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      Swimming with Warlords

      October 14, 2013

      Warlord Nabi Gechi takes the author and his companions for a swim in the muddy Kunduz River.

      Under the cover of a moonless night in mid-October 2001, I found myself loading thousands of pounds of camera equipment and supplies onto a giant pontoon boat on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River. The pontoons were normally used to carry weapons to the northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban on the other side of the water. With all the gear and colleagues, there didn’t seem to be any room left on that raft for allegory, but I remembered feeling like one of the damned souls of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, about to be ferried across the River Acheron to hell. The American air strikes had begun, and I was headed into Afghanistan.

      I was dispatched by NBC News only one week after Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network attacked the US, crashing planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I arrived in Afghanistan in October to bear witness to America’s righteous anger and retribution. It was swift and unrelenting.

      In my first month on the ground, I watched as the US obliterated al Qaeda’s bases and, with the help of its Northern Alliance allies—a mix of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghans—toppled the Taliban government that had hosted them. But the war, as we well know, did not end there.

      I returned to Afghanistan in June for my fifth visit, 
      on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops (a joint security agreement will likely keep some US military personnel there past the deadline) in attempt to understand what had happened to the country in the 12 years since I first set foot there and what might happen this time, after I left.

      I reentered in exactly the same place I had crossed on my first visit: the Amu Darya River from southern Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan. The once busy Kokol-Ai Khanoum border crossing that allowed weapons, spooks, US Special Forces, and journalists like me was now a dusty shadow of its former self—a remote, dilapidated outpost that has been overshadowed by real bridges constructed or refurbished by the Americans and located near larger and busier population centers to help with the flow of commercial goods and war materials moving into and out of Afghanistan.

      At the crossing, I found the same pontoons moored to the banks, left unused because so little cargo travels back and forth here these days. I stepped into an ancient, rusted motorboat, one weld away from sinking, and made the three-minute crossing a second time, uncertain, just as I had been in 2001, what or whom I would find on the other side.

      Hiding in plain sight, the blue Toyota Corolla “bahmani-mobile” the author used to travel around Afghanistan.

      On that first trip to Afghanistan, I felt like the very personification of the intrepid foreign correspondent: riding on horseback with my colleagues to a series of World War I-type trenches where we watched Northern Alliance fighters talk to their Taliban counterparts on handheld radios, teasing and cracking jokes in between killing each other.

      In late June 2013, a dozen years later, my hair and beard were graying, some of those colleagues had been killed, the horses were gone, the trenches were empty, and I rode shotgun in a blue Toyota Corolla with the word BAHMANI—Persian for “avalanche”— emblazoned in red and white on the hood and both sides. I had asked my Afghan colleague and interpreter, Matin Sarfraz, to find us a car that might fly under the radar and not draw the attention of the locals or anyone else who might be curious as to why we were zooming around Afghanistan. The result was the bahmani-mobile, owned and driven by Matin’s cousin Dost Mohammad.

      I had heard from my contacts that warlords, independent of the government, were exerting their influence. So I asked Matin to take me to meet one named Nabi Gechi who resides in a district outside Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan.

      Nabi Gechi’s men looked like pirates to me. Not skinny Somali pirates, but the kind you’d find illustrated in a Howard Pyle book or on a ship in the middle of the 17th century, wrapped in dark turbans, cold steel, and hard looks.

      Their faces were a microcosm of Afghan society—Turkman, Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik. They were men who’ve fought with Nabi for years, even some who had previously fought against him at one time or another. But they were all men who earned their living in blood. To lead killers like this you must be the best killer of them all, and they must believe that you are difficult, if not impossible, to kill. If they didn’t, at least one among them would have tried to claim the price on his head.

      “There’s a $500,000 reward to kill Nabi,” said Mullah Jilani, a former Taliban soldier turned militia lieutenant. “The Taliban are very afraid of him.”

      Two years ago, when Jilani was with the Taliban, he also wanted to kill Nabi. In fact, shortly after Nabi was hired by the village elders to provide security for his home district of Qali Zal in the Kunduz province, Jilani says he set out alongside more than 200 of his Taliban comrades to assassinate him on his own turf.

      Instead, Nabi routed them. According to Jilani, Nabi executed a flanking maneuver straight out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Eventually he corralled most of his Taliban pursuers into the local market area. Then, using his weapon of choice—a Russian-made 40mm rifle-mounted grenade launcher—he killed the platoon’s commander.

      “After that,” said Jilani, “we called off the attack and left the village.”

      When Nabi later skirted a second assassination attempt by the Taliban, Jilani arranged a meeting with the feared warlord.

      “I told him, ‘I don’t want to fight you anymore—there’s no benefit for either of us,’” Jilani said. Shortly after, he switched sides and began fighting under Nabi’s command against the Taliban.

      Since then, Nabi’s reputation as the fiercest Taliban killer in the north has grown to almost legendary proportions. In early July, he directed an attack against a house filled with Taliban. After his men surrounded it, Nabi, again using his beloved grenade launcher, personally unleashed a hell storm that was extreme, even for war-torn Afghanistan.

      Nabi’s militiamen awaiting orders.

      Nabi fired not just a dozen, 50, or even 75 of his high-powered explosive grenades at the structure. (They’re meant to be lobbed in a long arc at targets hundreds of meters away.) Haji Mohammed, Nabi’s son-in-law and bodyguard, said he watched as the commander fired 123 grenades as if they were rifle bullets—straight at his target.

      I came to the Qali Zal district to meet its most feared and revered warlord—who until recently had been on the payroll of the US military. Nabi made his name not with talk, but by becoming one of the top players in Afghanistan’s number-one national commodity: warcraft.

      So it was surprising when, in 2009, Nabi gave up the fight to start a successful fish and kebab restaurant in Mazar-e-Sharif. But two years later, the local elders asked him to return to Qali Zal, which had once again become overrun with Taliban, and provide security. The city was also steeped in a massive drug problem. Half of the province’s 30,000 drug addicts come from Qali Zal, an afflicted group of hashish and opium users that includes many children.

      Nabi recruited and reconstituted his loyal followers into a standing militia of 300 men, set up 18 command checkpoints, and shut down Taliban operations in the district.

      Malika Gharebyr, the head of women’s affairs for the district, told me that the Taliban harassed her every time she left her house. “Nabi brought security here,” she said when I visited her at her home, the day after I’d left Nabi’s compound. “It’s much better now.”

      Also asked to help clear up Qali Zal’s drug problems, Nabi helped provide protection that allowed the government to move in and destroy poppy fields in the area.

      “Without Nabi, we wouldn’t have been able to eradicate the fields,” said Abdul Bashir Morshid, the head of the Department of Counternarcotics in Kunduz. According to NATO’s Regional Command North, the American military was initially so supportive of Nabi’s efforts that they sent in Special Forces soldiers to train, arm, and pay his men as part of a controversial program known as the Critical Infrastructure Police (CIP). His men composed one of the dozens of irregular units mostly set up in northern Afghanistan. It was the perpetuation of an American counterinsurgency tactic used in Iraq: find a way to badge certain types of militiamen (preferably the nonideological kind), arm them, pay them, train them, and hope that the next time, they’ll be shooting in the opposite direction. This plan seemed to work with cases like the Sons of Iraq program in Anbar province, as long as the money continued to flow.

      In Afghanistan, the CIP were given yellow armbands, but no uniforms, and were co-opted, at least part-time, to fight the Taliban. But many of these CIP units, taking advantage of their new positions’ guns and badges, began to moonlight in ways that undermined their mission: shaking down the local communities, extorting them for food, fuel, and whatever else they wanted. Before long these sort of allegations were directed at Nabi’s militia—who were accused of “taxing” the locals for security by taking payments in bags of wheat and chicken to eat or sell on the market, even though each militia member was being paid about $200 a month from a NATO discretionary fund.

      The CIP program was created by the Americans with the help of NATO—reportedly without the knowledge or consent of President Hamid Karzai, who ordered it dismantled over a year ago, citing fears that irregular forces with no official or financial connection to the national government might one day pose a threat to it.

      Eventually, the American money dried up, along with the CIP program—but Nabi’s militia did not. Largely operating off a security tax made up of foodstuffs regularly delivered to his compound and checkpoints in the district, the militia has been able to stay in business.

      While he’s been a proven asset in the fight against the Taliban, Nabi has evolved into what President Karzai had feared most: a battle-tested, off-the-books warlord with no formal allegiance to the Afghan government—a wildcard who can operate independently and without oversight. Against the government’s wishes, in an attempt to solve one problem covertly, the US military had inadvertently reinforced the most popular of Afghan franchises: warlordism, a largely hopeless prospect in which he with the most guns wins.

      Qali Zal’s elders, who showed up by the dozens to meet with me at Nabi’s compound on my arrival, said that they need the protection of Nabi and his men. They told me that President Karzai should endorse the militia as a full-time, government-backed local police force, or send in another of their own. Until then, they said, the community had no other option but to accept the security Nabi’s militia provided, even if they had to pay for it; they admitted, however, that not everyone in the community was happy with the taxes.

      “The people asked me to come here and provide security,” Nabi said to me. “I’m happy to serve them, and if I’ve done anything wrong, I should be in a court and let them speak out against me for my crimes.”


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