He shoots, he swears, he orders beatings and his bodyguard carries a Russian machine gun. General Ali is the Gene Hunt of the Kabul CID – which is why the thoroughly modern British police have him in their sights…
By: Nadene Ghouri
Kabul police chief General Ali Shah Paktiawal, centre, gives orders on his mobile while his bodyguard (right), Bulldozer, holding a customised Russian-made PK machine gun, scans the area
The General pulls a 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol out of his suit pocket and roughly forces in a magazine. It jams. He passes it to his driver. ‘Fix it,’ he grunts. The driver smoothly snaps it in place and, hands shaking slightly, passes the gun back to his boss, who grabs it with not even a nod of thanks.
Gun fixed, the General stares intently out at the morass that is Shahr-e Khuna, Kabul old city. A teeming bazaar, with all its colour and chaos, spills over into the road. Steaming, open sewers run below skinned meat carcasses hanging from a butcher’s door.
We drive on past bearded men in grey turbans and burka-clad women who, unable to see left or right, must hold on to their children to be guided across the road.
From his front seat, the General looks through the chaos. He is readying himself for action. Suddenly, his car comes to a screeching halt in front of 30 or so police officers. The General leaps out waving his gun and barks, ‘Go, go, go!’ His team runs round the corner, bursting into a line of lock-up stalls crammed full of illegal wares.
The shopkeepers have been caught by surprise. Most stand frozen like rabbits caught in headlights. Only one man tries to run. He sprints down an alley, pursued by six officers.
Suddenly a couple of shots ring out. The General stands in front of the shops, his pistol held up in the air. In the silence that follows he barks out an order: the shop-keepers are to bring their goods outside. If they don’t, he adds, he’ll tear them to pieces.
Some bystanders run out of the way, others stop and stare open-mouthed at the sight of a man as famous as he is feared in Kabul. Welcome to the world of General Ali Shah Paktiawal, head of Kabul police criminal investigation department, or as one observer puts it, the ‘police chief of hell’.
The General is particularly forceful this morning, but then this raid is personal. The raided stores are selling black-out film for car windows, plus aerials, sirens and fake police uniforms – everything needed to impersonate police officers.
This is a serious issue. Across Afghan-istan hundreds of crimes are committed every year by men wearing police uniforms. As a result, the police have found themselves in the international spotlight as critics ask whether gangs are impersonating policemen or whether real police are carrying out the crimes.
A suicide attack in January on the Serena, Kabul’s only five-star hotel, was carried out by men in police uniforms. It’s in Paktiawal’s interests to try to prove his men aren’t responsible. It’s even better that the media are alongside watching the raid and Paktiawal plays to his onlookers.
‘You donkey f*****!’ he screams at a hapless shopkeeper while grabbing a siren. ‘These are prohibited. They are for police only. This is about our national security.’ He smashes the siren on the floor and slaps the man around the head three times in a row. ‘Donkey f*****!’
Uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives tear the stores apart with gusto. Around 40 people are bustled into police vehicles, to be taken away for questioning. The General tells me they could face sentences of between 18 months and three years.
But as I look on, I realise how different justice is here. First of all, the public prosecutor has come along to witness the raid. And he’s also carrying a gun.
All the ‘evidence’ is thrown out of the various stores into one huge pile. There is no way of telling what each shopkeeper was selling. The General seems not to care that one man had only a single red light for sale, while another had an array of electronic components suitable for making remote-controlled detonators, used in bombs that cause the deaths of hundreds of foreign troops each year.
In the General’s eyes, they are all equally guilty, and his brutal methods entirely justified. But this is the kind of rough justice the West is trying to stamp out as Britain and America grapple to reform Afghanistan’s failing police force.
From where I stand on the edge of the bazaar, the policing here has more in common with DCI Gene Hunt in the TV series Life On Mars than with a modern democracy.
We climb back into the green truck that doubles as the General’s car. It’s a regular pick-up except for the mounted PK machine gun and six armed bodyguards sitting in the back. One of them gives me a cheery wave; he’s carrying a grenade launcher.
As part of a lengthy investigation into the problems facing the Afghan National Police (ANP), I’m spending a week embedded with the General and his men. I ask Paktiawal about the rest of his day.
‘Robbery, murder, kidnap… We arrested five people, there was an armed robbery, we rescued a kidnap victim, there was an explosion that killed two foreign troops. Oh, and a murder downtown. A normal day.’
He roars with laughter and everyone around him laughs, too. It’s not because what he has said is funny; it’s because that in the few hours I’ve spent with him I’ve come to realise that the General is quite terrifying. If you work for him, not laughing at his jokes isn’t an option.
Kabul is in the grip of a crime wave. Kidnappings, rapes, murders and car-jackings are commonplace. Last month, the shooting of British aid worker Gayle Williams and two staff from logistics company DHL brought the problem into focus. Suicide attacks are also on the increase.
Just two years ago, events like these in the heart of the city liberated from Taliban control in 2001 would have been unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Afghans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their police force, not only because they seem to be losing control of the streets but because they are suspected of corruption or, worse, involvement in the violence. Paktiawal’s unorthodox policing methods only add to the criticism.
General Hilaluddin Hilal, a former Deputy Interior Minister and an out-spoken member of the Afghan Parliament, says, ‘Policing is about law enforcement, but General Paktiawal does not even follow the law himself. He and his men arrest people so they can abuse their powers. Many people pay bribes to get released.’ Hilal accuses the 80,000-strong Afghan National Police (ANP) of being ‘uneducated and out of control’.
It’s a problem the Western alliance is trying to address. Police recruits now attend a new training academy for a minimum of three months, and the alliance has also set up the European Police Mission (Eupol), a mentoring programme in which some of the brightest and best officers from across Europe have been flown in to work alongside the Afghans. The aim is to develop an efficient structure and an effective, modern police force.
Back in Paktiawal’s office, which doubles as Kabul police station’s front desk, he holds court.
All day, streams of people come and go – no one seems to filter the public from the General. There is a seemingly endless list of complaints: a woman seeking a new passport; a group of men accusing the foreign security company they work for of insulting Islam; and the Chinese ambassador, who is trying to find a missing national, whom he heard had been arrested by Paktiawal.
After waiting patiently for over an hour, the General tells him he has no information. The ambassador walks out looking both peeved and perplexed.
To Western eyes it’s a strange way of policing. Why does someone wanting a new passport wind up in the CID office? And why did an ambassador have to wait his turn in the mêlée?
But this is a country with hundreds of named generals – genuine or not. No one wants to be unimportant, and those with power don’t want to delegate a scrap of control.
For the foreign mentors this poses one of the biggest challenges. When they have identified up-and-coming young stars of the force, they have often then been pushed aside by their bosses who don’t like the threat of competition.
Every now and then Paktiawal pushes a little bell on the desk. Für Elise rings out, and the summoned officer appears with a click of the heels, a salute and a ‘Baleh [yes], sir’. Another ring summons an officer who was late for his morning shift.
‘Do I need to drag you from your bed and pull your legs to bring you here?’ screams the General.
‘Keep this in mind. Keep it in mind, by God. You do this again and your legs will be on opposite sides of this city. I’m going to tear you in two.’
He makes a tearing gesture with his hands.
‘Now get out.’
It’s hardly from the book of modern police management. Yet despite his fierce manner the General appears to inspire absolute devotion.
One detective tells me, ‘I’m a young man but I get tired and when I tell him I need rest, he tells me a police officer must be on duty 24/7. He inspires me to keep going. He is my mentor, he is a great man.’
Tears start to well in his eyes.
Oh, so we are the criminals? I see. Well, you’ll tell the truth when you’ve been beaten for a while
Many of these men have been hand-picked by the General and he’s given them pet names. There’s the crew-cut Commando Switch, whose reactions are as fast as a light switch. And Livewire, who says he’s always buzzing.
Then there is the huge, 23-year-old Bulldozer, who tells me how he got his name: ‘On raids I do all the hard, aggressive things like move cars and break glass.’ He explains why he wears leather gloves with metal studs: ‘Sometimes when we catch murderers we need to hit them around the back of the head.’
Because Paktiawal chose most of these men to be part of his personal protection detail – which is within the rules – none of them have been through the new police training academy. Yet they wear the same police badge and have powers of arrest.
Three suspected armed robbers are dragged into the room, handcuffed together. An officer hands the General a gun and large knife. He brandishes them menacingly. ‘So these are yours?’ asks the General.
Two of the men are in their twenties; the third – in his fifties – is as white as a sheet and looks truly terrified as he shakes his head. The General screams abuse at them for a few minutes, then rings his little bell… Da da da da dah.
A guard appears. ‘Baleh, sir.’
He turns to me with a warm smile. ‘Please, let’s eat.’
Plates of kebab and rice are brought in. We eat as the three men stand and wait, still handcuffed together. Once the General has sated his appetite, he picks up the guns and restarts his tirade of an interrogation.
‘Do you sell drugs? Why do you have this gun? Eh? Why?’
Perhaps it was the humiliation of standing there while we ate, but one of the younger men has turned defiant. ‘No, we are innocent,’ he says. ‘Your men dropped this gun on the floor and said it was ours.’
Paktiawal screams at the insolence. ‘What? Did the gun drop from the sky?’
‘No,’ replies the man calmly. ‘The police put it there.’
The General opens his mouth in mock horror and turns to his audience with dramatic indignation.
‘Oh, so we are the criminals? I see. Well, you’ll tell the truth when you’ve been beaten for a while.’
The men are led out.
General Paktiawal oversees a raid on stalls selling illegal police equipment
Now the British are getting involved, with a number of UK police acting as mentors to their Afghan counterparts.
‘I refuse to be a pessimist,’ says Ken Deane, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary officer and Eupol’s outgoing deputy head of mission.
‘I truly believe this can be fixed. There are so many parallels to Northern Ireland. The Taliban promise people local solutions, just as the IRA did. You can’t cut and paste answers and this isn’t Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland did change for the better. It now has a police force people can trust, so the public have turned away from supporting the insurgents. We can be similarly successful here.’
But when I meet some of the British mentors, I wonder whether Deane’s optimism is misplaced. The officers are decent men and desperate to do a good job. But without the support of key figures such as Paktiawal, their efforts are severely hampered.
‘Damn, this gun is heavy,’ says Andy Carter, a detective superintendent with Cumbria Police who for the next six months is on secondment to Eupol. He grumbles as he adjusts a pistol holster strapped to his thigh.
‘After 30 years in the British force, getting used to wearing one is hard. It feels like this big, cold lump of steel on my leg.’
Why did he come to Afghanistan?
‘I saw an opportunity to use my skills,’ he says. ‘I knew it was dangerous and I had an image of the country from what I’d read, but I could never have imagined the reality.
‘The first thing I remember seeing when I left the airport was a Russian MiG fighter on a plinth and I thought, “Andy, what the hell have you got into? You should be at home having a barbecue with the wife.”’
Today I’ve come with Andy to meet General Kohdamani, a senior Afghan officer based at the Ministry Of The Interior, who Andy is mentoring. Kohdamani admits that developing a national force in a country fresh from decades of civil war and where feudalism is the norm has been difficult.
‘The war resulted in lots of trained professional fighters,’ he says. ‘And these people joined the police force, which makes it difficult for the public to trust them.
‘Now we try to recruit people who really want to be officers – the literate and the committed. But we have never constructed a national force before, so it’s all new to us.’
Many senior Afghan officers don’t like the new methods and shun their mentors. Paktiawal, for instance, has
an American mentor but I never see him on any raid – the General has become adept at not taking him along for ‘the hard stuff’. The American has to be back in his compound before dark. Paktiawal laughs that dusk is when ‘real policing begins’.
An old man foams at the mouth and groans – but the police just kick him
The following day I get a call from Paktiawal, inviting me on another raid. On the way he tells me we are heading to the former Russian cultural centre, a sprawling war-ravaged compound with scraps of a Lenin mural still visible on the wall.
Once this place hosted Russian opera evenings to an occupied population; now it is home to heroin and opium addicts. The General says addicts steal and beg and are responsible for all manner of petty crime. He wants to ‘wash’ them from his city.
We arrive to find about 100 police in place. The General gives a command and they charge inside. It’s chaos. Addicts flee, leaping out of windows and running in all directions.
‘Catch them!’ screams the General. Bulldozer grabs a man by the hair and hauls him 20ft along the ground. Another officer bashes a man over the head with his rifle butt. It’s utterly brutal. Eventually, most of the addicts are rounded up. They are human wrecks – emaciated and dressed in rags.
‘They stink, thieving junkies – they disgust me,’ grumbles one officer, holding his hand over his nose.
As the addicts are loaded onto three waiting buses, many try to escape. Several are beaten and one officer comes close to shooting someone but is restrained at the last minute. An old man is beaten so badly he collapses. He foams at the mouth and groans but the officers laugh and kick him. Paktiawal’s American mentor is nowhere to be seen.
Later, I witness a scene that is even more distressing.
A terrified girl, aged about 12, is brought into Paktiawal’s office. She complains that her uncle abducted her, raped her, then sold her to another man who also raped her. She clearly thinks she is the victim, but is being treated by the officers that bring her in as a criminal.
She is forced to recount her ordeal over and over again. Some officers seem to take a voyeuristic delight in her story, while the General appears completely unmoved. He is busy signing papers as she talks and barely even looks at her.
In Afghan society, female victims of sex crimes are considered to have broken codes of honour – not the perpetrators.
For Andy Carter, this is hard to come to terms with.
‘There are huge challenges in the way women and victims of sexual offences are treated,’ he says.
‘But we can’t impose our own values. I heard of a case where a gang of thieves broke into a house, tied up the father and raped his wife and daughters in front of him. They were convicted of theft, not the rapes. And in court the judge chastised the father for not fighting back.’
Any real glimmer of hope is most likely to be found not in the old guard, but in the faces of recruits at the new Kabul police academy. Since 2006, 5,000 officers have graduated from here.
The day I visit, 500 of them are passing out. Many are young idealists, joining up to make their country a safer place for their children.
To a brass band – hopelessly out of tune – they goose-step around the parade ground. It’s a scene that could have come straight out of the Soviet Union in the Seventies, and another stark reminder of Afghanistan’s bloody past.
In a few days they will be dispersed around the country, where there is a very real war and where every day they will face mortal danger.
In the past six months, almost 800 members of the ANP have been killed; in all of 2007, militants killed about 925 police, meaning the pace of attacks this year has increased. The starting salary for risking their life is just $100 a month.
In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that so many of these new recruits fall for the charisma and protection that officers such as Paktiawal offer.
Without changing the attitudes and methods at the top, I wonder if Afghanistan’s police force can ever really change. But perhaps that is about to happen.
As I leave Kabul, there is a strong rumour circulating that Paktiawal is about to lose his job.
From what I have seen I doubt this forceful figure will go without a fight.
THE WOMAN WHO LIVED – AND DIED – BY THE GUN…
Once the Afghan National Police’s highest-ranking female police officer, Malalai Kakar (clad in a burka). She was murdered by Taliban extremists, shot and killed in her car
Among the problems facing the Afghan National Police, one of the biggest is a worrying inability to protect its officers.
In Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban and home to Afghanistan’s conservative Pashtun tribe, we met the force’s highest-ranking female police officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, pictured above posing with a pistol in her office.
Four weeks later she was dead – murdered in her car by suspected Taliban extremists as she left home for an early morning shift.
We had met this smoking, guntoting, tough-talking woman to get an understanding of how a female police officer works in Afghanistan, but she turned out to be a poignant metaphor for the crisis facing the Afghan police.
Kakar, 45, was famous for taking on unspoken crimes – domestic violence, rape and child abuse. Her female-only team challenged the male hierarchy while staying within its framework.
She graduated from Kandahar police academy in 1982 – the first woman to do so – and PANOS policing was in her blood. Her father and brothers were all officers. As Kandahari women usually onlytravel in the company of a male relative, one of her brothers became her police partner – just one example of how she worked the system in order to buck it.
Kakar was never a feminist. She was that particular brand of woman found only in the East – uncompromising, fiercely traditional and deeply uncomfortable with the role-model tag. She was, she said, ‘just doing her job’.
Her concept of equality wasn’t to be as good as a man, but to be like a man. In fact, to out-men the men. Her protection and safety lay in both her colleagues and enemies forgetting that she was a woman.
Meeting her was a remarkable experience. She had piercing brown eyes and a way of looking at you that made you wonder if you’d committed a crime you weren’t aware of. Then, just as you might be considering confessing, she’d suddenly burst into peals of laughter.
Witty, feisty and undeniably sexy – wearing just a hint of make-up – at these moments she was still very much a woman.
There are a few hundred women officers in Afghanistan and, with the resurgence of the Taliban, they have now come under threat. To the Taliban, they are supporters of the government and women breaking out of their traditional roles. Kakar received regular threats posted through her door at night warning her to resign.
She shrugged them off, saying: ‘When Allah chooses, I will die – until then I serve’.
With Kakar’s death, Afghanistan lost a symbol, not just of the power Afghan women can display when given the chance, but of a senior police officer widely respected and admired for her professionalism, sheer hard work and her rejection of corruption.
Her death clearly represents one of the many entrenched problems the Western alliance is having to grapple with as it tries to shore up the country’s struggling police force.
Courtesy: Daily Mail UK (Online)