Posted by: Christian | August 15, 2011

Governor Salangi: Afghanistan’s Cancer in Action

Yesterday in the Province of Parwan there was a rather dramatic attempt to kill the governor, the police chief and some NATO advisers. The Guardian reports:

A machine gun-wielding provincial governor took part in tackling a team of Taliban suicide bombers on Sunday when insurgents launched another brazen attack on a government facility in Afghanistan.

Officials said 18 people were killed, including three policemen and 10 local government workers, and 35 were wounded, some badly enough that they had to be transported to Kabul for treatment. A Taliban spokesman claimed credit for the violence in Charikar, a city where they had made barely any inroads in the last 10 years.

Abdul Basir Salangi, governor of Parwan, had been in his office holding a meeting with the province’s police chief and Nato foreign advisers when the six-man insurgent squad drove up to the compound in a Toyota Corolla.

There are two versions of the event at the moment; one where Governor Salangi is Rambo and one where he cowers in a bathroom

The Guardian provides background on Governor Abdul Basir Salangi by describing him as “a former guerrilla commander who fought as an insurgent himself back in the 1980s” and “a close ally of Hamid Karzai.” Meanwhile, the New York Times allowed him to frame his own stature in Afghanistan:

“The enemy wanted to kill the governor who is the head of jihad and resistance, here in Parwan, which is the center of jihad and resistance, and we fought them off,” Mr. Salangi said, referring to himself, and his role fighting the Soviets and later the Taliban. It was at least the third assassination attempt on Mr. Salangi by the insurgents.

What I did not read anywhere (yet) in regards to this incident is Basir Salangi’s reputation amongst Afghans who see him in a rather bad light. Where do I start? I’ll do this in chronological order…

In 1997 the Taliban were in a mood to conquer the north of the country. There is, however, a little problem: geography and Rashid Dostum. In the northwest it was not possible to just waltz through Rashid Dostum’s positions, and from Kabul it would be suicide to just drive up the Salang. You could defend that pass just by rolling rocks down, as one Russian general noted. Indeed, in the previous year the Taliban were pummelled when they attempted a trip up the Salang [John F. Burns, New York Times, 10 Oct 1996]. So the Taliban and the Pakistanis paid off Abdul Malik, a vassal of Rashid Dostum, to let them leisurely approach Mazar-i Sharif (he was also promised a high-ranking ministerial post). And for the Salang Pass, the Taliban found a rather eager-to-cooperate Basir Salangi, ostensibly a loyal commander of Massoud’s Shura-yi Nazar. The eponymous Salangi gave the Taliban passage through the Salang. He only made the deal once the Taliban had seized Mazar (and before the Hazaras ejected them).

What happened next depends on who you talk to. But what is certain is that Hazara fighters fought the Taliban (or rather massacred them) in Mazar. This made Abdul Malik (or his men) rethink their new alliance and the Uzbeks also joined in the rout of the Taliban. However, the Taliban force that had gone through the Salang was only as far as Pul-i Khumri. Hearing that their brothers were being massacred, they beat a strategic retreat. As they retreated, Basir Salangi attacked them. This is where it gets murky. Some say Salangi had planned this all along. I argue otherwise. I seriously doubt that he had coordinated with Hazaras in Mazar and Uzbeks in Faryab. He was just going with who he perceived to be the winner, like so many others have done.  Once his new friends started to lose he turned on them and acted like it was his plan all along. [Sources: here, here, here, here, here and here]

Fast forward to the post-2001 era. Salangi is appointed as Chief of Police in Kabul Province. While Chief he was very unhappy with the international forces patrolling Kabul:

But in Kabul, the security patrols of the international force are barely visible and clearly unpopular with the new Northern Alliance masters of the city. “There’s no need for them,” said Lieutenant- General Basir Salangi, a former alliance warlord who is now security chief of Kabul.

“We don’t have any contact with them and we’re happy they don’t interfere in our affairs. If they do interfere, we’ll tell them we had 23 years of war because of such interference.” [The Guardian, 18 January 2002]

He didn’t want them there because he was looting the place, taking care of his burgeoning mafia business and securing his position of power. The Wall Street Journal (Asia) scoffed at his unhappiness with the international forces in Kabul and made this comment: “Straight-faced professions of fear that peacekeepers will prolong war would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that Gen. Salangi and friends control the guns and don’t want to give them up.” [24 January 2002]

While chief he made this comment to US News and World Report: “We know bad people from their faces. If I see a criminal, I know. So my work is very easy.” He was probably looking into a mirror. He was one of the biggest criminals in Kabul. He was most notorious for stealing land, bulldozing people’s houses and then selling the land for personal profit.

What else can be said about Basir Salangi? While police chief in Kabul he presided over the jailing of women for “moral crimes.” Basir’s spokesman stated: “They were in detention for various moral crimes, such as fornication, running away from home, having love affairs and other things.” [Ottawa Citizen, 11 November 2002].

He soon starts to show up on Human Rights Watch’s radar. Aside from the usual shake-down of motorists by his men, there was the brutality:

Human Rights Watch also documented a case in Kabul, in late May 2003, in which Kabul police arrested and beat several students after they organized a small protest in the medical school at Kabul University, complaining about nepotism in the university’s grading system. A witness to the arrests said that the police beat the students while arresting them, punching and kicking them. Later, after the students were brought to the Kabul main police station, the chief of Kabul police himself, Basir Salangi (a Jamiat-e Islami commander and member of Shura-e Nazar) beat two of them. The beatings occurred in Salangi’s office, after Salangi interrogated one of the students, whom he thought was a leader of the protests:

Basir Salangi got very furious and ordered his guard to drag [the first student] out of the door, and while his guard was pulling him out of office, Basir Salangi himself stood up and quickly came out from behind his desk and kicked him strongly to his stomach and then held [the student’s] head down and beat him with his knee in his stomach and punched him many times in his kidney. Salangi’s guard was also beating [the student] during this time. [The student] was holding his hands around his face to protect his face from harm. They beat him for about two minutes. Then Qadous Khan [the police chief of district three in Kabul] came in and pointed out [another student] to Basir Salangi, and said that he was, in his view, the notorious troublemaker. Basir Salangi then turned towards [the other student], who was sitting on a sofa in the office, and hit him, hard, with a slap on the face, so much that he fell down and was dizzy. Then Basir Salangi kicked him, as he [the second student] was holding his face, and then Basir Salangi picked up a small table, used for putting down cups of tea, to beat [the student], but fortunately the other people who were in the office held him and did not let him beat the guy with the table.

Other students confirmed this account. Some were released that same day, but the two who were beaten by Salangi were held for another three days.

And the theft of land? This is the worst incident, wherein people who had lived in an area of Kabul for 30 years had this done to them:

The government sold 4,300-square-foot lots to the officials and commanders for about $1,000 each.

Miloon Kothari, a special housing consultant for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, said some lots were resold for more than $80,000 in Kabul’s hot real estate market, which has ballooned with the influx of thousands of foreign journalists, advisers and aid workers.

Six months ago, the residents, most of whom had worked at the base and had built their homes on abandoned land without asking for clear title, were told they would have to move. Defense officials promised to help them find new land, but help never came.

The residents said they had no warning before police Chief Salangi staged an assault with earth-moving equipment and 100 baton- swinging officers early Sept. 3.

As one UN rep in the story noted:

“Incidents like this seriously affect the credibility of this government,” Kothari said. “Unless this land-grabbing is arrested, you’re sowing the seeds for decades of conflict.” [Knight Ridder Newspapers, 05 Oct 2003]

The Independent has a decent description of Basir Salangi’s tactics:

To the disgust of the United Nations, Basir Salangi, the Kabul police chief, has begun flexing his muscles, underlining tensions between the US-backed Afghan authorities and the international community.

His target comprises one-room mud-brick homes that he says were built in violation of the law and the city plans – a fragile concept in a country blighted by war, corruption, a collapsed infrastructure, dismal or non-existent services and a massive opium trade. Thirteen families have so far been evicted by police from homes in one of the city’s richest areas, the Wazir Akhar Khan neighbourhood, where monthly rents run into four figures in US dollars. The families say they have lived there for three decades. This did not deter Mr Salangi. He has declared that the homes are not part of the “master-plan of the municipality”. This may surprise many of its residents, who negotiate the pot-holed streets and face routine power cuts.

But the police chief underscored his point by sending in the bulldozers, which apparently flattened the houses while the families’ possessions were still inside. He now has plans to throw out another 250 families – more than 1,000 people. He says they have been offered compensation, which they refused; they deny this.

The UN is livid. Its spokesman, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, has accused him at a press conference of “excessive force” and of causing a “humanitarian emergency”. [via The Belfast Telegraph, 5 September 2003]

After this enthusiastic round of house and land theft, the pressure was too much and Karzai moved to sack Basir Salangi (while ignoring the other culprits: Fahim and Qanooni, according to the AIHRC). But like a pedophile priest, Salangi was just shuffled to another assignment. Local TV reported that he was sent to the “personnel office.” [BBC Monitoring, 17 September 2003].

But clearly, any new assignment shouldn’t be in an area with many Pashtuns. Why? Well, take this Basir Salangi comment for example:

In the post-Taliban phase of the war, the bombing has been concentrated for the past month on the south and south-eastern areas by the Pakistani border where support for the Taliban was strong. General Basir Salangi, a former Northern Alliance commander who is now Kabul’s security chief, says the Americans should carry on bombing the Pashtun south: “If they’re not al-Qaida, they’re the people who supported al-Qaida. They should be bombed just to frighten them.” [The Guardian, 12 February 2002]

Nevertheless, he soon turned up in Wardak as the top police commander in April 2004 [BBC Monitoring Afghanistan Briefing 12-14 April 2004]. Later in the year Basir Salangi’s “posh green mansion” served as a meeting place for Team Qanooni. [Pamela Constable, The Washington Post, 26 September 2004]. He was still popping up in the news in 2005, for example when his men shot and killed demonstrating students. [Carlotta Gall, NYT, 13 May 2005]

Unsurprisingly, some locals in Wardak were not happy with their police chief:

The man didn’t realize who he was talking to. Or maybe he didn’t care. Asked about the government here in Wardak province, Mohammed Daud, 42, was blunt. “The governor seems like a good guy,” the owner of a small trucking firm declared. “But the police are always trying to take money from us.”

Daud’s questioners: the provincial governor and provincial police chief themselves — plus Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

Police Chief Basir Salangi shifted uncomfortably on his feet. But the moment passed. Salangi, Eikenberry and Wardak Gov. Abdul Jabbar Naeemi moved on to ask more ordinary Afghans about their lives near this village about 35 miles west of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

It was another episode in Eikenberry’s relentless campaign to find out what’s really going on in Afghanistan, a quest that occasionally creates awkward moments for local officials such as Salangi. [Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY, 13 July 2005]

In 2006-2007 Basir Salangi was sent to Nangarhar Province as top cop. God knows what he got up during his tenure in Nangarhar.

Whatever the case, in January 2007 Salangi was euphemistically “removed or reshuffled as part of the Interior Ministry’s police reform programme.” [BBC Monitoring South Asia, 13 Jan 2007] Of course, the comedy routine would just not end and Salangi was made deputy governor of Parwan province later in the year. Within a couple of years he would become governor of Parwan.

That fact that such an obvious predator and parasite such as Abdul Basir Salangi has been allowed to be a powerful figure for so long demonstrates how truly broken Afghanistan is. He probably creates new insurgents everywhere his foot touches the ground. However, what should be not take from this blog post is any notion that this is the standard Panjshiri/Shura-yi Nazar/Jamiat bashing (e.g., this old post for example). It’s not. I could do this for Pashtuns and members of Hizb-i Islami just as easily. In fact, I did just that over 4 years ago. Or one could easily point to guys such as Sherzai and the late brother Karzai. Or any number of shady governors, police chiefs and generals…

Anyways, it’s mostly just deck chairs on the Titanic at this point. Carry on.


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