Swimming with Warlords

Nabi Gechi is a killer, a warlord and a wrestling enthusiast.

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08 July 2013, 8:00am

Nabi Gechi is a killer who doesn’t bother with subtleties. 

Two weeks ago the militia commander directed an attack against a house in Northern Afghanistan filled with Taliban. After his men surrounded it, Nabi brought out his favourite weapon, a rifle-mounted 40-mm Russian grenade launcher. Each grenade is capable of causing serious damage and Nabi fired not just one or two, not a dozen or 50 or even 75 – he shot 123 grenades at the house all by himself. They’re meant to be lobbed in a long arc at a target hundreds of meters away, but according to Haji Mohammed, Nabi’s son-in-law and a soldier in his militia, the commander fired them straight at his target like they were bullets. The result was a hellstorm of fire that seemed extreme, even for Afghanistan.

He showed us the gory results in an after-dinner video at his compound. The bodies peppered with shrapnel and stiff with rigor were piled on the back of a pickup like cords of wood and presented as a gift at the headquarters of the Afghan National Police. The police chief called Nabi a hero in front of local TV cameras.

To many in the Qalizal district, he is a hero, a local boy who made good plying Afghan’s national trade, war. He fought and distinguished himself alongside some of the biggest names in the warlord business, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rashid Dostum. He left the fight to start a successful restaurant in Mazar-e-Sharif, but two years ago the local elders asked him to come back – the district was overrun with Taliban and in the throes of a massive drug problem. Almost half of the 30,000 residents, including children, are addicted to hashish, the result of a culture in which mothers sedate their children by feeding them pellets of hash three times a day so they can work long hours weaving carpets.

Nabi returned and reconstituted his loyal followers into a standing militia of 300 men, setting up 18 command checkpoints around the district and basically shutting down Taliban operations here.

Malika Gharebyr, the head of women’s affairs for the district, praised Nabi’s efforts. The Taliban used to harass her every time she went outside her house. “Nabi brought security here,” she said. “It’s much better now.”

Nabi also helped provide protection that allowed the government to destroy poppy fields in the area. “Without Nabi, we wouldn’t have been able to eradicate the fields in in Qalizal,” said Abdul Bashir Morshid, the head of the department of counter-narcotics in the province of Kunduz.

The Americans initially liked what Nabi was doing enough to send in the Special Forces to train, arm and pay his men as part of a controversial, now-defunct program called Critical Infrastructure Police (CIP). These were irregular units mostly set up in Northern Afghanistan and sometimes even made up of former Taliban. They were given yellow armbands but no uniforms and were co-opted, at least part-time, to fight the Taliban. But many of the CIP units took advantage of their badges and guns and began to freelance, shaking down the local communities for food, fuel and whatever else they wanted.

Similar allegations surfaced in the case of Nabi’s militia. While each member was paid about $200 a month from a NATO discretionary fund, Nabi’s group was accused of supplementing that income by “taxing” the locals for providing them with security, taking payments in bags of wheat, chicken or other foodstuffs they would eat or sell. Nearly a year ago, Afghan’s president, Hamid Karzai, began to phase out the CIP program – after being surprised to learn of its existence – fearing that irregular forces with no official or financial connection to the national government could one day post a threat to it.

Though the CIP program has gone away, Nabi’s militia has not. He’s still taxing the locals and shipments of foodstuffs are regularly delivered to his compound and checkpoints. Nabi may have evolved into what President Karzai has feared most: a battle-tested, salaried warlord who has no official allegiance to the Afghan government.

Qalizal’s elders, who showed up by the dozens to meet with me at Nabi’s compound when I arrived, said they support the government but need Nabi for security. They thought Karzai should turn the militia into a full-time local police force paid by the government, or send in his own security forces. Until then they need to the safety Nabi’s militia provides, even if they have to pay for it, though they admitted not everyone in the community is happy with the taxes.

Nabi claimed he’s here because the people want him to be. If they asked him to leave, he said, he’ll oblige, but added that he and his men have done nothing wrong.

“The people asked me to come here and provide security,” he told me in a soft voice incongruous with the stout build typical of the Turkmen who make up 95 percent of the Qalizal population. “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.”

In order for us to report on Nabi, it’s also necessary for us to stay in his compound, so my interpreter and colleague Matin Sarfraz, who is from the province, made the arrangements. Nabi proved to be a gracious host to us, giving us watermelon and tea and then feting us with a big dinner of pilaw (rice and meat), heavy flat bread, yogurt and Mountain Dew. We were joined by Nabi’s friends and comrades in arms – including Mullah Jilani, a former Taliban commander who switched sides and joined Nabi after he outmaneuvered the larger Taliban force who had come to assassinate him.

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

I am too, a bit. While he’s very kind to us, there’s a quiet malevolence about him, which I think he can summon at any moment.

This is in part because I know some of his stories, but I also felt it at the broad, muddy Kunduz River earlier in the evening when he took us there to swim. We jumped into the water like kids on summer break – the current was so strong you had to swim full force to avoid being swept miles downstream.

When we got out to take a photograph to document the event, Nabi slapped me hard on the shoulder and threw his leg in front of mine, ready to toss me to the ground just for fun. I’m not a bad wrestler, but felt that even a half-hearted effort to take him on could turn disastrous if our host thought he was losing face in front of his men. He attempted to take me on several more times, wrapping his arms around me and butting his head against mine. I held him at a distance, smiling, trying to maintain equilibrium and to avoid provoking him – which is exactly the same position the Afghan government finds itself in.

Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement”. Kevin is currently travelling through Afghanistan covering the tumultous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.

More on VICE from Kevin Sites: Revisiting the Battlefields of Afghanistan 12 Years Later

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinsites

And visit his personal website: KevinSitesReports.com

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