Who’s the Enemy Here?
Last week I wrote about how ordinary Afghans have much to fear from the villains when traveling on the highways and roads in this country. This week, I’d like to address one of the biggest threats to those of us in the Kabul expat community: the Afghan government security apparatus. I was inspired to write this up after hearing that the Ministry of Interior is now insisting that all PSC’s in Kabul, whether foreign or not, must submit weekly movement plans to them for approval. Apparently, it just went into effect. If this policy was instituted by any other government, I would probably agree with it, but I guarantee this is just another ridiculous Afghan policy designed to harass foreigners. The primary harassers will be the ANSF, as always. I may be unfairly tarring all ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces, which includes the Army, Police, and NDS) with the same brush, but here in the capitol they are definitely running amok and their behavior towards both locals and expats is shameful.
To begin with, the Kabul police are ridiculously corrupt; I sometimes feel it would almost be better to simply disband them altogether. They constantly demand rent from shop owners and street vendors, shake locals down for bribes during routine traffic stops, and are easily bought off at checkpoints. Some of the stuff they do to expats includes stopping them outside the airport and confiscating their booze so they can re-sell it on the black market, harassing foreign PSC’s by seizing their weapons and vehicles, and I even saw them pull over a US military patrol once near ISAF headquarters, in what appeared to be a surprise inspection of their tactical vehicles. As much as this harassment annoys me and other expats, it’s nothing compared to what the local population is subjected to. If you’re an expat and get your booze taken at the airport, you might miss out on a gin and tonic, but for many hard-working Afghans, the ANP corruption affects their abilities to put food on the table for their families. The other day, one of my Afghan staff overheard a group of street vendors complaining bitterly about how much money they have to pay to the ANP in order to do business. They all agreed that at least when the Taliban were in charge, they were free to sell their wares without having to pay bribes. Maybe a bribe here and there doesn’t seem like a big deal, but let me remind you about the recent Tunisian uprising, which was sparked off by a young man who self-immolated (no pun intended) after the cops destroyed his produce cart when he didn’t pay them the required bribe. If the corruption within the ANP is not addressed, it could have similar effects on local Afghans, leading to major civil unrest, especially as cash starts getting tight in the next few years when the foreign money stops flowing in as it does now.
As troublesome as the ANP can be, they are pikers in comparison to the NDS (National Directorate of Security), at least as far as Kabul is concerned. The Afghan spy agency likes to think they own the streets of Kabul. For expats, they are enemy #1 in the city. First off, they’re deeply suspicious of all foreigners, especially Americans. There have been several Mexican standoffs between the NDS and the US military in the city and countrywide over the past few years, one of which resulted in the deaths of three Americans a few weeks back (see the FRI Rides Again post for details). Secondly, and more importantly, many of them work for other foreign intelligence agencies, such as the Russians, Iranians, etc. I’m sure that one of the tasks given to them by their handlers is to identify all the foreign intelligence agents in the city. My guess is that the Russians are especially influential because many of the older generation NDS officers are KGB-trained. I’m sure they still maintain their connections. Because of these two factors, NDS watches all foreigners like hawks because they think we’re all spies. They watch our guesthouses, our places of business, and the places we shop. An expat I know here who runs a guesthouse for other foreigners told me that NDS has come by several times demanding copies of all her guests’ passports. To be honest, the Taliban doesn’t worry me all that much, but I’m terrified of the NDS. Because guys like me who are completely un-tethered are particularly vulnerable to their abuses; if I get stopped by the NDS at a checkpoint, I could be thrown into the clink on trumped-up charges (most likely accused of being a Pakistani spy) and there’s not much the US government could (or would?) do about it.
I’ve had a few little run-ins with the local security forces, but they are nothing in comparison to some of the stories I’ve heard. Two personal expat friends of mine over here have had some very nasty things done to them by the ANSF. One spent the night in an NDS prison with a bunch of Talibs after he was arrested on the suspicion of being a Pakistani spy. Although his embassy got involved and verified his identity within hours of his arrest, the NDS still held him overnight. He was beaten and interrogated for hours before finally being released. Another friend was arrested by the ANP for the same reason – suspicion of being a Pakistani spy. He was also smacked around and tossed in a cell with a bunch of Talibs. Both the Talibs and the ANP threatened to kill him several times. Luckily, he was only held for 5 or 6 hours before being released. Both of these guys are freerangers (though not associated with this website, to be clear), which as I said, made them extremely vulnerable to this kind of abuse by the security forces. Guys like us don’t have diplomatic immunity and we’re not constantly tracked like we would be if we worked for the UN, ISAF, or an embassy. It would be pretty easy for people like us to just disappear. In fact, with the fragile nature of the current US-Afghan relationship, the cynical part of me wonders if the US government would do anything if I was abused or even murdered by Afghan security forces. I’m really not sure I’m being paranoid on that point either, as there is at least one precedent. Remember Louis Maxwell? Of course you don’t; no one does. He was executed by Afghan security forces on camera, but the killing was swept under the rug by the media and no one was ever held accountable for his murder.
It is completely and utterly wrong that our governments keep shoveling taxpayer money into this country, yet allow the Afghan security apparatus to harass and abuse their citizens. Are there foreign PSC’s out here that needed to be reined in? Sure, but the vast majority of foreigners over here are trying to help Afghanistan and even if they’re stuck on FOB’s or work for organizations that are, well.let’s just say less than effective, their presence alone drives the Afghan economy and they should be left alone to do their jobs, not continually harassed by the very people they’re supposed to be helping. It’s partially because of that harassment that I have decided to keep my identity on this blog as anonymous as possible. I actually hesitated to write this post because I don’t want to get myself or any of my employees into trouble with the Afghan government, but I feel strongly that this information needs to be put out there.