America’s monster

By Azam Ahmed

From the New York Times - May 22, 2024

A woman, wearing a gray burqa, sits on a mat facing the camera. She holds her hand to the base of her neck.
Malika mourns her son Ahmad Rahman, who was abducted in front of witnesses in 2016. Bryan Denton for The New York Times

America’s monster

By Azam Ahmed

I covered the war in Afghanistan and went back after the Taliban took over.

General Abdul Raziq was one of America’s fiercest allies in the fight against the Taliban. He was young and charismatic — a courageous warrior who commanded the loyalty and respect of his men. He helped beat back the Taliban in the crucial battlefield of Kandahar, even as the insurgents advanced across Afghanistan.

But his success, until his 2018 assassination, was built on torture, extrajudicial killing and abduction. In the name of security, he transformed the Kandahar police into a combat force without constraints. His officers, who were trained, armed and paid by the United States, took no note of human rights or due process, according to a New York Times investigation into thousands of cases that published this morning. Most of his victims were never seen again.

Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan aimed to beat the Taliban by winning the hearts and minds of the people it was supposedly fighting for. But Raziq embodied a flaw in that plan. The Americans empowered warlords, corrupt politicians and outright criminals in the name of military expediency. It picked proxies for whom the ends often justified the means.

I’ll explain in today’s newsletter how using men like Raziq drove many Afghans toward the Taliban. And it persuaded others, including those who might have been sympathetic to U.S. goals, that the U.S.-backed central government could not be trusted to fix Afghanistan. If there was ever any chance that the United States could uproot the Taliban, the war strategy made it much harder.

A savage campaign

My colleague Matthieu Aikins and I have covered Afghanistan for years. After America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we were suddenly able to visit people and places that were off-limits during the fighting. We traveled there, hoping to learn what really happened during America’s longest war.

Alongside a team of Afghan researchers, we combed through more than 50,000 handwritten complaints kept in ledgers by the former U.S.-backed government of Kandahar. In them, we found the details of almost 2,200 cases of suspected disappearances. From there, we went to hundreds of homes across Kandahar.

A government document and three passport photos of a young man.
The original missing-person complaint paperwork and passport pictures for Salahuddin, a rickshaw driver who disappeared in 2016. Bryan Denton for The New York Times

We tracked down nearly 1,000 people who said their loved ones had been taken or killed by government security forces. We corroborated nearly 400 cases, often with eyewitnesses to the abductions. We also substantiated their claims with Afghan police reports, affidavits and other government records they had filed. In each of the forced disappearances, the person is still missing.

Even at the time, U.S. officials grasped Raziq’s malevolence. “Sometimes we asked Raziq about incidents of alleged human rights abuses, and when we got answers we would be like, ‘Whoa, I hope we didn’t implicate ourselves in a war crime just by hearing about it,’” recalled Henry Ensher, a State Department official who held multiple posts on Afghanistan. “We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t think we had a choice,” Ensher said.

The cost

It would be too simple to say that Raziq’s tactics were entirely in vain. They worked in some respects, reasserting government control in Kandahar and pushing insurgents into the hinterlands. Raziq earned the admiration of many who opposed the Taliban. More than a dozen U.S. officials said that without him the Taliban would have advanced much faster.

But Raziq’s methods took a toll. They stirred such enmity among his victims that the Taliban turned his cruelty into a recruiting tool. Taliban officials posted videos about him on WhatsApp to attract new fighters.

A man in traditional Afghan attire with his hands clasped at his waist
Abdul Raziq at his home in Kandahar City in 2015, shadowed by one of his many bodyguards. Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Many Afghans came to revile the U.S.-backed government and everything it represented. “None of us supported the Taliban, at least not at first,” said Fazul Rahman, whose brother was abducted in front of witnesses during Raziq’s reign. “But when the government collapsed, I ran through the streets, rejoicing.”

Even some who cheered Raziq’s ruthlessness lamented the corruption and criminality he engendered — a key part of why the Afghan government collapsed in 2021. After Raziq’s death, his commanders went further. They extorted ordinary people and stole from their own men’s wages and supplies. “What they brought under the name of democracy was a system in the hands of a few mafia groups,” said one resident of Kandahar who initially supported the government. “The people came to hate democracy.”

Historians and scholars will spend years arguing whether the United States could have ever succeeded. The world’s wealthiest nation had invaded one of its poorest and attempted to remake it by installing a new government. Such efforts elsewhere have failed.

But U.S. mistakes — empowering ruthless killers, turning allies into enemies, enabling rampant corruption — made the loss of its longest war at least partly self-inflicted. This is a story Matthieu and I will spend the coming months telling, from across Afghanistan.

Read Azam’s investigation, and watch him explain how it came together.