THE BIG MAN OF ORÜZGAN
The story has now been corroborated by so many people that it’s impossible to ignore – Australia has been instrumental in allowing one strong man to dominate the province for which we have partial responsibility. Locals in Orüzgan insist that, in an effort to buy some peace in the Afghan province, the Australians have allowed one man to take control of the roads of the area. This has effectively given him a stranglehold over any communications within the province and allowed him to become rich as a result of the bribes he charges anyone who wants to travel anywhere outside their own local area.
The allegations swirl around the role of one man in particular – Matiullah Khan. Although he did not particularly distinguish himself in the war that overthrew the Taliban regime back in 2001, he’s managed to translate his personal charisma into a significant and powerful role in the province. Largely because of Australian sponsorship, he now runs the units of the police that provide security for the roads. This critical role allows him to determine who is able to travel in the province and what produce they will shift on the roads. He allegedly takes a personal cut of the bribes that must be paid before anyone is allowed to move around the province.
This makes a mockery of the notion that Australia is contributing positively to the nation-building effort. Instead, numerous analysts have insisted that our forces are entrenching the role of one particular strong-man who’s heavily implicated in the drugs trade.
It’s alleged the cost of being allowed to join a protected convoy that will make the road trip from the regional centre of Kandahar to Tarin Khot, the capital of Orüzgan, is currently about $3000. This money is then passed to Matiullah who then redistributes it as he sees fit. About a third is distributed as additional pay to his own police, Matiullah ostentatiously distributes more money to widows and sponsoring particular projects to enhance his own reputation, and pockets the rest. It’s conservatively estimated the provincial strong-man makes something like $100,000 per convoy.
Ironically, much of this cost is eventually passed-on to the international forces because of increased prices for produce. It allows the Australian’s to insist the roads are open and progress is being achieved in the ongoing war. It is, but only because the Taliban are being replaced with a self-selected strongman.
The Australian’s have apparently turned a blind eye to his role in collecting the money because he’s been successful in getting the convoys through. Even in this regard, however, some analysts insist Matiullah’s hands are dirty. They confidently assert the Australian money is being used to pay off the Taliban so they won’t attack that have paid the going rate, set by Matiullah, to travel on the roads.
“It’s obvious”, says one Afghan who’s intimately familiar with what’s happening. “Matiullah’s men only protect the roads once every ten days. If the Taliban really wanted to stop the convoys they would go out and set road-side bombs to stop the trucks when Matiullah isn’t there”, he continues. “They don’t do this because they have been paid to allow his convoys through.”
This local insists that the Australian military are well aware of this. “How can they not know about this person”, he says. “The soldiers are doing it [allowing a bribe to be collected] because they want peace in the province. This means they are [effectively] paying the Taliban not to attack the convoys.”
At one stage the Dutch attempted to force a convoy through along the road by providing their own protection. This move provoked several days of severe fighting and, since that time, Matiullah’s role in providing road security has remained unchallenged. No-one inside the province is in any doubt that he controls exactly what happens, and this has given him a critical role that he’s using to translate directly into personal power and authority.
“Matiullah knows he will lose his main source of income as soon as the Australian’s leave”, says another analyst. “He’s now moving to extend his influence into other areas, including owning his own construction company. He is making sure he’ll remain the strong-man of the province.”
These accusations directly condemn international role in the province and suggest why the Australian government was so reluctant to take over as lead country after the Dutch left. Doing so would have made them directly responsible for finding a solution to this issue – now the role is focussed on reconstruction of buildings and ‘taking out’ presumed Taliban leaders. Nevertheless, some locals insist that these operations are widely perceived as directly supporting Matiullah, by eliminating his enemies.
“The province is riddled with ethnic divisions”, says another international analyst. “Tribal conflict, even conflict between different clans, can last for generations and these issues are particularly important in attempting to understand what’s going on in Orüzgan.”
On occasions the Australians have interrogated people before handing them over to Matiullah’s men for return to their villages. Although there have not been allegations of physical abuse, observers claim to have seen numerous instances of verbal abuse to the released prisoners in these cases. It’s also humiliating for elders from one tribe to have to ‘owe’ anything to youths from another group. In subtle ways such as this the power of Matiullah has been reinforced by often unintentional Australian actions.
Matiullah is currently lobbying to further increase his power. A new police chief is about to be appointed for the province. Matiullah covets the job, but others warn that members of some other local tribes will absolutely refuse to accept him in this position – even to the extent of taking up arms against the government. Instead of keeping Matiullah’s ambitions in check, nurturing him in his current role appears merely to have stoked his ambitions for greater power.
It’s almost a decade since the original international involvement in Afghanistan and nearly five years since the Australian’s took over their subsidiary role in Orüzgan. Backing this corrupt local strongman in a major role in the province would appear to be directly betraying the original lofty intentions behind the intervention.