting began. Everyone scattered, and the U.S. participants scrambled toward their nearby helicopter. But a firefight broke out between the U.S. service members and Afghan police when they tried to stop the U.S. delegation from reaching their helicopter, said the cameraman.
There were also reports about further casualties. The Afghanistan Journalists Centre tweeted the photo of Muhammad Salim Angar, cameraman for the Kandahar branch of Radio Television Afghanistan who was reportedly killed in the incident. Akmal Dawi, a journalist with the Voice of America, said, also on Twitter, that “several were killed in cross fire by various armed parties” (as in the original).
The Taleban statement posted quickly after the killings as ‘breaking news’ signed by “Qari Muhammad Yusof Ahmadi, spokesman of the Islamic Emirate” evolved over the hours to follow. First, it was a two-paragraph simply reporting that an infiltrator had killed “the brutal commander (wahshi kumandan) Abdul Razeq”, without mentioning Miller. Later, it grew to four paragraphs, claiming that “the actual targets were the American commander Miller and Kandahar’s brutal commander Abdul Razeq.”
By contrast, the RS and USFOR-A statements soon after the attack insisted, also in tweets, this was an “Afghan-on-Afghan” incident, in what sounded like an attempt to rescue the recent started US-Taleban talks led by Washington’s special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Although in the past “fighting and talking” went on simultaneously, it is difficult to imagine how the US government will be able to defend holding talks with an organisation that claims it attempted to kill the US supreme commander in Afghanistan.
Hours after Razeq’s assassination, what the Voice of America’s Pashto service called “his tribesmen” called on President Ashraf Ghani to appoint his younger brother, Tadin Khan, as new police chief in Kandahar. According to information AAN received from Kandahar, also member of the Karzai family, former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai (who do not belong to Razeq’s Achakzai tribe) and many members of Kandahar’s provincial council attended the meeting.
A constellation of the southern strongmen
Although all three Afghan deaths will reverberate, the death of General Razeq will have the greatest consequences. Like many powerful Afghans, he was greater than his official position, the police chief of Kandahar province, implied. He was, in fact, the strongman of greater Kandahar, the whole Afghan south (Afghans sometimes call the region the south-west). He had began as the border police chief in Spin Boldak, initially as a client of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the younger brother of then president Hamed Karzai. Because he was devoid of a strong, armed power base in his home region, the president had made Ahmad Wali into a kind of regional warlord. Officially, Ahmad Wali Karzai was the head of the elected Provincial Council of Kandahar, a position that in most places rarely rises above the ceremonial. Unofficially, though, he presided over a network of provincial strongmen who, like him, tended to be appreciated, admired and courted by parts of the US military and CIA, as well as some Afghans for their ruthlessness and anti-Taleban prowess. (Allegations against Ahmad Wali, that he was on the CIA payroll and played a major part in the southern drugs trade can be read here.)
Razeq was one of the constellation of strongmen, allies of the Karzais, who emerged in the south in the early years after 2001. Others included former Uruzgan governor Jan Muhammad (assassinated in July 2011 – AAN background here), his nephew, Uruzgan police chief Matiullah (assassinated in 2015 – AAN background here and here); former governor of Helmand, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada; and Assadullah Khaled, former governor of Ghazni and Kandahar (2005-08) and chief of the NDS (2012-15), who was maimed but not killed by a Taleban assassin in January 2012. (Khaled, has recently returned into Afghan politics and set up his own political group, Omid-e Sabah (Hope for Tomorrow; media report here). He appears to harbour ambitions for the 2019 presidential elections. (1))
After Wali Karzai was assassinated by a member of his personal entourage in July 2011, five days before Jan Muhammad, Razeq replaced and surpassed him as a much more powerful strongman, with clout across southern Afghanistan.
As of January 2018, Razeq started to support then Balkh provincial governor Atta Muhammad Nur who was fighting not to be replaced by President Ashraf Ghani. He then came under threat to be removed himself, by the Interior Ministry (media report here). He states these attempts were conspiracies to destabilise southern Kandahar and countered the removal threats by saying the Ghani-Abdullah government had not appointed him (he came into his latest position in May 2011, under President Karzai, following the assassination of his predecessor as Kandahar’s police chief, Khan Muhammad Mujahed; media report here), so it also could not fire him:
“This government has neither appointed me, nor it can remove me. I have been appointed based on the demands of Kandahar people and I will leave based on Kandahar residents’ demands,” Raziq said in the interview.
Razeq was also critical of the peace agreement between the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami. He alleged that Hezb fighters who had released as a result of the deal has joined the Taleban insurgency in his domain southern Afghanistan.
As a result, Razeq received Atta‘s support and was courted by newly emerging anti-Ghani opposition groups, particularly the so-called ‘Ankara Coalition’ (see AAN background here) of which Atta is one of the leaders. After today’s incident in Kandahar, Atta issued a statement online (quoted here), that Razeq’s assassination in a safe place and under strict security measures proved that he had been killed “due to conspiracies of his rivals and ‘inner circles’ having links with the top government officials.” Observers in Kandahar told AAN Razeq’s involvement in a countrywide political issue like that of Atta’s replacement was more a policy of self-insurance than real appetite for a political role on the national level – in contrast to Atta’s political ambitions.
The Taleban had tried to kill Razeq several times before. The most spectacular attempt was a sofa bomb that, in January 2017, killed 11 people, including the UAE ambassador and four more UAE diplomats (which led to a crisis between the Arabic country and the Taleban), but left Razeq, who had left the room just before the bomb detonated alive. (A similar bomb killed Helmand candidate Abdul Jabar Qahraman in nearby Lashkargah only one day before the attack on Razeq.)
The killing of Razeq shines a new light at one of the dilemmas of US policies in Afghanistan. All too often, the international military, diplomats and donors look for individuals, single strong men, that they can ‘work with’. (The same was the case on the national level, with president Karzai – until, in US government’s eyes, he no longer complied.) Yet, men like Razeq are also extremely brutal, committing atrocities that have stirred up resistance. An account of this is provided by Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins as he described how Nurzais in Panjwayi responded to violence by Razeq’s Achakzai-dominated border police, including the extrajudicial killings of 16 tribesmen in 2006 by joining the Taleban. (See also this Chatham House report.)
In May 2017, the United Nations Committee against Torture released a report describing “numerous and credible allegations” that Razeq is “widely suspected of complicity, if not of personal implication, in severe human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and …secret detention centers.” In response, Human Rights Watch’s Patricia Gossman asked “Will Afghanistan Prosecute Kandahar’s Torturer-in-Chief?“ Razeq “operates far outside the law,” Gossman wrote, “and has powerful support, notably from US intelligence and security officials, who consider him an ally in the fight against the Taliban.”
HRW had earlier accused Razeq (and a number of other strongmen and commanders) in a 2015 report titled “’Today We Shall All Die’: Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity“ of well documented allegations of “serious human rights violations [with] impunity [that] include allegations of mass killings, murder, rape, torture, beatings, enforced disappearances, theft, and arbitrary detention. (…) Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq ha[s] committed many acts of torture and enforced disappearances, and there is strong evidence that Raziq himself has been responsible for extrajudicial executions.” A graphic account of these disappearances was provided by journalist Anand Gopal reporting on more than 40 unidentified bodies that were found in Kandahar city and other places in the province in October 2013 alone, many of which could not be identified “because of smashed teeth, and missing noses, eyes or heads”. (See also this 2011 piece by Aikins.)
Both US and Afghan governments turned a blind eye to the numerous atrocities which Razeq was accused of, because they felt Kandahar’s security depended on him. (The same pattern of international supporters ‘holding their noses’ and ignoring war crimes can be seen in their dealings with Ahmad Wali Karzai, Matiullah, Assadullah Khaled and a host of others.)
Razeq’s rule drove the insurgency, but also contained it. Kandahar, under his watch, especially in recent years, has been relatively stable. He drove the Taleban out of Kandahar city and adjacent districts, while there is significant but static Taleban control over more outlying areas.
This means that, whatever comes of the 18 October bloodshed at the Kandahar governor’s mansion, it is unlikely to be good. Relying on single charismatic, if brutal individuals to keep order will always leave the Afghan state vulnerable if that individual is killed. Here, what happened in Uruzgan province, after Jan Muhammad and Matiullah were killed is a warning. Both men were brutal. The actions of both had driven the conflict. Yet, after they were assassinated, the Afghan National Security Forces fragmented. Smaller commanders started competing for power and security deteriorated. A number of observers have expressed that Kandahar could experience the same fate with the ‘kingpin’ gone (see for example here and here).
Conclusion: an attack not on the elections that will affect the elections
Everyone has been expecting that the Taleban would take aim at Afghanistan’s soon-approaching parliamentary elections. They had said they would “leave no stone unturned“ (quoted here) to prevent them. Indeed, ten candidates have been killed in the last two months and four others injured in attacks although, with the exception of Qahraman, the Taleban have not taken any responsibility for any of them. However, this attack, on Razeq and the other senior officials was not expected at this time.
Assuming the Taleban were responsible, the elections do not seem to have been the point of this attack. Eliminating a formidable opponent was the goal. The death of Razeq could reduce the southern region to turmoil, if only because there will be wrangling over who will replace him (chief of police in Kandahar is a powerful and, because near the border and major drugs producing areas in Helmand, lucrative position). Also, in the very short-term, his death – and those of the two other senior provincial officials and the hospitalisation of a fourth – will affect the elections. Security forces, primed to safeguard polling stations and other electoral infrastructure, have been left leaderless. An imminent Taleban attack on Kandahar city cannot be ruled out.
Edited by Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert
(1) A former Canadian deputy ambassador to Afghanistan who worked closely with Assadullah Khaled, testified before the Canadian parliament in 2009 that Khaled was directly involved in torture (media report here). Sher Muhammad Akhundzada was Helmand governor (2001-05) under Karzai, then removed under British pressure as a precondition for the UK sending NATO/ISAF troops to Helmand because of his involvement in the drug trade (900 tonnes of opium were found in his home). Karzai then appointed him senator, and Sher Muhammad is now running for parliament.
Annex: Abdul Razeq, a short biography
Abdul Raziq was born in 1979 and spent early years of his life in Spin Boldak, a border district with a major border crossing to Pakistan in Kandahar province. He is an Achakzai Pashtun.
It is not clear when his family fled to Pakistan, but Razeq probably spent his teens in exile. He joined Gul Agha Sherzai’s and Fayda Muhammad’s unit formed in 2001. He was then about 22 years old and still completely unknown. The Institute for the Study of War in its 2010 report, “Politics and Power in Kandahar” points out that in post-2001 ‘Sherzai came to rely heavily on Razeq and his militias to provide him with military muscle’.
It is not clear when exactly Razeq was given a colonel rank of the Afghan Border Police (ABP). According to an international organisation working closely with the ABP, this probably happened as early as 2004 or 2005 (personal communication with UN law enforcement official). But Razeq played all cards: military, political and economic. “Raziq’s influence in Spin Boldak derives not only from his military strength, but from his ability to use his power to exert considerable influence over Spin Boldak’s transit economy,” said the Institute for the Study of War in its 2010 report, using a euphemism for what is a mix of legit and illicit trade.
A Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins, who wrote extensively about Razeq described him in 2006:
At thirty years of age, Razik was the most powerful Afghan Border Police officer in the southern part of the country—a former child refugee who scrambled to power during the post-9/11 chaos, his rise abetted by a ring of crooked officials in Kabul and Kandahar as well as by overstretched NATO commanders who found his control over a key border town useful in their war against the Taliban. With his prodigious wealth, loyal soldiers, and connections to top government officials, Razik was seen as a ruthless, charismatic figure, a man who brooked no opposition to his will.
He also pointed out to a role Razeq and his militia played in 2009 presidential elections (see AAN report here):
In the 2009 presidential elections, Raziq proved that he could deliver vote counts through his commander network that extends through the districts of Maruf, Arghestan, Spin Boldak, Reg, Shorawak, and Daman.
But Razeq’s most important was a military role he played in his home-province Kandahar. According to Aikins’s report in The Atlantic), in the fall of 2010:
Raziq and his militia were given a starring role in the U.S.-led military offensive into Taliban- controlled areas west of Kandahar City, a campaign that boosted his prestige immensely. Mentored by an American Special Forces team, Raziq’s fighters won public praise from U.S. officers for their combat prowess. After the offensive, Raziq was promoted to brigadier general—a rank requiring a direct order from President Karzai—in a January ceremony at the governor’s mansion. As Ben Moeling, who was until July the State Department’s senior official in Kandahar province, explained to me at the time, the promotion was “an explicit recognition of his importance.”
Following the assassination of the police chief of Kandahar province, Khan Muhammad Mujahed, on 15 April 2011, Razeq was appointed the chief of the police of the province in May 2011. He continued to command his border units.
Razeq, Aikins reported, has long been publicly suspected of drug trafficking and corruption; allegations that he and his men have been involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, and illegal imprisonment. Razeq categorically denied all these charges, when Aikins confronted him.
Gen Razeq was quoted in January 2018, after the Ministry of Interior warned that it might take “legal action” against him, as saying that the National Unity Government had neither appointed him, nor could remove him from the post. “I have been appointed based on the demands of Kandahar people and I will leave based on their demands,” Razeq said.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020