July 19, 2011
MEHTERLAM, Afghanistan -- Nimat Ullah Rekazai is counting his days.
The 43-year-old stands behind his desk in the eastern Afghan city of Mehterlam, holding a letter. It is signed by the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan -- better known as the Taliban. Unless he abandons his U.S.-funded project teaching women how to use computers, the letter warns, the Taliban will kill him. On August 20. He is not sure why they chose that date, but he is sure they are serious.
"When they say something, they follow through," he says, sunglasses covering the eyes he lost while fighting the Soviets. "Whatever they decide to do, they can do it."
Today, in a ceremony kept secret from the public, the United States officially handed over security of Mehterlam to Afghan security forces. Police feared the event would be attacked, so they shut down the area completely. (And during the ceremony, two rockets fell just outside the city.) The normally busy provincial capital of more than 100,000 became a ghost town. The only vehicles allowed in past razor-wire checkpoints were American armored trucks and Ford Rangers belonging to the Afghan army and police.
Rekazai fears the kinds of threats he has received will only increase as the police take responsibility for security.
"There will be a lot of phone calls and intimidating letters," he says. "Kidnapping will increase ... and there will be targeted killings."
The United States' slow withdrawal from Afghanistan is dependent on cities like Mehterlam being able to secure themselves. Already, some U.S. soldiers have been withdrawn from Laghman province, of which Mehterlam is the capital. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai's aides fear Mehterlam is the most fragile of the seven areas earmarked for transition this week. And -- while it's not a universal sentiment -- many Afghan and U.S. officials in the city say that the police are so badly underequipped and the justice system so corrupt, there is no guarantee the Afghans can provide the rule of law themselves.
ABC News spent six days in Mehterlam ahead of today's transition ceremony, speaking with dozens of Afghan and American officials, including Afghan police and army commanders and American officers based in the Provincial Reconstruction Team base inside the city.
The police, who have primary responsibility for security in the city, are motivated but outmatched. There are only a few dozen officers patrolling the city. That would be like asking the New Orleans Police Department to maintain security with fewer than 100 cops -- and the NOPD doesn't have to worry about militants coming in from nearby Pakistan, which according to Afghan officials, is the main threat here. Mehterlam police do not patrol with armored trucks, even though they are sometimes targeted with IEDs. And they do not have bulletproof vests they can wear over their uniforms, even though they have asked their government for them.
Their shortcomings are compounded by endemic corruption that Afghan and U.S. officials admit runs through the justice system. Police commanders complain that even when they do make arrests, there is no guarantee the arrested will be punished or remain in prison. Criminals and insurgents have managed to buy or threaten their way to freedom, according to two Afghan officials and two U.S. officials. Even the son of a Taliban commander was freed, according to a U.S. military official, after his father paid or threatened -- or both -- judges who were supposed to sentence him.
Some Afghan and U.S. officials based in Mehterlam suggest that picture is too negative. They admit the police and justice system are far from perfect, but they have made positive strides.
"This is the hope of the Afghan people," Laghman's young but respected governor, Iqbal Azizi, said at the transition ceremony today. "To have their brothers leading them."
But security begins with the police, and 40-year-old Shah Mehmood, the captain of the city's precinct, admits there are security gaps because he is short staffed.
"The biggest challenge is a lack of personnel," he says. "We don't have enough people."
'There is No Intimidation Factor'
Mehterlam is not a large city, and it would be possible to walk through the neighborhoods housing its more than 100,000 residents in a few hours. U.S. police mentors have tried to convince the police to do just that – spend more time on the beat, less time at checkpoints or in their stations.
But while with the police, ABC News did not witness a single occasion where they walked down the street. Offices would set up checkpoints and respond to emergencies, but they were not familiarizing themselves with the city they now officially protect.
Perhaps that is understandable. Their equipment is far from satisfactory for a province still suffering from a robust insurgency.
Not only do they lack armored vehicles and bulletproof vests, they have no equipment to detect or defuse IEDs. Mehmood, the precinct captain, sheepishly admits he has to call the Americans each time he finds a roadside bomb. They have radios, but not enough, so they have to rely on their cell phones.
And everywhere they go, they are easily outnumbered. Mehmood said that late last week five of his men spotted an insurgent placing an IED. Three secured the scene, he said, while two ran after the man. But when they finally caught him, the police were quickly outnumbered. Fifteen villagers came and threatened the police -- who had to walk away, fearing for their lives.
"There's no intimidation factor," says Lt. Col. Adrian Donahoe, a special forces soldier who mentors the Afghan security forces. "They walk down the street, they have no vests, no helmets, and nobody is scared of them."
A senior aide to President Hamid Karzai said it will likely take 10 years before cities like Mehterlam have a functioning police department. The city, though, needs them for security as of today.
"The Taliban will continue to use suicide attackers and IEDs," Mehmood said. "But if we receive the right equipment and more men, we will be ok."
Donahoe says he tries to convince the local police officers to patrol more. But he admits that Mehmood needs at least triple the number of officers in order to properly secure the city. Afghan officials said they have requested four times the current number -- and expect to receive the manpower boost, eventually.
"It's a long process. It's going to take a while for them to feel the confidence and for the people to feel confident talking to them," Donahoe says. "It will come. Nobody says you can build trust immediately overnight."
Residents say they want to have that trust in their police, but they see the lack of equipment and doubt how quickly it can happen. They also say after dark, security drops considerably. Local residents say no government official would ever go close to the jail, for example, which is in the northeast section of the city, after 4:00 p.m. And just next to the governor's house, residents say they can't go into Mehterlam Park during the day for fear of attack by the mix of criminals and dope addicts who call it home.
More than anything, though, residents complain about the Taliban's threats. Government officials, journalists, and anyone running programs funded by U.S. money say they can be targeted. Multiple officials brought up the assassination of a member of the provincial council in March -- by IED -- as proof the Taliban would follow through on their threats.
The local program director for Radio and Television Afghanistan says the Taliban have texted him regularly in the last year, threatening him for playing music and for being too pro-government. In response, he has reduced the amount of music and made sure female performers are covered while on the air.
One man who used to work at the U.S. base said he quit after being told to by a Taliban commander.
And judges and prosecutors say they are constantly targeted by insurgents – as well as the politically powerful – to make sure they do not try and go after the Taliban. One judge said Taliban fighters actually visited his home.
"We have asked for more security for years," says the province's chief prosecutor, Sayed Anbar Pacha. "There's been no response."
Lack of Justice
Earlier this year Afghan forces captured the son of Mullah Nasrat, a well known Taliban commander from the newly created Badpash district, formerly inside of Mehterlam. But inexplicably, he was released, according to a U.S. military official.
The official said he did not know whether the Taliban paid for his release or threatened judges and prosecutors to the point where they let him go. But it was the most obvious sign that, in an Afghan official's words, "the system puts insurgents back on the street."
Afghan and American officials who track the justice system in Mehterlam believe it is corrupt to its core. Judges and prosecutors are too scared or too easily bought -- or both -- to throw the full weight of the law at insurgents or corrupt senior officials.
The courthouse has a few police guards, but as soon as judges leave, they have no protection. Nor do prosecutors.
"I've had judges say to me, how can you expect me to send an insurgent to prison for 20 years if I have no security?" says Tom McDermott, a State Department employee who is the rule of law advisor in Mehterlam. "It's just very easy for insurgents to threaten them. Many of the judges get threats by telephone. In a similar fashion, people who are in power politically can threaten a judge's career … if they don't make an acceptable ruling."Prosecutors and judges defend their record, saying they do the best they can. They point out they prosecuted a school principal who was stealing materials and selling them on the black market. They also say they caught one of the clerks inside the court trying to extract money from a defendant, and set up a sting to catch him.
But Afghan officials who watch the justice system closely say they fear those cases are the exceptions. One judge was arrested a month ago because of his relationship with insurgents, they said, and two judges were recently transfered because of suspicions they too had a relationship with the Taliban.
For the police, the lack of a trustworthy justice system is incredibly frustrating.
"We are… fed up with the whole justice system," one police official complained, using an unprintable epithet. "We're putting our lives in danger, but the court is releasing criminals without caring about the risks we take."
'This Is The Kind of Life We're Living'
Senior Afghan officials say that within two months, Mehterlam should have more police and its police should have more equipment. And they point out that the Afghan Army is always on standby to help inside the city, if needed. A combined police/army/intelligence service Quick Reaction Force has been recently trained, and is on hair-trigger alert, 24 hours per day.
But the officials acknowledge that justice in the city is fragile. They ask for patience.
"In the rule of law sector, we have a very long way to go," Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a Karzai advisor who designed the transition process, acknowledged today. "But if I may remind you, the police in New York City at the turn of the 20th century was one of the most corrupt. … Police corruption I think is a universal problem. It takes a long time and we have to be realistic to be able to deal with this."
Rekazai fears he may not have that much time. He will continue teaching girls computer skills, in part because he can't afford to lose the contract, in part because he "hopes God's will is different than the Taliban's will." But he admits his mind is always anxious, and that he is "counting his days."
"This is the kind of life we're living," he says. "Full of fear."