Gul Agha Gets His Province Back. In Kandahar, the Warlord Has Returned.

The New York Times Magazine
January 6, 2002

Gul Agha Shirzai was the governor of Kandahar Province in the early 1990’s, an infamous period filled with anarchy that was shocking even by Afghan standards. Gul Agha was personally acquainted with the ethos of those times. In 1989, his father, who had joined the jihad after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and became a respected commander and Pashtun tribal leader, was murdered by a cook who slipped arsenic into his lunch. Avenging the crime, Gul Agha tied the cook to a tree, shot him with a Kalashnikov and hung his shredded corpse from a branch for a week.

When the United States government went shopping last fall for someone to lead an army into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Gul Agha re-emerged as America’s go-to warlord. He had spent seven years in luxurious exile in Pakistan, waiting for a chance to get rid of the black-turbaned Taliban mullahs who’d gotten rid of him. In early November, he slipped into Afghanistan with a ragtag army of 1,500 Afghan fighters and joined up in the border village of Shinarai with a honed unit of a dozen or so American Special Forces soldiers who arrived in helicopters at night. In the days that followed, weapons arrived after dark, too, falling to earth in wood crates shoved from the bellies of American military aircraft. The crates, attached to parachutes, contained Kalashnikov assault rifles, serrated steel bayonets and rocket-propelled grenades, and they were collected outside Shinarai by the Special Forces troops who gave them to Gul Agha.

A day before his march on Kandahar began, Gul Agha assembled his newly weaponized fighters by a stream outside Shinarai. The first speeches were delivered by local mullahs who urged a just war that would bring freedom to the Pashtun-dominated southern chunk of Afghanistan still held by the Taliban. Gul Agha, the last to speak, ordered his men not to take revenge on Taliban soldiers who surrendered–they were mostly Pashtuns, too, after all. But Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda should receive no mercy, he said, because they brought ruin to the nation.

He wasn’t finished.

“If I find somebody who takes revenge on Afghans, or who indulges in looting or something illegal,” he added, “I promise you that in times of war I get very excited, and I will shoot you.”

He turned to the mullahs at his side.

“If I shoot soldiers violating my rules, would that be sinful?”

The mullahs could not respond quick enough.

“Shoot them, shoot them on sight,” they advised.

It is unwise to believe everything, or anything, a warlord tells you in Afghanistan, but when Gul Agha threatens violence, he is a man of his word. One of his commanders recited for me a variety of insults Gul Agha shouts at soldiers who do not please him, but the curses are just a warmup.

“When he’s really angry,” the commander smiled, “he doesn’t say much. He just punches.”

This is a key difference between Gul Agha and Hamid Karzai, the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. The United States government, seeking a Westernized Pashtun to boot the Taliban from Kandahar, assigned a larger number of Special Forces soldiers to Karzai, and far earlier, than to Gul Agha; Karzai was even whisked into the country in an American helicopter, whisked out again when he got into trouble, then whisked back in. But Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister who speaks fluent English, had never commanded anything grander than a government driver, and he rarely visited the front lines. His troops, based north of Kandahar, never reached the city.

Today it may appear, from titles alone, that Hamid Karzai is the leader of Afghanistan. Actually, he is a figurehead, chosen at the behest of United States officials. Afghan delegates at the conference in Bonn that selected the government have told reporters they voted for Karzai only because American officials instructed them to. Karzai’s largest following is in Washington, not Afghanistan.

That’s why, after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is in the callused hands of men like Gul Agha–veteran warlords who know and care more about power and money than about human rights or civil society. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who switched sides so many times in the past decades that he gave betrayal a bad name, is back in power in Mazar-i-Sharif and has shown little regard for Karzai. Ismail Khan, another pre-Taliban leader, has returned to Herat and does not wake up in the morning waiting for orders from Kabul. Other regions are divvied up among smaller warlords, and most are doing what Gul Agha is doing–mouthing politically correct words of fealty to Karzai but treating him as little more than a delivery boy for aid checks the United States and its allies have pledged to write.

“Is lunch ready?”

Gul Agha is hungry. After a monthlong march on Kandahar, he has captured the Taliban’s spiritual capital, and now, a few days after he entered the city in a Toyota Land Cruiser, it is time for his midday meal.

“Not yet,” replies a bodyguard in military fatigues.

“Then go and prepare it,” Gul Agha orders. “We must have lunch.”

The new governor of Kandahar Province is a large man of large appetites, not just for food, but for battle and laughter and power. He speaks in a rough growl, as if his mouth is full, which it often is, but even when it isn’t, his words are slurred, like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” The absence of a front tooth or two only partly explains matters.

He sits cross-legged on a patio at a military barracks opposite the governor’s office building that people call the “palace”–a palace he has vacated for the day because several hundred anti-tank mines and tank shells are being removed from its roof. The fleeing Taliban planned to detonate the munitions once he moved in, but an informer blew up the plot to blow up the new governor.

Today’s luncheon involves 20-odd merchants and elders, gathered alongside and opposite Gul Agha. I am seated on his left. We are soon served chicken in mustard sauce, as well as rice and nan, the oblong Afghan bread, all of which we eat with our fingers, as is customary. Hefty and ravenous, Gul Agha does not cut a pretty sight while feeding.

A man walks up, looking for a spot on the floor. Gul Agha eyes him and says, “Take off your shoes,” and addresses him with an insult to him and his mother.

The shoes vanish in a split-second shuffle, and everyone laughs, including Gul Agha, who uses profanity as a way of saying hello. With his audience assembled and warmed up, it is time to talk about his favorite subject: war.

“When the enemy attacks,” Gul Agha begins, “I fight them face to face. I do not hide behind my soldiers. When I came into the Kandahar airport, we were in four cars, and I was in the first car. The Arabs came at us. I told my soldiers that anyone who runs is a [see insult above]. I took out my Kalashnikov and killed three Arabs. When my soldiers saw that I killed three Arabs, they were encouraged and jumped from their cars and ran at the Arabs. We killed 18 Arabs at the gate of the airport.”

His version of events may not be precisely true; perhaps he killed only one Arab, perhaps none. But the essence of what he says is correct. I talked with dozens of his commanders and soldiers, and all said admiringly that Gul Agha leads from the front, not the rear. They also spoke admiringly of his bullying; Afghan fighters may have a tough reputation, but in truth they are not reliable and are prone to fighting among themselves or preying upon civilians, especially if they are thrown together as hastily as Gul Agha’s army. Without a commander willing to kill his own men, battles cannot be won in Afghanistan.

Khalid Pashtun, who lived in the United States for more than 20 years and is Gul Agha’s chief adviser, says he believes that the man he serves is a great warrior and that perhaps the man Gul Agha is supposed to serve is not. “Mr. Karzai was in Uruzgan Province for two months,” Pashtun explained to me. Uruzgan Province lies just north of Kandahar Province. “But he didn’t have the guts to get close to Kandahar.”

So in Kandahar, as in the rest of Afghanistan, the Taliban are gone and the warlords are back, and the last time they were in charge the country slipped into a horrid civil war to which the hand-chopping, head-chopping Taliban were the puritanical solution. And right now the biggest warlord of them all is sitting at my side, blowing his nose into the tail of his turban. Gul Agha is ready to tell another story.

“Mullah Omar said, ‘I want to fight Gul Agha once because I have heard about him a lot, and I want to see if he is a good fighter.’ I said, ‘I will give you a knife, and I will have a knife, and we will be alone, face to face, and we’ll see which [that expletive, again] will shout first”–and once more, the insult involving one’s mother.

The Special Forces soldiers who were with Gul Agha had two tasks: coordinate airdrops of supplies and coordinate airstrikes. The second task was more crucial, because without the firepower of the United States Air Force, Gul Agha and his soldiers would not have gotten out of Shinarai.

The Americans lived and worked closely with Gul Agha, according to several senior commanders of his who used, in separate interviews, the same phrase–“shoulder to shoulder.” The soldiers pitched their tents next to Gul Agha’s tent, or shared rooms in the same compound, and frequently ate with him. The campaign’s military strategy was dictated by the Americans–Gul Agha’s troops would probe forward, drawing Taliban fire, then retreat so that American fighter jets could attack the newly revealed Taliban positions.

Initially, Gul Agha was nervous about the Americans–how would his troops react to foreigners in their midst? Might that cause trouble? As things turned out, according to Yusuf Pashtun, a senior adviser to Gul Agha, the opposite was true–whenever the Americans slipped from view, as happened when they went to the front lines or met a helicopter bringing supplies or new personnel, the rank-and-file would get nervous that the Americans were abandoning the fight.

“Our soldiers became so enthusiastic about the Americans, they would say, when they weren’t around, ‘Where are the Americans?”‘ Pashtun explained. “We told them they were resting, that it was not fighting time.”

There were three key battles–at the Kandahar airport, at the strategic town of Takhteh Pol and at a village called Potaki. The battle at Potaki was the first, and it occurred because Gul Agha was double-crossed.

It is acceptable in Afghan warfare for commanders to switch sides for the right price, and after an appropriate payment was made to secure the loyalty of several hundred Taliban troops near Potaki, they fell in line behind Gul Agha’s men–and promptly opened fire on them.

Gul Agha, along with his Special Forces friends, was encircled: mountains on either side, Taliban in front and back. The terrain was typical of southern Afghanistan–dusty, arid, nothing for an army to hide behind. But the Special Forces team knew what to do: they quickly called in airstrikes on the Taliban positions, which were shredded by American fighter jets.

The precision and devastation of the attack was magic to Daro Khan, another of Gul Agha’s commanders. (In Gul Agha’s army, there are only the ranks of commander and soldier.) I met Khan at a Kandahar medical school where his 100 soldiers were billeted; judging from the distinct aroma in the room, some of his men had been smoking hashish, which is the equivalent, among Gul Agha’s fighters, to G.I.’s downing a beer at the end of the day.

“Without the bombing we would have been finished,” Khan recalled. “But when the Americans bombed we were able to counterattack and break free. We killed many Arabs and Talibs.”

Khan, who has a full beard and a bald head and a loose tongue (he talked about killing captured Arabs), evoked the enthusiasm of a child with a new toy when he described looking through night-vision goggles for the first time; an American soldier had asked him to figure out whether a vehicle in the distance was friendly. (It was.) “I didn’t know these things existed,” Khan said.

As much as he admires Gul Agha, he credits the fall of Kandahar to a greater power.

“Give me 50 soldiers, and with the help of American bombing I could capture all of Afghanistan in a week,” he said.

But in Afghanistan you need more than smart bombs to win a war; you need cash. You need to pay fighters so they won’t loot, you need to buy food so they won’t steal it and you need to purchase gas for their 4-by-4’s. Most crucially, you need cash to entice enemy commanders and soldiers to switch sides, as Gul Agha thought he had done at Potaki.

The going rate last fall was several thousand dollars for a midlevel commander and as little as $30 a head for soldiers, in Pakistani rupees. Also, Gul Agha did not imprison surrendering Afghans; he gave them pocket money and told them to go home.

Muhammad Anwar seemed a good bet to know where the money was coming from. Anwar is a commander in Gul Agha’s army and one of his best friends; in calm moments during the march on Kandahar, the two men indulged in their favorite form of tension reduction–wrestling each other.

I met Anwar at his headquarters in Kandahar–a two-story building without windows, carpets, chairs, lights or decorations of any sort, except for mold on the walls and crates of grenades on the floor. He would not tell me how much cash Gul Agha spent, or who supplied it–no prizes for guessing that one–but he said Gul Agha had the foresight to bring rupees rather than dollars, the currency with which the hapless Hamid Karzai paid his inch-a-day men, even though merchants in rural Uruzgan Province would not accept greenbacks.

“We brought a car of cash with us,” Anwar said. “It was a Land Cruiser, full of money. I think it was resupplied too.”

During the march on Kandahar, Gul Agha’s wallet was a Toyota.

After the battle of Takhteh Pol, which cut a crucial road between Kandahar and Pakistan, Gul Agha moved on Kandahar’s airport; capture that, and you have the city in your hands. The airport, however, was defended by several hundred Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda who could not be seduced by Toyota money.

The battle was fierce and involved heavy American airstrikes that were coordinated by the Special Forces troops. When journalists first asked questions, Gul Agha’s commanders confirmed that they were under orders from Gul Agha to execute Al Qaeda fighters who surrendered at the airport, and had done so. Once they realized it is not acceptable for soldiers who are fighting alongside the Special Forces to engage in such behavior or, at least, to tell journalists about it, the commanders and Gul Agha insisted they didn’t harm P.O.W.’s at the airport.

It was at the airport that Gul Agha had his Hollywood moment. The fighting was nearly finished; just a few pops of gunfire here and there, a whoosh or two of rocket-propelled grenades in the distance. Gul Agha, as usual, had been at the front line all the time, rushing from commander to commander, making sure everyone was doing his job, which was killing. As the battle died down, he stood near the battered terminal building, surrounded by more than 20 Arab corpses heaped on the ground like bloody rag dolls, and, according to several commanders, savored his success.

“Look!” he shouted happily to his fighters, like a real-estate agent drawing attention to a great view. “Look at the Arabs now. They controlled our country but now they are destroyed. Look at them!” It was like Robert Duvall, in “Apocalypse Now,” loving the smell of napalm in the morning.

With the airport in Gul Agha’s hands, the Taliban needed to flee Kandahar. They made a hasty deal to surrender the city to Mullah Naqib Ullah, a onetime commander who was on friendly terms with them. Mullah Naqib Ullah, in turn, would support Karzai. It’s not clear whether Gul Agha was part of the deal or whether he was being cut out, or what role the United States might have played, but Gul Agha’s forces rushed from the airport to the dusty city and captured it without firing a shot on Dec. 7. The Taliban were finished; Gul Agha was the victor.

A few days later, Gul Agha was in sultan mode, enthroned on a plastic chair in the reception hall of the governor’s office building, which is in the center of a city built, principally, of mud. Above him, there were vaulted ceilings and murals that had been whitewashed by the Taliban because they portrayed famous Afghan leaders of the past; Gul Agha’s men had un-whitewashed the murals. The floor was covered by new carpets (the old ones vanished with the Taliban) upon which legions of supplicants inched forward, waiting to pay their respects to the man who booted Mullah Muhammad Omar out of town. Gul Agha sat behind a knee-high table that held an assortment of nuts, raisins and cookies, and behind him were two bodyguards in military fatigues; at least a dozen more wandered through the crowd.

Gul Agha was multitasking, shaking one man’s hand as his other hand was being kissed by someone else, and during this he spoke to a third man and might have embraced a fourth. Everyone wanted to see him, touch him, hear him, but most of all, I suspect, they wanted the cash that was inside the envelopes he was handing out. At times, a warlord must be an A.T.M.

“You are all like thieves,” he growled, warmly. “You always want something from me.”

A man came along, tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “I have some special news,” and Gul Agha walked off to a corner of the room with him. He returned and pulled out a pack of Benson & Hedges for a cigarette break. The commotion continued. An old man approached and leaned forward to hug him; a soldier marched forward in large goose steps and saluted him; a man in a wheelchair rolled front and center. The healthy, the lame, the young, the old–the gathering was biblical in its scope, and in the end, it was too much for Gul Agha, who began sobbing.

“This is my happiest day,” he said between tears that were wiped away with a handkerchief. “I am with my people. I will never have such a day again. For seven years I was in Pakistan. I could not come to my country. Now I will do everything for the nation. I will work for the people.”

It is impossible to enter into another person’s mind, especially if that person is an Afghan warlord, but I think Gul Agha meant what he said–or at the least, he meant it at the moment he said it. His emotions are as large as his girth, and sadness and generosity are not foreign lands to him. But how long will his determination to do good last?

If he becomes a decent leader, it would be a surprising twist in a life full of surprises. He was born into poverty, like most Afghans; his father, who ran a restaurant outside Kandahar, named him Shafeeq. He was not a good student, though he did show an early aptitude for violence. He always carried a knife, according to one of his classmates.

When Gul Agha began fighting under his father he took on his current name, which means “flower.” When his father was poisoned, Gul Agha took on greater responsibilities and added a new name–Shirzai, which means “son of lion.”

But what is on the mind of the lion’s offspring? The United States military would seem to be interested in that question. Special Forces soldiers are never far from Gul Agha’s side–you glimpse them, from time to time, meeting him in back rooms of the palace. And he appears to enjoy their proximity, because America is all-powerful in Afghanistan, at least for now.

Following the American line, Gul Agha says he favors a United Nations peacekeeping force and supports the notion of disarmament, though it is clear he would prefer that weapons be seized from soldiers who are not his own. He knows that there are too many armed men in Afghanistan and that something needs to be done, soon, to prevent a return of pre-Taliban chaos.

That night at the palace, after the tears and the crowd had subsided, I asked Gul Agha why anyone should believe that his new rule will be any less bloody and corrupt than it was the last time, between 1992 and 1994.

“It will never happen again,” he said. “The people of Afghanistan need to reconstruct their country for the future. We will never do what we did in 1992. All my commanders have promised me on the Holy Koran that they will never do evil again. They will work together.”

But the country is already falling apart. The roads between Kandahar and Kabul and Herat are dangerous once again; there are robberies and killings that, under the Taliban, had ceased. Discipline among soldiers is eroding; when I visited a small unit of Gul Agha’s fighters one day, and their commander was away, the fighters demanded money, and I sensed violence in their illiterate minds. I made a quick retreat. Across Afghanistan, bored fighters are a payday away from pillaging.

The destruction of the Taliban has made the United States a safer country, but the same cannot be said for Afghanistan.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.