Article — From the December 2009 issue

The Master of Spin Boldak

Undercover with Afghanistan’s drug-trafficking border police

( 4 of 10 )

Colonel Abdul Razik’s rise exemplifies a classic Afghan narrative: the sudden ascent to power through violence and foreign patronage. Born in Spin Boldak around the time Soviet troops first entered Afghanistan, Razik grew up during a period of unprecedented social disruption. His family’s fortunes soared when Esmat Muslim, a warlord from the same Adozai branch of the Achakzai, came to prominence in the region. A former military officer who had been trained by the Russians, Esmat became a mujahideen commander during the early 1980s and organized a force drawn mainly from his tribe; Razik’s uncle Mansour became one of his principal lieutenants. Notorious for his treachery and cruelty, Esmat shattered the delicate peace that had existed between the Achakzai and Noorzai smuggling clans, and he eventually sided with the Communist government in return for control over the border trade. In the end, Esmat was driven out of Spin Boldak in 1988 by a combined mujahideen offensive, and later died of cancer in Moscow.

With the collapse of the central government in the early 1990s, Kandahar descended into anarchy. Local warlords divided up and pillaged the province. Even the city of Kandahar itself was split among several commanders, and throughout the province roads were strangled by hundreds of checkpoints at which theft, rape, and murder were common.

It was in reaction to such depredations by the warlords that the Taliban emerged, in 1994, from the districts around Kandahar city. Their first major victory was the capture of Spin Boldak on October 12, 1994, an event encouraged by the Pakistani trucking mafia, who saw the group as a means of clearing the roads north to Central Asia. Consequently, the balance between the Achakzai, who were linked to the traditional aristocracy, and the Noorzai, who were more congenial to a radical Islamist movement, swung again. Noorzai tribal figures such as Mullah Akhtar Jan Noorzai, a former commander in Spin Boldak, and Hajji Bashir Noorzai, one of the region’s largest drug smugglers, became influential supporters of the Taliban. (In April, Bashir Noorzai was sentenced to life in a U.S. prison on drug-trafficking charges, after having been lured to New York City by federal agents.) Razik’s uncle Mansour, who had survived Esmat’s departure by rejoining the mujahideen, was hanged from the gun of a tank north of Spin Boldak by the Taliban. Razik’s father also was killed, and his family, along with many Achakzai tribal leaders, fled into exile in Pakistan—until the U.S.-led invasion arrived like a thunderbolt.

In November of 2001, the CIA paid Gul Agha Shirzai, who had been the ostensible governor of Kandahar during the chaos before the Taliban, to assemble an anti-Taliban militia in Quetta with the goal of capturing the province. Shirzai put together a force that drew mainly on Achakzai tribesmen. “The Americans said, ‘We will help you take your country back from the terrorists,’” recalled Fayda Mohammad, the commander of this Achakzai contingent, when I visited him on a return trip in May at his modest, somewhat dilapidated two-story house in Spin Boldak. Abdul Razik also had been part of the unit, but few remember him from that time; he was then about twenty-two years old and completely obscure. “No one knew who he was,” said Abdul Wali, a Mohammadzai tribesman who had been a fighter with the group and later joined the Afghan National Army.

The Americans had given the group cash to buy weapons in Pakistan and directly supplied more by helicopter—along with a group of Special Forces soldiers—once the militia had infiltrated Afghanistan and occupied Takht-e-Pul, a strategic pass between Spin Boldak and Kandahar city. With U.S. airstrikes clearing the way, Shirzai’s forces advanced to the airport. The provincial capital itself was in the process of being handed over, after extensive negotiations between Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, to Mullah Naqib, a well-respected retired mujahideen commander. But American advisers had come to believe that Naqib was too close to the Taliban, and so they encouraged Gul Agha Shirzai—against Karzai’s wishes—to wrest control from Naqib and retake the governorship of the province. Naqib, fearing U.S. airpower, backed off.

Shirzai, who is from the Barakzai tribe, had relied heavily on the Achakzai for muscle, and now they wanted to claim their reward. “There was a deal between me and Gul Agha,” Fayda told me. “He went to Kandahar city, and he said, ‘You and your tribe take the security of the border.’”

That summer saw the return of widespread opium cultivation in the south of Afghanistan, after the Taliban had banned it the year before. With stocks running low, the price paid to farmers for opium shot up to $250 per kilo at harvesttime, compared with $28 in 2000. The nascent central government had little influence; every warlord was running his own small fiefdom, and the economic incentives were clear. Fayda Mohammad, tasked with policing one of the world’s largest drug-smuggling routes, soon found his job impossible to do with any honor. He and his men would stop trucks full of opium or hashish only to find them under the protection of prominent officials. On one occasion, he claimed, he was forced into releasing a truck under direct pressure from a powerful minister in Kabul. Another driver carried a letter from Bacha Shirzai, Governor Shirzai’s brother.

As a result of his obstinacy, Fayda Mohammad says, he was gradually marginalized by Gul Agha Shirzai and other players in Kabul and Kandahar. A number of influential Achakzais I spoke to agreed, describing Fayda as an honest man in the wrong job; others said that he was simply ineffective at distributing resources to his tribesmen, who then pushed him out. In any case, about nine months after his appointment, Fayda left as the top commander of the Achakzai tribal militia.

A grand Achakzai tribal jirga was convened to choose a replacement, and the group settled on the twenty-three-year-old Abdul Razik. Since the American invasion, Razik had distinguished himself in bravery and tactical ability, and had been made a minor commander. As a candidate for the chief position, he would dispel any rivalry among the assembled commanders. He seemed simple and honest, and, since his father and uncle had been killed by the Taliban, he could be relied on to fight steadfastly against them.

“I said, ‘Among you, this young man Razik looks innocent. We will put him as the new commander,’” recalled Hajji Ahmad Shah, one of the elders who presided at the jirga and is now Spin Boldak’s parliamentary representative in Kabul. Razik was duly crowned with a turban in the traditional manner.

Others took a more cynical view of Razik’s appointment. “They thought that Razik was nothing, that they could control him,” said Mohammad Naeem Lalai, a former Border Police commander who was present at the jirga.

But whether the elders believed Razik to be honest or merely naive, they were wrong. Razik would quickly move to expand the force’s involvement in the enormous opium traffic pouring through the region, and in the process would grow powerful enough to defy even his own tribal elders. Meanwhile, his abilities as a commander, and his fighting force that remained highly effective in the absence of a national army, soon made him indispensable to the central government and the ISAF.

is a freelance writer and photographer based in Kabul and New York City.

More from Matthieu Aikins:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content