America’s Monster: Who was Abdul Raziq?

Uncovering the brutal career of a crucial American ally and the hidden truths of the war in Afghanistan.

I first heard about Abdul Raziq in early 2009, when I was a young freelance journalist newly arrived in southern Afghanistan. By chance, I had befriended two drug smugglers who told me that a powerful police commander in the area was helping them ship two metric tons of opium to Iran each month. Raziq, I learned, had a fearsome reputation in his hometown, Spin Boldak, on the border with Pakistan. Everyone I spoke to knew about the Taliban suspects tortured and dumped in the desert. Just as they knew that Raziq was a close ally of the U.S. military. My smuggler friends had offered to introduce me to Raziq, and 10 days after my arrival in Spin Boldak, he returned to town for his grandmother’s funeral.

When I arrived at Raziq’s compound, I saw him sitting cross-legged on a carpeted platform, receiving a long line of guests. He was not what I expected. Trim and cheerful, clean-shaven and barely 30, he wasn’t much older than I, yet he was leading several thousand men under arms. I reached the front of the line, and Raziq shook my hand to welcome me before turning to the next guest. We would never get the chance to meet again, but that was the beginning of my long quest to understand the paradox he represented.

As inexperienced as I was, I knew enough to be puzzled by Raziq’s success. Why was the U.S. military, which was supposed to be supporting democracy and human rights in Afghanistan, working closely with a drug trafficker and murderer? One of his commanders, his uncle Janan, even wore a U.S. Army uniform given to him by his advisers, complete with a First Infantry Division patch and the Stars and Stripes.

Thanks to American patronage, Raziq was promoted to police chief of Kandahar and would eventually rise to the rank of three-star general. Famous across Afghanistan, he became the country’s most polarizing figure. The Taliban hated him, of course, but so did the ordinary people his commanders and soldiers extorted and abused. Journalists and human rights groups assembled damning evidence against him and warned that his brutality would backfire.

But Raziq beat back the suicide bombers and brought stability to Kandahar. In doing so, he became an icon for many war-weary Afghans who sought security at all costs. In a nation divided by ethnic and regional loyalties, you could find Raziq’s photo in taxis and at checkpoints from north to south. And he never lost his American backing: When he was assassinated by the Taliban in 2018, he was walking next to the top U.S. commander, Gen. Austin S. Miller. That day, it seemed as if half the country was in mourning; Miller hailed him as a friend and patriot.

Three years later, the United States withdrew, and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed. I was working as a journalist in Kabul at the time, and as soon as the dust settled, I went south to Kandahar. With the fighting over, I was able to visit people and places nearly impossible to access before. Here was a chance to reckon with Raziq’s legacy. I met with survivors of torture inside his prisons and visited morgues where skeletons had been unearthed from desert graves. Like a great tree in a storm, the republic had toppled and exposed the hidden places among its roots. The American war was far more brutal than we had known.

Since then, over repeated trips to the war’s fiercest battlegrounds, I found that many of Raziq’s former police officers were willing to talk about the torture, execution and cover-ups they witnessed. I also spoke with a dozen American military officers and diplomats who worked with Raziq and obtained new documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and other sources, which reveal just how much the American government knew about Raziq’s crimes. And with colleagues at The Times, I interviewed hundreds of witnesses and discovered a republican archive that exposed Afghanistan’s largest campaign of forced disappearances since the Communist coup in 1978. We documented 368 cases of people who were still missing after being abducted by Raziq’s men; the true toll was most likely in the thousands.

The scale of Raziq’s abuses, carried out with American support, was shocking. But the fact that they seem to have brought security to Kandahar has even more disturbing implications. Raziq’s story complicates the comforting belief that brutality always backfires and undermines the U.S. military’s claim to have fought according to international law. Raziq’s violence was effective because it had a logic particular to the kind of civil war that the United States found in Afghanistan, one where the people, and not the terrain, were the battlefield. The reasons for this are well documented by scholars of civil war and counterinsurgency but glossed over by our generals and politicians and obscured by the myths of American exceptionalism and our righteous war on terror.

But Raziq saw those reasons clearly. He murdered and tortured because he believed it was the only way to win against the Taliban. And America helped him do it.

Two harsh realities defined Raziq’s childhood: the war and the border.

The desert around Spin Boldak and its twinned Pakistani town, Chaman, stretches westward hundreds of miles to Iran, through vast wastes and dune seas crossed by nomads. The clans of two rival Pashtun tribes dominate the area, feuding like Hatfields and McCoys of the borderlands. Raziq was from the Achakzai, who competed with the Noorzai over land and smuggling routes.

Not long after Raziq was born in a mud-walled village, the Afghan Communists seized power in Kabul, and in response rebels rose up against the government, plunging the country into a conflict that lasted for more than four decades. Although both superpowers and neighbors like Pakistan and Iran intervened for their own ends, at heart this was a civil war fought by Afghans against Afghans for control of the state. Even at the peaks of the Soviet and American occupations, Afghans constituted a majority of casualties on each side.

In times of civil war, neighbors are often at one another’s throats because of local dynamics, even if they justify their actions through religion or nationalism. In Kandahar, many Noorzai joined with the mujahedeen rebels, who were supplied by the C.I.A. and the Pakistani military, while Raziq’s Achakzai relatives eventually sided with the Soviet-backed Communists. Raziq was still a boy when the war brought grief to his home: His father, who drove people and goods to the border, disappeared. His family was never able to find his body and blamed their tribal rivals. “The Noorzai did it,” said Ayub Kakai, Raziq’s uncle. “They threw him down a well.”

Three years later, an armed movement of religious students known as the Taliban rose in the farmlands west of Kandahar City and swept through the province, capturing Raziq and his uncle. They hung Mansoor from the barrel of a tank but spared young Raziq, who fled with his family across the border to Chaman. For seven years in exile, Raziq worked as a driver near the border, where he peddled used car parts.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. For the Achakzai, the Americans’ decision to invade and depose the Taliban came as a miraculous reversal of fortune. That December, the C.I.A. and Special Forces assembled an army of exiles, with many Achakzai, including Raziq, among them. With the help of U.S. air power, they routed the Taliban and seized control of Kandahar, once again trading places with their Noorzai rivals, who escaped across the border to where the Pakistani military, playing a double game, gave them safe haven.

In the new republic, the Achakzai militia was transformed into the area’s Border Police. They partnered with American troops and were trained by contractors from Blackwater and DynCorp. Like the rest of the republican forces, their weapons, ammunition and salaries were paid for by the United States and its allies. But beneath the surface, the civil war still festered, even though the Americans saw it through stark binaries: the government versus the terrorists, the Afghans versus the Taliban.

“Our viewpoint was this was a war on terrorism or a war against a group trying to overthrow a democratic government,” said Carter Malkasian, a former State Department official who advised the U.S. military in Afghanistan for more than a decade. “We don’t want to view this as us getting involved in another country’s civil war.”

Thanks to his family connections, Raziq quickly rose through the ranks. He was a natural leader who fought fearlessly and earned the loyalty of his men. Although nearly illiterate, he had a capacious memory for places and faces and was a canny operator in the spy games and smuggling rings of the borderlands, using his illicit gains to fund a growing network of sources. Early on, Raziq learned that power would earn him money, which bought the intelligence that could attract U.S. patronage, giving him more power. American officers who worked in Spin Boldak remembered Raziq as an eager and valued partner in the hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

“My brother was very close to the Americans,” said Tadin Khan, Raziq’s younger brother. “They trusted him, and he never tried to deceive them.”

Raziq was as generous with his friends and family as he was ruthless with his enemies. Not long after the Achakzai appointed him leader of their militia, Raziq’s older brother, Bacha, was gunned down in the bazaar in Chaman. “Bacha and Raziq were very close,” said Arafat, his cousin. “He was killed because of Raziq.”

Raziq’s role in the drug trade also attracted attention from American investigators. Although the Taliban had banned poppy cultivation, opium came roaring back under Karzai’s administration, and Spin Boldak sat on one of the main trafficking routes. Classified U.S. military and Drug Enforcement Administration reports, obtained through FOIA requests, described the involvement of Raziq and his men, detailing convoys in the desert, secret meetings and the use of green ink for letters of safe passage. One referred to Raziq as “the main drug smuggler in Spin Boldak.” (His brother Tadin denied that Raziq or anyone from his family was involved in drug trafficking, murder or other crimes. “All these accusations of corruption, smuggling and abuses are because of propaganda from the Taliban,” he said.)

As it turns out, by the time Raziq and I shook hands in 2009, the United States already knew he was accused of murder and smuggling but worked with him anyway. Yet Raziq’s position had become precarious, for the U.S. military’s concept of the war was changing. When I published an article about the accusations that fall, Raziq’s career had reached a dangerous point — one where his foreign patrons might have chosen to stop supporting him.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan was going badly. Faced with a growing insurgency that threatened the Afghan government’s survival, President Barack Obama ordered a surge of tens of thousands of troops. His generals had advised him that, fixated on the enemy, the United States had neglected the true battlefield: the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

The surge would be guided by a military doctrine known as counterinsurgency theory, or COIN, which was held to have saved the day in Iraq. “Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population,” Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wrote upon taking command in 2009. The U.S.-led coalition “can no longer ignore or tacitly accept abuse of power, corruption or marginalization.”

According to “population-centric” COIN, the Afghan people had to be protected against the insurgency and motivated to support their own government. Criminal officials like Raziq threatened the legitimacy of the republic, and therefore the success of the war.

Given the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who died as result of the U.S. invasions, this emphasis on protecting civilians may seem hypocritical. But the laws of war, which forbid targeting noncombatants or harming prisoners, are essential to how the United States distinguishes its own use of force from that of rogue states and terrorists. “I believe the United States of America must remain a standard-bearer in the conduct of war,” Obama said as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize the same year as the surge. “That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.”

Since the decline of the antiwar movement after Vietnam, both the U.S. military and its liberal critics have become increasingly united in the conviction that war must be fought humanely by exempting civilians, as much as possible, from its violence — a shift, the historian Samuel Moyn has argued, that risks legitimizing endless war. Underpinning this is the assumption that there is no contradiction between waging war both lawfully and effectively. “The law of war is a part of our military heritage, and obeying it is the right thing to do,” states the U.S. military manual on the subject. “But we also know that the law of war poses no obstacle to fighting well and prevailing.”

In this vein, COIN reassured the American public that the surge would be just. Because the United States needed the support of the Afghan population, it could not just kill its way to victory. Brutality would backfire by producing more resistance. In a speech, McChrystal explained “COIN mathematics”: If a military operation killed two out of 10 insurgents, instead of eight remaining, that number was “more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends.”

But while McChrystal took prompt steps to reduce civilian casualties from airstrikes, dealing with so-called bad actors like Raziq was not as simple. It turns out that the way the United States implemented its strategy provided a test of whether COIN really worked as promised.

The surge was focused on the two neighboring provinces in the south where Taliban activity was strongest. Both received roughly equivalent investments of troops and money. In Helmand, the Marines and the British pushed for the good governance prescribed by COIN, successfully pressuring Kabul to replace corrupt officials with technocrats.

“You didn’t have a power-broker-run government at the provincial level,” said Malkasian, who served as an adviser in Helmand. But the opposite proved true in Kandahar, where U.S. commanders prioritized security and encountered dogged pushback from Kabul on anticorruption efforts. “Kandahar was just more important for the Afghan political system, for Karzai, than Helmand was.”

As so often happened during the war, Washington’s grand strategy was interpreted by a multitude of American agencies and actors. In Kabul, specialized anticorruption and counternarcotics teams had Raziq in their sights. A D.E.A.-led republican unit seized an enormous stockpile of hashish in Spin Boldak and arrested a district police commander who ran narcotics shipments for Raziq. There were plans to go after him next.

But the Army officers working with Raziq saw things very differently. He and his men were a rare example of an effective, homegrown force that delivered security on a vital supply route. The U.S. commanders were in the middle of a high-stakes offensive against the Taliban, and their own troops’ lives were on the line. Karzai supported Raziq, and according to former military and intelligence officials, so did the C.I.A. With his cross-border networks, Raziq was a valuable source of intelligence on Taliban havens and bomb-making networks in Pakistan. And he could cross lines the United States couldn’t: A declassified military report from 2010 noted that Raziq was giving shelter to Baloch rebels fighting the Pakistani government and that he used “these tribesmen to carry out assassinations and killings in Pakistan.”

And so when, in February 2010, senior U.S. officials met to discuss action against corrupt Afghan officials, no one could agree on what to do about Raziq. “There was a lack of consensus,” according to Earl Anthony, who as deputy U.S. ambassador was a co-chair of the meeting. “Some highly valued his work on the security front against the Taliban.”

In the end, McChrystal, who declined to comment for this article, sided with his commanders on the ground. Raziq, they reasoned, could be mentored to change his ways. According to a leaked cable, the senior U.S. diplomat in Kandahar even offered to craft a media plan for him, including radio spots, billboards and “the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the ‘reform’” of Raziq.

In March, McChrystal visited Raziq in Spin Boldak and posed beside him for television cameras. “I am very optimistic that with the plans that I’ve heard,” he said, as Raziq looked on smiling, “we can increase efficiency and decrease corruption.”

From that point on, the U.S. military would openly promote Raziq and make him an integral part of the surge. A series of personal advisers were brought in to coach and protect the young commander; the first was Jamie Hayes, who as a Special Forces lieutenant colonel led a team assigned to Raziq in July 2010. Shortly after he arrived, Hayes was ordered to help Raziq plan a major operation to clear Malajat, an outlying neighborhood of Kandahar City where the Taliban were entrenched.

At first, Hayes was puzzled about why Raziq and his Border Police were given the job, rather than the republican army or commandos. His superiors explained that it was a political decision by Karzai and the U.S. command. “This is a guy that we want to make successful,” Hayes recalled being told. “He’s an aggressive, strong leader that we want to make sure gets the chance to shine.”

Raziq’s charisma undoubtedly played a role in why U.S. officers were so willing to support him. Like most of the Americans I spoke to who worked with Raziq, Hayes quickly took a shine to him. Raziq was full of enthusiasm and energy, and Hayes was especially impressed by how he seemed to genuinely care for the welfare of his men, unlike many other republican commanders.

For his part, Raziq was a careful student of his foreign patrons. “He liked to learn about what made Americans tick,” recalled Hayes, who said he was never shown evidence of Raziq’s massacres or drug smuggling. Raziq understood what American officers appreciated: hard work, aggression and loyalty. To show his gratitude, he even insisted on taking part in a medal ceremony for Hayes’s troops. “He knew them by name,” Hayes recalled.

Soon after a successful operation to clear Malajat, Hayes and his team were reassigned to train the police in the provincial capital. During the spring of 2011, the situation in Kandahar City was dire. The Taliban hammered the government with gunmen and suicide attacks and, in April, freed nearly 500 inmates after tunneling into the main prison. Police morale was abysmal. “Drug use was rampant,” Hayes said. “Discipline was poor.” In the same month as the prison break, a suicide bomber got inside police headquarters and killed the provincial commander. Hayes, who narrowly missed the bombing, helped put the chief in a body bag. He was the second in two years to be killed.

Cleaning up Kandahar might have been the toughest job in Afghanistan, and both Karzai and the U.S. command wanted Raziq to do it. He agreed to become police chief on one condition: He wanted to keep his position with the Border Police. He would wear both hats, so to speak, in order to maintain his power base in Spin Boldak and would bring his own men into the city. If Raziq was going to be sheriff in Kandahar, he was going to do it his way.

The battle Raziq faced in the provincial capital, a city of nearly 400,000, was very different from the rangy desert warfare in the borderlands: Here, a tribally and ethnically mixed population lived and worked in closely packed homes and narrow alleys, industrial zones and trucking warehouses. Hiding amid them, Taliban guerrillas, the cheriki, terrorized government supporters, leaving menacing “night letters,” assassinating civil servants and imams and deploying suicide bombers whose blasts tore apart crowded streets.

The first phase of the American COIN strategy in Kandahar had called for securing the capital. To that end, the U.S. military poured in resources, building a network of checkpoints and bases for republican forces and expanding the number of police districts from 10 to 16, each with its own substation chief. Trained and equipped by American troops and contractors, the Kandahar police more than doubled in size. Raziq was the fulcrum of it all: A team of American mentors lived next to his headquarters, and he met often with U.S. brass to coordinate operations.

Raziq’s underground enemies, the cheriki, relied on an extensive network of local supporters, many of whom cooperated out of religious and nationalist fervor. Rooting them out required accurate intelligence. And because Karzai had resisted creating a system of wartime detention, those who were caught had to be criminally prosecuted, convicted and sentenced.

But for Raziq, the republican courts, corrupt and easily intimidated, were a central reason the insurgency was thriving. Too often, Taliban suspects were freed and returned to the battlefield. In Spin Boldak, he had solved this problem by becoming judge, jury and executioner. For all their rhetoric about human rights and the laws of war, the foreigners had chosen him to pacify Kandahar. Actions spoke louder than words.

Raziq brought his Achakzai militia, in their distinct spotted uniforms, into the city and placed trusted lieutenants in key posts like the substations. Raziq didn’t seem to relish cruelty — I never heard stories of him personally torturing people, for instance — but he cultivated men who did. Some were his own cousins, like Jajo, who became notorious for the atrocities he committed as commander of District 8, a predominantly Noorzai area. (Jajo was assassinated in 2014.) According to police officers and internal United Nations documents, another relative from Spin Boldak ran death squads out of a special battalion at headquarters. “They had detective badges and guns,” one substation deputy told me. “They threw the bodies in the desert.”

These plainclothes teams roamed in cars with tinted windows, snatching suspects and taking them for da reg mela, “a sand picnic.” The desert wells and dunes hid countless corpses; others were dumped in the streets. Many bore signs of horrific torture. “I saw things which made me wonder whether a wild beast or man had done them,” Dr. Musa Gharibnawaz, who oversaw the city morgue as the director of forensic medicine, told me.

Those who survived to see formal detention were also tortured for confessions, which the courts relied on almost entirely for convictions. The police didn’t have the education or capacity to collect basic technical evidence, nor did most judges understand it. This problem was much broader than just Kandahar. The same year Raziq became police chief, investigators from the United Nations interviewed more than 300 detainees across Afghanistan and found that torture was widespread in republican detention. Their report documented beatings, electric shocks and the “twisting and wrenching” of genitals. The most severe abuses by the police were in Kandahar, where a follow-up report also noted a large number of bodies found with gunshot wounds to the chest and the head after Raziq took power; by contrast, the investigators found significantly less torture in Helmand, where the Marines had stuck to the COIN playbook.

The persistence of torture in the republic — which the U.N. continued to document until 2021 — illustrates how, in wartime, certain useful but prohibited acts can be implicitly authorized as regular practices. As the U.N. reporting makes clear, those accused of torture rarely faced punishment. Their work, which ceased after confession, was instrumental, unlike the gratuitous abuse meted out by poorly supervised American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In Kandahar, torture was exacerbated by the surge, which overloaded the court system with detainees captured by U.S. forces; one internal military report worried that it would most likely “produce more — perhaps far more — prisoners” than the main prison could handle. During the summer of 2011, as the U.N. prepared to publish its findings, intelligence reports from the south filtered up to Western diplomats and military leaders in Kabul. The torture of detainees had already led to scandals in Britain and Canada; now the U.S. command would be forced to take notice. For the third time in Raziq’s career, his job would hang in the balance as a result of his crimes.

On July 18, 2011, two months after Raziq became police chief, John R. Allen, then a four-star Marine general, took command of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. He was shaking hands with his guests during the ceremony in Kabul when a trio of Western officials, led by a senior British diplomat, told him that they needed to speak immediately. It was about Raziq.

Alarmed by what he heard, Allen had his staff pull up the raw intelligence reporting, which described executions and torture by Raziq’s forces in Kandahar. “I wanted a sense of the frequency,” he told me. “The reporting was pretty standard and pretty awful. It had been going on for some time.”

Allen went to the presidential palace to see Karzai. “I said that he needed to be aware that he had a senior police commander who was a serial human rights violator, and he should remove him,” Allen told me.

But at that moment, Karzai needed Raziq more than ever. In the week before Allen arrived, two of the president’s most important allies in the south were killed, including his own brother. For years, Karzai had seen the United States waffle on corruption and human rights abuses, even as they partnered with warlords, and as he often had, he called the Americans’ bluff. At a follow-up meeting, Karzai told Allen that he had checked his own sources and hadn’t heard similar allegations.

Frustrated, Allen ordered the United States and its allies to stop transferring captives in the south. “Karzai wasn’t going to do anything about Raziq, and I couldn’t permit us to continue to feed detainees into his hands,” he told me. From then on, when he traveled to Kandahar, Allen made a point to dodge the young police chief, who was eager for a photo op. “I wasn’t going to play into Raziq’s hands and appear to be an ally of his under any circumstances.”

The State Department’s diplomats also avoided meeting Raziq. But that was as far as it went. “I don’t recall there was ever a serious push to remove Abdul Raziq,” said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador at the time. When Crocker later raised the issue with Karzai, the president responded that Raziq was working closely with the U.S. military. “He was basically saying, ‘Look, I’m told that he’s your guy,’” Crocker told me. “Which turned out to be true.”

Allen’s subordinates in Kandahar continued to fight side by side with Raziq and his officers. “The military guys, for the most part, had a different view of him on the ground, working with him day in and day out,” said Martin Schweitzer, who as a brigadier general served as the deputy U.S. commander in Kandahar.

Despite Leahy laws in the United States, which prohibit support to foreign military units credibly accused of human rights violations, Raziq continued to be ferried around in American aircraft, and his advisers ensured that he and his forces had the air support, fuel and ammunition they needed. “If I asked and it was for Raziq, mostly I was going to get it,” said David Webb, who as a colonel advised him on two separate tours in 2012 and 2017. Upon Webb’s arrival, he was given his orders in no uncertain terms by his superior, a two-star general. “He put his finger in my chest and said: ‘Don’t let Raziq die. That’s your mission,’” said Webb, whose predecessor was wounded while fighting off an attack on Raziq’s headquarters.

Both Webb and Schweitzer stressed that they never saw evidence of Raziq committing war crimes under their watch. “I was with him almost every single day from morning until night,” Webb told me. “I never saw anything bad.”

As an outsider, I often wondered how American officers, bound to uphold the laws of war, rationalized working with Raziq. His tactics in Kandahar — every mutilated corpse or disappeared person — were intended to send a message, to terrorize his enemies and those who might support them. And they were effective. When I visited Kandahar in those years, I found that most people on the streets knew exactly what was happening, even if they were too afraid to speak about it openly.

But Raziq also calibrated his actions so that they were deniable. According to former colleagues, he and his men took steps to conceal them from their American allies, like dumping corpses when dust storms obscured aerial surveillance or using veiled language over the phone. Sending someone to “Dubai” meant killing them in the desert. “His commanders would call and say: ‘We caught someone. What should we do?’ He’d say, ‘God forgive them.’ That was his code,” said a senior republican police general who worked with Raziq. “I heard it with my own ears on an operation.”

The farther you got from the streets and villages, the easier it was to ignore what was happening there. According to an interpreter who spent years translating Raziq’s meetings with his American advisers, the subject was generally avoided at headquarters. “The advisers didn’t care about Raziq’s bad activities,” he said. “We weren’t telling Raziq: ‘Hey, do you have private prisons? Do you still have people in there?’”

“I’m not saying they didn’t occur; I’m not saying they did occur,” Schweitzer said about the kinds of accusations that led Allen to halt detainee transfers. “I just know I read all the intel reports.” And whatever American officers chose to believe, they could see that Raziq was delivering where it counted: Within a year and half of his taking over, enemy-initiated attacks were down by almost two-thirds in Kandahar. “I thought he was an incredibly important figure,” Schweitzer said, “and was critical to keeping the security in the south.”

The COIN strategy was tested in the summer of 2014, when the Taliban began a bold offensive targeting the two southern provinces that had been the focus of American efforts. The surge had come to an end, and republican forces were supposed to take the lead in combat.

In Helmand, where the Marines tried to keep out abusive strongmen, the government’s defense was disastrously weak and uncoordinated. In many rural areas, the republican army stayed in their forts and allowed the police to be overrun. Despite the presence of a major American air base in the province, large sections of the northern districts fell into insurgent hands.

But when the Taliban pushed into western Kandahar, Raziq took charge and rallied republican forces. Backed by his advisers and American airstrikes, he inflicted heavy casualties. The following summer, insurgents again attacked and reached the outskirts of Helmand’s capital; Raziq led counteroffensives to lift sieges there and, the next year, in the neighboring Uruzgan province. “The Taliban have fled the area and escaped,” he boasted to a TV crew while touring the embattled district of Now Zad.

By 2017, Helmand was among the top three provinces most controlled by insurgents, according to U.S. military figures. And while the situation was deteriorating across the country, Kandahar City and its surroundings remained relatively secure under Raziq. Journalists and human rights groups had warned that supporting men like him would backfire and inspire resistance to the government. Yet here he was, holding the line against the Taliban.

Raziq was far from the only example: Again and again, the U.S. military felt compelled to partner with Afghan allies who were accused of human rights abuses, despite its doctrine of winning the war by winning hearts and minds. Call it the COIN paradox; for years it puzzled me, until I came across the work of the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, who offered a convincing explanation of its logic.

In his comparative study of conflicts ranging from the Napoleonic occupation of Spain to the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency in Sri Lanka, Kalyvas asks why civil wars are so often marked by violence against civilians. Discarding explanations like cultural backwardness or ideology, Kalyvas argues that the incentive for this violence is created by the military characteristics of civil war, where the population is the battlefield.

To understand how Kalyvas’s theory applies to Afghanistan, you had to look at the rural areas where most of the fighting took place. Consider the Taliban’s stronghold in Kandahar, the Panjwai valley. A verdant delta of pomegranate and grape orchards west of the provincial capital, Panjwai was the birthplace of the movement. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader, preached in his mosque there.

The site of major offensives by allied forces since 2006, Panjwai was arguably the longest and most grueling fight anywhere in Kandahar. During the surge, American troops fought their way in and, by the end of 2010, had built up a string of bases and strong points, many jointly manned with the republican army and the police. The Taliban ordered its fighters to melt back into the villages, where, aided by the area’s dense vegetation and mud-walled orchards, they switched to hit-and-run ambushes, assassinations and improvised explosive devices.

This kind of guerrilla struggle was an example of what Kalyvas calls irregular warfare, in which territorial control is fragmented and mixed between both sides. The Taliban hid their weapons and picked up shovels, taking advantage of American rules of engagement, which allowed soldiers to fire only on those who were armed or posing an active threat. “We basically did not see a difference between the locals and the Taliban,” said Curtis Grace, who patrolled there as an infantryman in 2012.

The Army’s COIN manual stresses the difficulty in irregular warfare of telling civilians and insurgents apart. Kalyvas’s argument is different: The distinction itself can blur. In a conflict with no clear front lines, violence is jointly produced by combatants and civilians, who have the information the troops need to fight their enemies: the location of I.E.D.s and army patrols, the identities of insurgents and government supporters. Moreover, because civil war involves rival state-building, civilians help or hinder combatants by providing logistical and political support. In Panjwai, the Taliban needed local help to operate: They tried to win it by announcing safe routes through minefields, but they were also ruthless with those suspected of being spies and government supporters.

In civil war, while indiscriminate violence, like collateral damage from airstrikes, can backfire, “selective” violence against individuals works in a straightforward way: Do this, or I’ll kill you. Winning hearts and minds can still matter, but it’s only half the story. And in wartime, sticks are often much cheaper and more effective than carrots. In this life-or-death struggle, the competitor willing to use both will have the advantage.

Kalyvas’s work is part of a larger body of scholarship on civil war and counterinsurgency that demonstrates how central the use of coercive violence against civilians has been in such conflicts, whether waged by dictatorships like Syria or democracies like France. “ ‘The bad guys win’ is not the answer that U.S. forces, policymakers or civilians want to hear about counterinsurgency success, but the historical record is clear,” writes the scholar Jacqueline L. Hazelton. In this light, COIN doctrine can be seen as a form of American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States could fight a civil war differently from anyone else — humanely.

If Kalyvas is right, then what the U.S. military faced in Afghanistan was not so much a paradox as an impossible choice. To take back places like Panjwai, there was a compelling incentive to use unlawful violence against the population, which the U.S. military could not allow itself to do. The solution to this dilemma was a division of labor, where the United States provided firepower and money to allies like Raziq, who did the dirty work.

In 2010, the United States introduced the Afghan Local Police program, or ALP. Drawing on their experience with militias in Vietnam and El Salvador, the Special Forces trained and armed villagers around the country. In the military’s hearts-and-minds framework, they were empowering communities to protect themselves against violent outsiders. But four decades of a multisided conflict meant that fault lines ran through communities, villages and even families. Most areas were tribally mixed; finding militias meant exploiting those divisions just as the Taliban had been doing. It meant arming Afghans against one another in a civil war.

As police chief, Raziq was in charge of the ALP program in Kandahar. Panjwai District was the most resistant; by 2011, its horn, as the western end was known, was the only place that the militias had failed to take root, despite the presence of several Special Forces teams. The next year, Raziq appointed one of his key lieutenants as the district police chief. Panjwai was predominantly Noorzai; Sultan Mohammad was an Achakzai like Raziq, but he was from the district. Such local knowledge, the ability to make rural Afghan society legible to outsiders, was precisely what made militias effective. They could go after the Taliban and their supporters in their own homes. The Taliban had gained sway over the villages by targeting the families of those who collaborated with the republic, and the militias, protected by American and regular government forces, could turn the tables.

Most of Panjwai was too dangerous to visit during the war, but when the republic fell in 2021, I was able to travel there, interviewing dozens of witnesses who described torture and extrajudicial killings carried out by members of the police and the ALP, targeting both active insurgents and sympathizers. In the village of Pashmul, several witnesses told me they saw Sultan Mohammad shoot an unarmed old man, Hajji Badr, whose sons had served in the Taliban. Sultan Mohammad told me he had no involvement in murder or torture, but several other people said they witnessed him personally execute prisoners. “All the people from the area knew,” said Hasti Mohammad, a republican district governor in Panjwai. “It wasn’t something secret.”

I was also shown several videos of police abuse, including one in which a group of men, identified by locals as ALP members in Panjwai, tortured a captive bound hand and foot. They strike him with sticks, twist his testicles with their hands, pour water over his mouth and sodomize him with a stick, all while demanding he confess. “I don’t have anything,” he blubbers, growing incoherent.

This brutality was no impediment to American and republican success. Under Sultan Mohammad, the ALP program was established throughout the district. I.E.D. attacks plummeted, while the proportion of bombs that went off without being discovered dropped by half, which one study attributed to increased cooperation from locals.

The U.S. military was aware of the abuses by police officers and militia members in Panjwai. On multiple occasions, American surveillance captured them committing war crimes. One video showing executions by the police was shown to senior U.S. officials in 2012; Colonel Webb said he asked Raziq to arrest the perpetrators, but police investigators told me that some ordinary militiamen were punished instead. Sultan Mohammad was evetually promoted to brigadier general and oversaw several districts in the west of the province. When I spoke with him, he showed me a collection of certificates of appreciation from more than a dozen U.S. military units. “The Special Forces helped us a lot,” he said.
Thanks to his success in Kandahar, Raziq became famous. Not since the late northern commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom he greatly admired, had any one figure united anti-Taliban sentiment across the country. He was interviewed on national television, and his picture was pasted on street billboards. Songs were dedicated to him:
He’s the servant of security, the servant of our government.

He’s truly the servant of Afghans.

There were many reasons for his popularity. He was young and dynamic, a village boy who never lost the common touch. He was free with his largess, sometimes handing out cash on the street. He spoke fearlessly against Pakistan’s support for the insurgency. For Afghans disenchanted by the corruption and duplicity of their politicians, Raziq seemed authentic.

“There were other politicians who would talk against the Taliban and Pakistan,” said Nader Nadery, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center who as head of the country’s human rights commission had criticized Raziq’s abuses. “With Raziq, people saw it was not just words.” Even Nadery had come to see the trade-off that Raziq represented, as a bulwark against the looming collapse of the republic. “It’s a difficult judgment to make,” he said. “We can lose everything, or we can keep some parts of it.”

Although Raziq publicly denied accusations of human rights abuses, when an Afghan journalist asked him about them in 2017, he offered something close to a justification. “Showing mercy to such people is a betrayal to our nation,” he replied. “When our soldiers are martyred, isn’t that a violation of human rights? When our schools are burned, isn’t that a violation?”

The truth was that many Afghans saw Raziq’s brutality as a positive quality. They wanted a champion who could protect them from the Taliban’s violence. When Raziq went out on the streets, he was mobbed by crowds of well-wishers. “It was like being an adviser to Elvis Presley,” Webb recalled.

As Raziq grew in stature, he was rehabilitated. Western generals and diplomats sought him out on trips to Kandahar. Over the years, Raziq was a constant there, a fixed point around which contradictory policies and goals swirled: counterterrorism, nation-building, COIN and, finally, negotiations with the Taliban. “We needed him more than he needed us,” said John W. Lathrop, who as a brigadier general commanded American forces in Kandahar in 2017. “Keeping Raziq happy was pretty important.”

For the Taliban, Raziq was one of their top targets. By his own count, Raziq had survived at least 25 suicide attacks. Yet he remained committed to the fight. In one of his last interviews, Raziq criticized republican elites who already had one foot out the door with visas and houses overseas. “We shouldn’t hope or plan to seek asylum in America or move to London,” he said. “We were born here, and we’ll die here.”

On Oct. 18, 2018, General Miller, the top U.S. commander, called a meeting at the governor’s compound in Kandahar to discuss the upcoming parliamentary elections. That day, Raziq put on Western-style clothes: a dress shirt and slacks. The young soldier from the borderlands had become a statesman, a role that came less easily to him. He had seemed worn down to people who had met him lately; he was preoccupied with political dramas in Kabul. He had also been sick for days with a bad stomach bug, but he wanted to see Miller, whom he had known since the early days of the war. During the meeting, Raziq appeared flushed and uneasy, but afterward he insisted on walking to the helicopter pad to see off Miller and the other Americans.

A group of police officers arrived, carrying crates of pomegranates, gifts for the Americans. Among them was a bodyguard for the governor, a young man the Taliban had code-named Abu Dujana. He dropped his crate and fired his assault rifle, killing Raziq and the provincial intelligence chief and wounding several others, including an American general, before he was shot dead.

As one part of the country celebrated, the other mourned. The republic had lost its hero.
What does Raziq’s story tell us about why the United States failed in Afghanistan? Although the immediate cause of the republic’s collapse might have been the precipitous U.S. withdrawal in 2021, the real question is why the Afghan government could not stand on its own despite the hundreds of billions of dollars invested over 20 years by America and its allies. How did hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police officers, armed with modern equipment, lose to insurgents who rode their motorcycles in sandals?

Many corrupt and unpopular governments survive insurgencies. And it’s clear that the Taliban’s violence against civilians did not prevent their ultimate success. More than hearts and minds lost to brutality, internal rot and infighting — fed by the West’s profligate spending and inconsistent strategy — explain the republic’s collapse. Criminal behavior by republican officials escalated to the point that it threatened the system itself, bringing about repeated crises like the near collapse of the banking sector. Wage and supply theft were catastrophic to the morale of soldiers and police officers, while nonexistent “ghost soldiers” inflated their ranks. As the Americans pulled back from rural areas, the ALP militias became increasingly predatory, shaking down locals for bribes; their selective violence became indiscriminate, to use Kalyvas’s terms. “That’s how it started,” a senior Panjwai officer explained. “The district chief stole their salaries and said, ‘Go get your meals from the people.’”

When it came to corruption, Raziq played an ambiguous role: What he stole from the system with one hand he gave back with the other. With their control of the border, he and his cronies siphoned huge amounts of government revenue: The shortfall added up to around $55 million per year, according to satellite imagery and customs data analyzed by the researcher David Mansfield.

But Raziq also spent much of what he earned on his network of sources, on bonuses for his men, on bribes to protect himself from rapacious politicians in Kabul. In a corrupt system, money was synonymous with power, and Raziq needed it to fight. Yet while he tried to curb overly predatory commanders, there was a limit to how far he could go to keep order. He was a prisoner of his own methods. Enforced disappearances, torture and executions, the tools that Raziq believed were necessary to defeat the Taliban, had to be kept hidden, often through intimidation and bribery. Impunity for human rights abuses could lead to general lawlessness; in this way, repressive counterinsurgencies had mutated into mafia states in countries like Guatemala. The men that Raziq handpicked to carry out these acts were of necessity criminals. The darkness they worked within allowed corruption to flourish. By contrast, instead of democracy or human rights, the Taliban professed a fundamentalist vision of Islamic law. Their scholars justified killing captives and civilians as necessary and legitimate in the jihad against foreign occupation. Where the republic’s hypocrisy fed its fatal weakness, corruption, the Taliban’s unabashed brutality was consonant with the movement’s strength, its unity.

Today we live in an age of irregular warfare, of asymmetric clashes with militant groups and battles to control populations. A vast majority of conflicts over the past century have been within states, not between them. The comforting myth that brutality is always counterproductive — that war can therefore be humane — obscures how violence functions in such conflicts; it hides how and to whom men like Raziq are useful. In retrospect, this myth, sold to the public as COIN, is part of a larger pattern of dishonesty that runs through America’s longest war, 20 years of wishful thinking and willful ignorance that culminated in tragedy on Aug. 15, 2021, when Raziq’s mortal enemies entered Kabul in triumph.

America’s Monster: Who was Abdul Raziq?