KABUL, Afghanistan — Even when Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, is not attacked by suicide bombers, it is often gripped by gun-toting crime syndicates that receive protection from the country’s elite.
If the national government cannot prevent chaos in the seat of its power, many are left wondering, how can it stand against an insurgency in far-flung and remote corners of the country?
“The people’s concerns in society, particularly in big cities, also stem from thuggish groups who talk of force, who break the law, who have irresponsible armed militias,” Lt. Gen. Sayed Mohammad Roshandil, the Kabul police chief, said in an interview with The New York Times.
Under a new interior minister, Amrullah Saleh, and an earlier influx of new security commanders, including General Roshandil, the authorities have begun a concerted effort to restore order in Kabul and to reinforce police forces that have been crushed by record casualties and weakened by a reputation for corruption, abuse and acting as the extended arm of warlords as well as the elite.
Last fall, police and intelligence forces began a major push against Islamic State and Taliban cells in and around Kabul. It was a campaign that has been credited by American and Afghan officials with reducing the number of attacks, though insurgents still manage to sneak in large amounts of explosives for truck bombs and daring raids.
Now, the police forces are focused on dismantling what they call a “pyramid of crime” in the capital.
Officials say they have identified about 1,500 people in the city who are suspected of criminal activity, and who are thought to own a total of nearly 30,000 illegal arms. And they have begun dismantling the pyramid from the bottom, making their way toward the powerful few at the top.
“This pyramid of crime that exists, we are hitting its base so those at the top crumble with it,” General Roshandil said. “The people no longer have patience for this.”
A new nationwide order bans anyone but military, interior or intelligence officials from being trailed on the roads by pickup trucks full of highly visible armed guards, as powerful people in the capital and beyond have long done.
The local police have said they will use whatever force is necessary to fight the crime syndicates, and that special forces are ready to assist. In the first days after the order took effect, police officers seized vehicles belonging to one of the country’s vice presidents as well as powerful members of Parliament — moves that would have been unthinkable until recently.
Such initiatives have created a rare sense of optimism in Kabul, leading some to hope that a police force many had given up on might somehow be reinvigorated and armed to stand up to the local mafia as much as to insurgents.
General Roshandil, a 14-year veteran of the country’s special forces, was appointed to lead the Kabul police in September, at a time when deadly attacks were frequent and the city had been turned into a front line of the country’s long war. Aided by a new intelligence chief for the city who had similar counterterrorism experience, and with the support of American advisers, local forces carried out raids to disrupt terrorist cells in Kabul and surrounding areas.
Much of the recent optimism also stems from the appointment last month of Mr. Saleh as interior minister, and from his immediate push to bolster and uplift a national police force that lost about 19,000 men across the country in the past four years alone. A former intelligence chief, Mr. Saleh has vowed to minimize the influence of warlords and local elites over the police, and to drive out corruption among its forces.
While the measures he has introduced have been widely welcomed in Kabul, many observers and residents say that combating the rot will require far deeper changes.
“Since last week, public opinion has changed. People are optimistic and they believe that it is possible to change the situation,” said Wazhma Frogh, the executive director of the Women and Peace Studies Organization.
But if the crackdown is not sustained and criminals weather a brief wave of pressure, she warned, they could emerge further emboldened.
Mohammad Zahir, 26, a baker in Kabul City, said of the new interior minister: “When you are new in a position, you are energetic and excited, but time will show whether he was showing off or he was serious. But in one or two weeks, the situation is a bit changed in Kabul. Criminals are afraid of him because some powerful men were arrested.”
Among those who have been apprehended in the past week are a militia commander accused of having 100 illegal weapons, a parliamentary candidate accused of building illegal high rises by force, and the brother of a current member of Parliament who is accused of extortion.
But it hasn’t been all smooth. One suspect, Abdul Hamid Khurasani, confronted the police when they sought to arrest him at the offices of his political group, bringing the northern Kabul neighborhood to a standstill, and then managed to flee with support from elements inside the police and local strongmen who came to his aid.
Since then, videos have emerged of Mr. Khurasani casting himself as a fighter for justice who is being victimized by Mr. Saleh, whom he accuses of being a spy for the C.I.A.
In photos recently circulated, Mr. Khurasani is posing in fatigues with a copy of a book called “Introduction to the Science of Politics,” his Kalashnikov and military radio next to him. Large posters of the late dictators Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya are behind him. The interior ministry says that Mr. Khurasani is being pursued and has been placed on a no-fly list, and that his accounts, if he has any, will be frozen.
Mr. Saleh has told his staff members that he wants to set new standards of professionalism that will hold police forces accountable in the future.
At the same time, he has vowed to protect them from members of the elite, such as lawmakers and warlords, who have long wielded influence over police promotions and demotions as a blanket of impunity for their crimes.
In Kabul, Mr. Saleh has released the names of suspects in batches, moving from the lowest layer of the crime pyramid toward the top, giving suspects ultimatums to surrender and answer the accusations against them. Special commandos have been put on alert, ready to provide support if police officers face resistance in their work.
“The same police that wouldn’t stand up to the thugs yesterday, or would move aside under the slightest pressure, they are standing up now, without any new increase in numbers, without any new training,” General Roshandil said. “They are creating the hope.”
“The expectations that have been created for the people — we want to turn that into a belief,” he said. “And we want to do it with the same police force that wasn’t counted on until yesterday.”
Orignially published in NYT.