Matiullah Khan is the head of the Highway Police, a government agency that was officially dissolved several years ago by Dutch forces in the Uruzgan province of southern Afghanistan. According to Dutch officials stationed in the region, Matiullah is not a government official. The Dutch do not deal with him. They prefer not to mention his name—when they must, they refer to him as “M.” According to the Dutch troops’ purist picture of Afghanistan, he is the warlord who illegally controls the flow of all goods into and out of the region.
Matiullah had us over for tea at his home across from the Dutch “Camp Holland.”
But Matiullah sees things differently, and recently he invited us to his fortresslike home, just opposite “Camp Holland,” to discuss it.
When we arrived at his gates, disciplined men in immaculate uniforms saluted. One felt ashamed about a missing jacket button, and whenever the photographer approached he attempted to conceal the blight with his hand.
The Lord of the Highway, as Matiullah is also known, met us in his drawing room. A thin man in his late 30s with a perfectly trimmed beard, he spoke quietly, without haste, rarely smiling or gesturing with his hands. He raised his voice only in order to be heard above the Dutch army’s howitzer cannon, which went off intermittently, causing his porcelain cups to tinkle against the oak table in the wake of each blast.
“The Dutch spread lies about me,” he said. “Ask the people outside what they think.”
The Uruzgan people, for what little it’s worth, side mostly with Matiullah—if only out of fear. It doesn’t mean much, as it is the Dutch who are charged with keeping the larger peace. And they chose sides back in 2006.
When Dutch forces first looked at the situation in Uruzgan, they imposed a single condition for their participation in the NATO ISAF operation in Afghanistan: The sitting governor, the notoriously violent and criminal Jan Mohammad Khan (JMK for short), would have to be deposed.
“We could have killed him,” a Dutch diplomat mused one evening, drinking nonalcoholic beer in the camp. “But that finally was rejected.” President Hamid Karzai, a personal friend of JMK’s, stepped in and unseated the governor. In JMK’s place, but stripped of official rank, is his former lieutenant: Matiullah Khan.
Opposite Matiullah is the Uruzgan police chief Juma Gul, a man notorious for taking bribes, selling drugs, and, famously, embezzling the wages of his policemen. Juma is the de facto tool of government forces, yet even his own deputy, Colonel Mohammad Nabi, wishes to see him behind bars. Nabi is the incarnation of an upright official, the type you can find in even the darkest dictatorship: melancholic, appreciated by his subordinates, and desperate enough to be free of fear. We found him in our search for Juma.
Almost immediately, Nabi understood the direction of our questioning and blurted out, “What should we do? This police force is rotten as long as every imprisoned criminal can bribe his way out and every gangster can pay to have his enemies imprisoned.” Alluding to an incident implicating Juma and widely known in this town, he added, “As long as the salaries of the policemen are stolen, it is hopeless! We, the officers of the middle ranks, had a meeting with the new minister of interior. He promised to help, but nothing happened.”
We asked if he wasn’t fearful of saying these things. Nabi looked at us, sad and tired. “It does not matter what will become of me,” he said. The men in the room looked at him, nodding in silence.
Similarly, in the contest between Juma and Matiullah, the despondent Dutch have no choice but to take the comparatively petty Juma.
For days we looked for Juma—and then he found us. Because the man has an uncanny knack for sniffing out even the slightest chance for profit, we had second thoughts about interviewing him. He caught up with us as we were leaving and shouted to our driver: “Who permitted you to drive without police escort?” Meaning, of course, an escort on his payroll. “No arguing. One ranger will go with you!” He pointed to an olive-green pickup carrying four police officers. On our way out, we asked about reports of corruption in his ranks. “I have cleaned up! I have thrown more than 20 corrupt officers into jail!” he replied. What mattered most to him was that we accepted, and paid for, his escort.
Our driver cursed him silently, while rangers followed in a truck behind us. “Now they will create problems wherever we stop,” our driver said. “At each appointment they will try to get money or forbid us to talk to the people! And at the end we have to pay them again for bothering us.”
Jama Gul, the Dutch-backed police chief in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province, is best known as the guy who gets really fat off his officer’s paychecks.
Matiullah runs a similar racket, but on a much more massive scale. His covers the region.
In Uruzgan’s capital, Tarin Kowt, these two groups run the show: the faction belonging to Juma, the governmental officer who controls the bazaar, the road to the western district Dehrawud, and the road to Shora in the north; and the other controlled by Matiullah, the outlaw whose group controls the only roundabout in the city center, the entire eastern portion of the city, and, most critically, the highway.
The competitive struggle of these two so-called officers reflects the miseries of the country in a nutshell. On the surface, Matiullah would appear to be the best choice for a police chief—a man with such widespread influence he could actually provide the security Juma cannot. Though the Dutch recognize this, they’re forced to back the widely mocked and disrespected Juma Gul. With more and more eyes focused on this region, peacekeeping forces on the ground in Afghanistan can’t deputize the warlord Matiullah.
It took a few days before the Dutch officers we met were willing to talk even vaguely about “M” and Juma. They conceded: Yes, Juma Gul is a nuisance. Corrupt to the bone, unpopular, ineffective. As soon as there was any chance to depose him, they would love to do so. However, Juma is merely a cog in a mucked-up machine. Portions of the bribes he receives and the salaries he embezzles still make their way up through the ranks.
Matiullah’s is a different situation entirely. His is a staunchly independent enterprise. And he puppeteers the region to ensure his power.
At his invitation, we accompanied Matiullah to his reception hall, where petitioners lined up to seek his aid. A man with a broken leg asked for money for his treatment. Two debtors couldn’t repay what they owed. A delegation of tribal elders arrived from a neighboring district asking Matiullah to resolve a land dispute. Matiullah seemed intent on letting the scene speak for him.
There he was: the head of the nonexistent Highway Police, sitting on a small cushion in a large room, looking like a medieval prince in a billowy white gown and dark vest, resolving land disputes. He recalls a figure from the Thirty Years’ War, drawing his power from the chaos that surrounds him.
Exactly 916 men are under Matiullah’s command, he said. In addition to the ordinary annual police salary of 180 US dollars, they get $220 for their loyalty. Matiullah can afford this because he is the force behind the single most profitable day in Uruzgan: Security Day. It is his creation.
Security Day falls on a different day each week, but when it arrives, it is unmistakable. Dust clouds hovering over the sun-baked hills of Uruzgan herald its coming, stirred up by the seemingly endless platoons of 40-ton trucks, heavily laden pickups, and taxis, all crossing in convoys of up to 100 vehicles, in both directions.
Put plainly, Security Day is the only day of the week when it is safe for convoys to use the overland road that passes between Tarin Kowt and the neighboring capitals Kandahar and Helmand. Security Day is Tarin Kowt’s lifeline. It is on this day that supplies for the US Army bases, the provincial government, and the markets in town are delivered. Gasoline, rice, cement, steel, vegetables, spare parts—everything—has to pass on one road, on one day. Matiullah controls it, charging from $300 to $2,000 for each vehicle. Aid agencies, businessmen, and even the US military are more than happy to pay for Matiullah’s services. The Americans in particular like him a lot. He ensures that supplies reach their small bases in the east of Uruzgan. His heavily armed men guard the route, staff the checkpoints, and fire on attackers.
Matiullah makes much of endearing himself to Tarin Kowt’s citizens. In February 2009, two of his men were killed and a third of them were wounded, but the convoys got through, and it is widely acknowledged in Tarin Kowt that Matiullah sent one of the wounded men to a hospital in India to have his eye saved.
So why won’t the Dutch forces acknowledge Matiullah?
Simple: His history under JMK is bloody. He led the hit squads that killed stubborn farmers who did not surrender their land, daughters, and livestock to the former governor. Dutch forces remain adamant that the mention of his name spreads fear and panic throughout the region.
“If we appoint Matiullah police chief, probably more than half of all people in the Baluchi valley would run over to the Taliban immediately,” one high-ranking Dutch officer explained. He did not want to give his name, because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
“They would never trust Matiullah Khan,” he said. “And with good reason. Thus we have to prevent this!”
But that is about all they can do. As much as anyone, the Dutch rely on Security Day, so Matiullah is left free to control the road for fear that nobody else can do it. We wondered how long this delicate situation might hold. An officer explained that Dutch forces have a simple mandate, with an even simpler course of action: “As long as he does not attempt to enlarge his sphere of influence,” they won’t take action and will allow him to function. In other words: “We lose.”