Matiullah Khan is reportedly illiterate, but he is a very wealthy man. A warlord accused of mass murder, rape and abduction, the June 5 New York Times reported that Matiullah earned US$2.5 million a month through highway robbery, drug trafficking and extortion.
The news that members of his private army were training in Australia — revealed by the Sydney Morning Herald on October 29 — exposes the reality Australia’s “nation building” project in Afghanistan by putting a spotlight on a key local partner.
The extent of Matiullah’s brutality was shown in a massacre reported on by the July 18 Dutch daily De Pers. The paper said the previous month, Matiullah’s army made a surprise attack on a meeting of 80 people in Shah Wali Kot district in Kandahar province.
Five people were killed in the ensuing shootout. The remaining 75 were knifed to death.
Mohammed Daoud, the district chief of Chora, told De Pers: “As torture, they were first stabbed in the shoulders and legs. The corpses were treated with chemicals to make them unrecognizable.”
In 2001, when the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan, they sought alliances from warlords opposed to, or willing to defect from, the ruling Taliban.
These warlords shared the Taliban’s brutality, misogyny and religious conservatism. However, they differed in having less unity and being more involved in criminality.
The Taliban were never as free from corruption and crime as their puritanical laws imposed on others might imply, but since their overthrow crime rates hve exploded. Illegal opiate production has increased by 4500%.
In Oruzgan, where Australia’s military contingent is concentrated, President Hamid Karzai installed his kinsman, warlord Jan Mohammed Khan, as governor in January 2002.
However he “was removed from Oruzgan Province at the insistence of the Dutch in 2006 because of concerns that he was close to the drug trade”, the NYT said. “He is now an adviser to President Karzai.”
Dutch forces, who were the foreign military force occupying Oruzgan before being withdrawn from Afghanistan in August, also accused Khan of gross human rights abuses.
Matiullah owes his rise to being Jan Mohammed Khan’s son-in-law, under whom “he supposedly … led hit squads that killed stubborn farmers who wouldn’t hand over land, livestock, and in some cases, their daughters”, the SMH said.
Later, Matiullah became head of the provincial highway police, which offered lucrative opportunities to make money through extortion and drug trafficking.
In 2006, the force was disbanded because of its involvement in drug trafficking. “The highway police was one huge drug smuggling operation,” the NYT quoted “a former Western diplomat” as saying.
However, Matiullah continued the operation — converting the highway police into a private security company.
Extorting users of the highway between Kandahar tand Tirin Kot remains his most profitable business. In what is essentially a protection racket, highway users pay him not to be attacked.
This is said to be to provide security from other attackers, but his private army attacks those who don’t pay. The occupation forces are his most profitable customer.
“His company charges each NATO cargo truck $1200 for safe passage, or $800 for smaller ones”, the NYT said.
The October 29 British Daily Telegraph reported that, to promote this business, Matiullah “is also suspected of sponsoring Taliban activity in Oruzgan”.
The payments made by NATO, don’t always guarantee security. One of the documents on Afghanistan released by Wikileaks in July was a November 22, 2009, report of a convoy held up by 100 apparent insurgents demanding bribes of $2000-$3000 per truck.
It turned out the “insurgents” were from Matiullah’s private army.
Matiullah featured prominently in a June US House of Representatives report into private security companies in Afghanistan.
The CEO of an Afghanistan-based private security company told the congressional investigators: “Matiullah has the road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt completely under his control. No one can travel without Matiullah without facing consequences.
“There is no other way to get there. You have to either pay him or fight him.”
The House of Representatives report revealed concern from US legislators that not only was the military not getting value for money for the billions it was spending in the “corruptive environment” of private security outfits in Afghanistan, but that some of the money injected into private armies and drug gangs made its way to the Taliban.
However, the US military are far more than just clients for warlord-dominated security companies. On October 8, the BBC reported: “Some 26,000 private security personnel, mostly Afghans, operate in Afghanistan. Nine out of 10 of them work for the US government.”
Al Jazeera said on August 18: “In July, a report by a UN Human Rights Council working group on private security cited an Afghan interior ministry estimate that ‘no fewer than 2,500 unauthorized armed groups’ were operating in government-controlled provinces.”
Foreign mercenaries working for US multinational private security outfits, such as Xe (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp International, are accountable to no-one — a cause of local resentment.
Al Jazeera reported on an incident from July, in which “an SUV driven by a DynCorp International team working under a state department contract collided with a car carrying Afghan civilians in Kabul, killing one and injuring three and prompting a crowd of hundreds to protest, throwing rocks and chanting ‘Death to America’”.
However, 93% of the up to 19,000 security contractors employed directly by the US military were Afghan, Al Jazeera said. They also operate with impunity.
Furthermore, they are typically used in operations with special forces troops from the US-led occupying forces.
Special forces operations are veiled in secrecy and fall outside the normal command structures of the occupying armies. Special forces, not being bound by the same rules of engagement as regular soldiers, have been responsible for many human rights abuses and killings of civilians by the occupiers.
The result is parallel hierarchies in both the occupation forces and their Afghan puppets. In Oruzgan, the Dutch blocked Matiullah’s appointment as chief of police and officially refused to work with him on account of his links to the drug trade.
However, his 2000-strong army has dominated the province from a base adjacent to the US special forces compound in Tarin Kot.
The NYT said: “But Mr. Matiullah’s role has grown beyond just business. His militia has been adopted by American Special Forces officers to gather intelligence and fight insurgents …
“With his NATO millions, and the American backing, Mr. Matiullah has grown into the strongest political and economic force in the region.”
He formed a similarly close relationship with the Australian Defence Force contingent in Oruzgan. The August 8 Age reported: “Australian troops train and fight alongside his men, who wear Australian flags on their shoulder badges … The ADF describes [them] as the ‘Afghan partner force’ of Australian special forces.”
Mutiullah holds no formal position in the provincial or national government, but he has as a patron Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful political figure in the south of Afghanistan and one of the world’s major illicit opiate suppliers.
He also happens to be the brother of the US-installed president.
ADF head Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston defended bringing members of their ultra-violent “Afghan Partner Force” to Australia. He told journalists on October 29 that “Matiullah is very generous in circumstances. For example, a family lost a father and Matiullah provided support to that family in the absence of the father, and I’m familiar with other similar acts that he has been behind before.”
Matiullah is not the first gangster to have been praised in such a way.
The nature of such “allies” of the occupying forces makes a mockery of claims foreign soldiers are in Afghanistan to support democracy or to better the lives of Afghanis. The occupation is an imperialist adventure, seeking to strengthen the power of the US and its allies in the region.
To this end, many thousands of lives have been, and continue to be, sacrificed.