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[Report]

Kandahar’s Mystery Executions

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Are the Afghan police using torture to achieve peace?

The first bodies were found early in the morning, after the call to prayer, in the tall reeds abutting the southern edge of Kandahar city. One was lying faceup, lower lip split, stab wounds to the face and stomach, a hole where the left eye had been. The second, a few yards away, had brown-black mottled skin and burnt hair. The third body’s neck was partially sawed through, and the face bore the same pattern of black scarring and singed hair. All three were handcuffed.

The next day, in Subdistrict 7, a working-class area to the north of the city, a shopkeeper discovered a corpse in a canal. A report by the United Nations noted: “Head riddled with bullets and was smashed completely.” Two days later, at Mirwais hospital, Kandahar’s main health center, two bodies came in without any visible marks except a small hole, apparently made with a drill bit, in each of the skulls.

A recruiting poster in a window at police headquarters in Kandahar, April 30, 2014. Photographs by Victor J. Blue

A recruiting poster in a window at police headquarters in Kandahar, April 30, 2014. Photographs by Victor J. Blue

By the end of that week, early last October, ten bodies had surfaced around the city. By the following week, the count had swelled to nearly forty across Kandahar province. Because of smashed teeth and missing noses, eyes, or heads, many could not be identified. On October 17, a local television program claimed that “civilians are mysteriously killed in the province on a daily basis,” and aired an interview with Sahebzada Nalan, an official with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “Complaints of the people are received every day,” he said. “People say their brother, uncle, or relative have been kidnapped or are missing. They come here and complain, scream, and cry.” An Afghan journalist launched an investigation, but stopped when he began receiving threatening phone calls. By month’s end, local media had gone silent on the story.

I learned of it from a twenty-five-year-old worker at a demining NGO whom I’ll call Noor Atal. (The names of the victims, their family members, and the Afghan civilians who helped me report this article have been changed for their safety.) We met in November, a month after the first bodies were reported. As it neared dark, Atal brought me to a firewood yard on the outskirts of town where his brother had worked. The yard lay across the street from a row of small huts, most of which were selling bicycle tires and chains by the light of kerosene lamps. The shopkeepers there all repeated the same story: close to dinnertime one evening in early October, a green Humvee pulled up in front of the yard. Moments later, it drove away, and Atal’s brother and a second worker were gone. A few hundred feet down the road, it stopped again. An imam at the local mosque was crossing the street when someone called to him from inside the vehicle. He approached and was pulled inside the Humvee.

The imam’s brother, whom I’ll call Janan, went to the nearest police checkpoint, then to police headquarters in his precinct and in the next one over, but they wouldn’t give him any answers. Atal searched too, canvassing police stations, calling the governor’s office. After five or six days, police from a neighboring district called and said, “we found your brother,” after a village elder had stumbled across him lying in the grass. When Atal reached the station, he saw his brother’s body, which was missing an eye. Janan’s search also came to an end: his brother’s body turned up at the local hospital, bearing wounds that doctors described as consistent with “massive electrocution.”

The father of a boy taken by police in Kandahar, April 24, 2014. The man petitioned for information and was told to stop his search under threat of death. Weeks later he received an anonymous phone call telling him of the location of his son’s body.

The father of a boy taken by police in Kandahar, April 24, 2014. The man petitioned for information and was told to stop his search under threat of death. Weeks later he received an anonymous phone call telling him of the location of his son’s body.

After an official inquiry, the police ruled the killings unexplained. Atal felt he could say nothing. “If I argued,” he said, “they’d kill me.” The family had already seen its share of suffering: they had fled rural Kandahar years before because the Taliban had killed another brother, a teenager accused of being an American spy. Since this most recent death, Atal’s mother has become withdrawn, shunning relatives and keeping her house dark for the Eid holiday. Atal cannot get the image of his brother’s face, with its empty eye socket, out of his mind, and sometimes he finds himself snapping awake at night. But he keeps this to himself, and his neighbors avoid the subject. Every few weeks, though, another body turns up.

Kandahar, the country’s political and cultural heartland, home province of both the Taliban and Afghan president Hamid Karzai, is the scene of what might be America’s biggest success in recent years. After peaking in 2010, insurgent-initiated violence inside city limits had plunged 64 percent by 2013 — largely on the heels of the U.S. military surge and the ascendance of a new police chief, Abdul Razik, whose forces have pushed the Taliban into the hinterlands. Once, assassinations and suicide strikes came regularly, a rhythm of violence that curtailed trips to the market and rescheduled appointments at the bank. Today, though, the government has flushed most neighborhoods clean of insurgent cells, and the city feels rejuvenated. Unlike Kabul, where the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops has sparked capital flight, Kandahar is humming with newfound money and — in some quarters, at least — rediscovered hope.

Each day, the city’s squares fill with auto rickshaws, Corolla taxis, horses, and mule carts. At sidewalk markets, men sell raisins and pomegranates, radios and pirated DVDs, and half a dozen varieties of energy drink. Young men traffic the many gyms, particularly the two-story fitness center on Shafakhana Road, with its Arnold Schwarzenegger posters and cases of creatine sitting by the window. Outside the governor’s house, scribes complete paperwork for illiterate farmers, and in the alley near the soccer stadium, boys play cricket. Near the eastern limits lies Aino Mina, a ten-thousand-acre development built by Mahmud Karzai, one of the president’s brothers. It’s a planned community, more than 2,000 spacious and modern houses with archways and bay windows, broad tree-lined streets, hookah lounges, ice cream parlors, and, distinctive in a city with electricity woes, cascading fountains that never seem to run dry. It’s all for the ultra-wealthy, mostly the contractor nouveau riche, but poorer Kandaharis can also be seen strolling through, just for a look. On the western side of town, there’s even a park with a gigantic Ferris wheel, on which you’ll occasionally see a few people riding a cab.

A photo of the boy’s body.

A photo of the boy’s body.

Were it not for the inescapable, overwhelming presence of the security forces, it would be almost possible to forget the war. On the fifteen-mile drive from the airport to downtown, I counted eighteen police checkpoints. Tethered white surveillance blimps, carrying cameras operated by the U.S. Army, hover permanently above the city. In crowded areas, plainclothes agents chase away loitering pushcart vendors and begging orphans. Many Western news websites are blocked, and people avoid talking politics in public.

Some Kandaharis have accepted this trade-off — hypersecurity for a bomb-free existence. They lavish praise on Razik (the subject of the article “The Master of Spin Boldak” in the December 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine), whose exploits killing Taliban have given him near Schwarzenegger status. Razik is also an important ally of the U.S. military. The number two American commander in the country, Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, was recently photographed with his arm around the police chief. Alongside Razik’s forces are the Afghan army and an assortment of militias. Many U.S. officials believe that this network of armed groups represents the country’s best hope for peace. “Beginning in 2009, we’ve focused on developing Afghan national security forces,” said General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “Today, as a result of those efforts, capable and competent Afghan forces are securing the Afghan people and the gains that we’ve made over the past decade.”

Not everyone has such faith in the police. Soon after arriving in Kandahar last fall, I went to a neighborhood in the western part of the city, where I found a long street lined with one-room shops, the buildings leaning into alleyways smelling of dung, the incessant hum of generators everywhere. The population here was all Noorzai, a tribe that had lost out to Razik’s tribe, the Achekzais, in the jockeying for government posts and American patronage. It was here that I met Janan, the imam’s brother.

In the month since the imam’s death, the Noorzai community had suffered two more unexplained executions, a rickshaw driver and a shopkeeper. The rumor here, and among seemingly everyone outside the English-speaking elite (who ignore the issue altogether), was that the police were behind the killings. “You think about it,” said Janan. “He was picked up by a Humvee, and two days later we find him in a government hospital, with police. You tell me.”

There was one police officer whose name popped up again and again, a commander who, the speculation went, was orchestrating this dirty war with Razik’s blessing. In Kandahar he was known simply as Jajo.

According to his Facebook page, Abdul Wadood Sarhadi Jajo supports women’s rights, admires modernizing reformers from Afghan history, and despises the Taliban. My sense, from reading the posts, was that these convictions were heartfelt. If you listen to stories in the bazaar, though, you’ll also learn that Jajo forced those violating the city’s one-person-to-a-motorcycle rule to kneel on the asphalt and kiss the sizzling hot exhaust pipe (Taliban are known to prefer doubling up on motorcycles); that he stripped prisoners naked and paraded them around his base; that men under his command used rape as an interrogation tool; that when executing prisoners he might resort to a pistol or electrocution, but that he preferred beheadings.

I heard so many such tales I was beginning to think his name was simply shorthand for the grinding trauma and anonymous bloodshed that these neighborhoods had suffered over the past decade. Whenever I pressed for specifics, or tried to find someone with direct experience, I came up empty. I found a pigeon salesman who said his son had been tortured, but just as he was about to recount the story, he was stopped by a friend, who asked, “Are you crazy?” A student who said he’d been arrested and beaten by Jajo made it all the way to my hotel room for an interview when, despite my promises to protect his identity, he had a change of heart and backed out.

Top: Police officers patrol Kandahar’s Police Subdistrict 4, April 28, 2014. Bottom: A hand-painted map of Subdistrict 4 hangs on the wall of the commander’s office in central Kandahar, April 28, 2014.

Top: Police officers patrol Kandahar’s Police Subdistrict 4, April 28, 2014. Bottom: A hand-painted map of Subdistrict 4 hangs on the wall of the commander’s office in central Kandahar, April 28, 2014.

In the words of an official at the United Nations, Jajo was one of the “four horsemen” of counterterrorism, a quartet of police commanders who are Abdul Razik’s main enforcers in the fight against the Taliban. In 2011, after the United Nations released a report accusing the Afghan police of torture, the United States halted the transfer of detainees to Afghan custody. In response, Afghan officials began operating a series of secret prisons, outside the monitoring reach of the United Nations or the Red Cross. According to a senior Afghan National Police official who investigates police impropriety, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of threats to his life, the four horsemen each run a private jail; Jajo’s is in a former American military facility near the Mirwais Mina neighborhood of Kandahar city.

The facility was notorious in the area, but, as with all things Jajo, I couldn’t find anyone willing to come forward to discuss it. I was beginning to lose hope when one day an Afghan friend working for a local NGO slipped me a flash drive containing thirteen videos. The clips, which were being passed around among activists and aid workers, had been taken a few days earlier, and they showed a group of turbaned elders seated amid the rubble of a demolished house. The men spoke in turn to the camera about Jajo and his henchmen, a protest they hoped would somehow reach the outside world. One said a bomb had gone off near his house, prompting the police to climb in over his outer wall, arrest him, and haul him off to their base. He was beaten, lost consciousness, and awoke to find himself locked in the bathroom. Another, a disabled auto-rickshaw driver, said he was arrested because he wasn’t carrying his tazkira, the national I.D., which many poor villagers don’t possess. After the police stuffed a scarf into his mouth, one officer sat on his stomach, another sat on his hand, and a third sat on his head. Then, he was sometimes hung by the scarf, and sometimes choked with it, a total of ten times. “Even the Americans haven’t done this sort of thing,” another speaker said. “Even the Soviet army hasn’t.”

From the mountains in the background of the video and the names of landmarks mentioned, it was clear that the men lived in Mirwais Mina. I headed there with an Afghan journalist I’ll call Nasir. We left before dusk, heading west until we were on a bumpy road that ran uphill to a large stretch of suburban settlements. We passed a pair of police checkpoints, stopping at each as Nasir exchanged greetings and popped the trunk for inspection. We rode switchbacks up the hillside until we came to a third checkpoint. This one looked different from the others: gabions lined the roadside, a single-room concrete hut behind them. Four policemen were standing watch, twice the usual number. Two wore navy blue uniforms, two full black, with various lapel pins and Afghan flag patches, and they were all Hazaras from Kabul or northern Afghanistan. While the others checked the vehicle, the youngest-looking one approached and asked where I was from. I was wearing local clothes and can sometimes pass for an Afghan, but I knew my accent would give me away. When I told him I was an American journalist, his eyes widened. He conferred with the others and then ordered us out of the car. Nasir and I were searched and told to wait while they summoned their superior. Nasir, who overheard part of their conversation, leaned to me and whispered, “They are Jajo’s people.”

The superior arrived. I explained that I was a journalist interested in life in Kandahar after the American withdrawal. He radioed headquarters, then ordered us back into the car, along with one of the policemen. We were led by a police truck through a network of broken back roads, the landscape bare save for the occasional loose concertina wire or orphaned section of blast wall. There were some houses in the far distance. People emerged to watch us pass. A few years before, the entire area had been Taliban controlled, the policeman said, until Jajo recaptured it. “Even the Americans had failed here,” he said.

After thirty minutes, we pulled up to a compound built from rows of Hescos stacked atop one another, extended in sections with old shipping containers. The policeman told us it was once an American military outpost that had passed, like many other such facilities, into Afghan hands. We were taken inside and up to the roof of a building, where a group of plain-clothed men sat smoking cigarettes amid scattered walkie-talkies, computers, and cans of Red Bull.

It was not long before I realized I was standing before Jajo himself. He was a slight man in his late twenties, with a floppy, boyish head of hair, five-o’clock shadow, and keen, confident eyes. He studied my passport as I explained that I was an accredited journalist. He handed it back and said, “No one comes to my area without my permission.” He ordered the policeman to take us away.

We were loaded into our car with the policeman at the wheel, and soon we were being driven back east, through dozens of checkpoints, as he explained at each that he was escorting prisoners. Darkness had fallen by the time we arrived at a cluster of warehouses surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, caution signs, and searchlights. The air smelled of sewage. We were led by the policeman into a windowless building with concrete floors, down a long hallway, and deposited in a cell with three other prisoners.

Clockwise from top left, at police checkpoints around Kandahar: Taxi passengers wait to be searched April 26, 2014. A member of the Afghan National Police searches motorists and pedestrians, May 1, 2014. Police search cars, April 26, 2014. A police officer frisks a taxi passenger, April 26, 2014.

Clockwise from top left, at police checkpoints around Kandahar: Taxi passengers wait to be searched April 26, 2014. A member of the Afghan National Police searches motorists and pedestrians, May 1, 2014. Police search cars, April 26, 2014. A police officer frisks a taxi passenger, April 26, 2014.

Many hours passed. I tried talking to our cellmates, who were teenagers, but they ignored me. A guard appeared, asking if we would need blankets. Nasir was let out to use the bathroom, and en route he glanced into another cell. He said it was wall to wall with prisoners, all of them teenage or younger. The warden for our section entered and everyone stood up, shaking his hand and greeting him hopefully. I produced my passport, which he examined upside down because he could not read. He said I looked like a Pakistani, a designation synonymous with “terrorist” in official circles. One of the teenagers tried to ask something, but the warden waved him off.

After he left, the other prisoners looked at us more sympathetically, a newfound solidarity uniting the room. The oldest, a sixteen-year-old, said he was a high school student, with aspirations to apply to medical school, but he’d been arrested because his family had run into debt. They would release him, he said, if he could come up with $100,000 — most of which would go to his creditors, with a cut for the police. He had been here for eight months. The other two, who looked to be twelve or thirteen at most, remained silent.

We settled in for the night. Then, a few hours later, the door swung open. A pair of Afghans walked in carrying clipboards, and following close behind, to my surprise, was a U.S. Army officer. The children stood up expectantly. “Why would you come to Kandahar?” he asked me. “It’s not safe here.” It turned out he was an adviser to Razik, and he had been sent to see if I was telling the truth about my nationality. He took notes and snapped my photo, and said he’d take the responses to “the General” — Razik — who’d determine our fate. “They’re only detaining you for your own protection,” he said. “Kandahar is a crazy place.”

Still later, a bit after nine o’clock, they brought us to another room, where a bright, smiling Afghan police captain named Ahmed Zia Durrani interrogated us. I pointed out that merely driving through the city, or interviewing residents, was hardly an arrestable offense, but he countered by saying that the situation was tense, that his country was at war. Journalists visit Kandahar all the time, he said, but they seek government permission before visiting any particular neighborhood. This was not true, but it did not matter: the subtext was not that we’d lacked official sanction but that we’d ventured close to something that outsiders shouldn’t see.

It was close to midnight when we were finally released. Before he left us, Captain Durrani (who is also a police spokesman) relayed an official directive from General Razik: We should leave Kandahar in the morning and never return. The airport authorities had already been alerted. “That,” he said, “is an order.” I caught the first flight out of Kandahar, to Kabul, the following morning.

In mid-January, two months after my departure, Jajo posted a note on Facebook mourning the death of someone named Farid Ahmad. An accompanying photo showed Jajo having lunch alongside a stout, chubby-faced man in his early twenties. Jajo ascribed the death, which appears to have affected him greatly, to “terrorists and enemies of Afghanistan.” Elsewhere, after a bomb attack in Kandahar city, he wrote, “today, beautiful Kandahar was a guest of tragedy” because “Punjabi slaves” — the Taliban — “set off explosions in public areas in order to kill civilians.”

It was true that, though the Taliban had mostly left the city, violence continued in the countryside, where police were still dying in steady numbers. Every roadside bomb, in turn, provoked another round of kidnappings. In Kabul, officials I spoke to insisted there was no proof of a government-led campaign of torture and execution, and, for fear of exposing the men from Mirwais Mina, I could not show them the flash-drive video. I wanted to find more people willing to speak on the record. Security at Kandahar airport was porous, so in early February I decided to return.

I arrived on a cold morning to find the city in a particularly tense mood. President Karzai was to make a rare visit later that week to inaugurate a new agricultural school, so streets were closed all over Kandahar and the mobile-phone networks had been shut down. I was now working with an Afghan friend I’ll call Rafeh to track down survivors. We would avoid police checkpoints by taking back roads, and I traveled everywhere with a shawl wrapped Kandahari-style around my shoulders and head.

An Afghan National Police officer searches a passenger at a checkpoint in Subdistrict 1, May 1, 2014.

An Afghan National Police officer searches a passenger at a checkpoint in Subdistrict 1, May 1, 2014.

I had planned to resume my attempt to interview the villagers who’d appeared in the video, but they had left with their families for refugee camps in Pakistan. Rafeh and I spent three days meeting tribal elders and shopkeepers, sometimes in the back seat of a car, sometimes in the private garden of an acquaintance’s house. Most were unwilling to introduce us to their relatives and friends who had been affected. Then I learned of a case in Shoyeen, a village eleven miles north of Kandahar city, where police had supposedly buried a man alive. Somehow he had escaped, living on the lam for months. Eventually, the police unit in question had rotated to a different village, and he returned home to live with his father, an old farmer named Feda Muhammad.

We left Kandahar early in the morning, as the first rays of light were catching the mountains. Our driver led us through the maze of checkpoints on the city’s outskirts. At one, we were stopped by an Afghan soldier wearing a bandolier and aviator shades, his muscles bursting from his shirt. I told him I was a journalist. He asked for a government-issued press I.D. and I handed him my library card from New York; he looked it over and waved us on.

We followed the road as it hugged the mountainside, rising a few hundred feet over Firebase Maholic, formerly the house of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and now a base for the CIA and their Afghan paramilitary group, the Kandahar Strike Force. Soon we made a sharp turn onto a bridge spanning the Arghandab River; the eastern bank, which we were leaving behind, is home to the Alikozai tribe, which has traditionally been tied to the government. The western bank, more diverse in tribal composition, was in recent years a Taliban stronghold.

We passed a small bazaar, a collection of corrugated iron shacks with rust-eaten roofs and some children and old men sitting out front. After a few minutes, we were lost. We saw some people hitchhiking, which is common in the Afghan countryside, and picked up a thin, snaggletoothed man to guide us. He climbed into the car with the splintered half of a hoe and a small sack of clay bricks. He said ours was the first car he’d seen in hours.

Some minutes later, we pulled up to a three-way intersection. To the right, the hitchhiker said, was the road to Shoyeen. It ran past a large warehouse-type structure a mile off, an outpost of the Afghan Local Police, a village-based militia modeled on similar U.S. programs in Iraq and Vietnam. He pointed to the building and said he’d rather walk the back road, thanked us, and left.

Numbering close to 25,000 countrywide, the ALP are trained by the U.S. Special Operations Forces and are nominally under the authority of the Afghan government, though in fact they are often controlled by local strongmen. In this area, ALP units are said to work closely with the official, uniformed police chiefs under Razik’s authority.

Driving up to their checkpoint, I saw a few men in civilian clothes, holding Kalashnikovs, gathered around a farmer standing nervously by the roadside. We passed unnoticed, and soon we arrived at the village of Jelahor. Houses made of mud and stone extended in all directions into the open desert, one here, two there, as if ancient travelers had dropped their knapsacks wherever they had pleased and set up homes. Jelahor is known as a center of religious learning and as the home of a man named Lala Malang, who rose to become the leading mujahedeen commander in southern Afghanistan. He was killed on the battlefield in 1987, and since then his name has graced clinics and schools throughout the area.

A police officer riding through Subdistrict 2, April 27, 2014.

A police officer riding through Subdistrict 2, April 27, 2014.

Lala Malang’s younger brother, Tayyeb Agha, became an important figure in the Taliban, and Jelahor was closely associated with the movement. In 2001, though, the local council of elders declared support for the new Karzai government. The Americans, working with regional warlords, repeatedly raided the village anyway, arresting influential tribal leaders. Villagers rebelled, and soon enough Jelahor was again a Taliban stronghold. For years, multiple American incursions into Jelahor and surrounding villages failed to turn the tide. But beginning in 2011, the U.S. and the Afghan government recruited locals to join the ALP, and the Taliban lost their monopoly on violence. Insurgent checkpoints vanished, and you could no longer see Taliban racing along the dirt roads on their motorcycles. It wasn’t clear whether the Taliban had simply blended back into their homes and fields or were really gone.

We were still half an hour from Shoyeen, but we decided to stop and take a look around. Everything everywhere was the color of sand: the houses, the road, the mosque, and, strangely, even the trees. The air smelled of sand. We saw a man driving a tractor along a dry riverbed with six or seven children on board, including two sitting in his lap and one on his shoulders. He said he was happy the Taliban were gone, because when they were here the government and foreign forces would make life difficult. He refused to comment on the ALP, saying only that he had fought against the Soviets, which he saw as the beginning of this unending cycle of violence. “I see brothers killing brothers and I ask myself, ‘Why did I ever pick up the gun?’ ”

He did direct us, however, to a nearby house whose residents he said might be more willing to speak about the ALP. When we arrived, there was only one male family member at home, a farmer named Jan Agha who’d just come in from the fields. He had been asleep one night a few months earlier, he said, when ALP militiamen showed up outside and demanded that his cousin, Noor Agha, make himself available. Noor Agha owned 150 grape trees, and some Taliban — or some teenagers the ALP believed to be Taliban — had been seen running through the orchard. Noor was taken out of view, to a riverbank behind the village, and sometime later Jan heard gunshots. Later, the family found Noor’s body and that of another villager lying naked in the mud, their arms and torsos crushed, the marks of tire treads running across them. A white security blimp hovered above.

This was the first case I’d heard in which the victim was linked, even tenuously, with militants. It turned out that Jelahor abounded with similar stories: later, in Kandahar, I met a Jelahor tribal elder who had sent his teenage son to study in Pakistan. Shortly after the son had returned home for a visit, a roadside bomb went off not far from the village. The ALP accused the boy of having links with Pakistani intelligence, and he was pulled from his home and taken behind a mosque. When his family found him the next day, his skull had been shattered into many pieces and his abdomen had been cut open, exposing his intestines.

Jan Agha offered to take us to meet other ALP victims — but I worried that it might not be long before the ALP or the Taliban, if there were any left, showed up. We gathered back in the car and headed out on the road, passing one ALP checkpoint after another. As we drove north, though, government forces became a rarer sight.

It was past noon when we finally reached Shoyeen. The settlement of two dozen adobe houses lay some five hundred feet off the main road; there was no turnoff, only empty scrubland rutted with motorcycle tracks. There did not appear to be ALP or police anywhere. Nor were there any villagers. A single concrete building, maybe a shop, sat shuttered. A few of the mud-brick enclosures had partially collapsed, exposing houses pockmarked with bullet holes. In a clearing was a graveyard with the Taliban’s signature white flags whipping in the wind.

Eventually, we found some boys walking their goats and got directions to Feda Muhammad’s house. We made our way down a winding path, the car barely fitting at points, and then turned into a long alleyway and drove up to the last house. The driver shut off the engine and Rafeh went to knock on the door, which was answered by a hunched, white-bearded man. Rafeh spoke to him and then he tottered toward us. He labored to fit into the back seat, next to me. A few children gathered nearby to watch.

I asked if he was Feda Muhammad, and he nodded. I asked if we could meet his son. He said his son was away. Children were now pressing their faces into the window.

“Was your son arrested?”

He said yes. I waited for him to elaborate. A woman emerged from her house, clutching a cooking pot, trying to peer into the car.

“Was he released?”

He nodded. Moments went by as we sat in silence. Somewhere close, a stream was running. The children outside were not saying a word. There were now maybe eight of them. The woman shifted closer.

Finally, I asked, “Was he mistreated?”

He shook his head no. He was staring into his lap. In one hand, he held prayer beads. Not far away, there was the sound of a motorcycle.

Rafeh could no longer control himself. “We heard something bad had happened,” he said. “They tried to bury him alive?”

“No, no, no, no,” Feda Muhammad said. “I don’t know anything about that.” He looked up at me, and his eyes were wet. The motorcycle was very close now.

We thanked Feda Muhammad and he climbed out. I’d lost my nerve, and as we backed out of the alleyway I slouched in my seat, out of sight of the growing crowd that had come to see our car. Soon we were back on the main road, heading for Kandahar.

One evening, back in the city, an Afghan journalist friend brought a tall, gaunt twenty-year-old shopkeeper I’ll call Wodin to my hotel. He was “just desperate enough,” my friend explained, to speak to us. The room’s electricity had failed, and Wodin sat in a corner amid the shadows. Haltingly, almost apologetically, he spoke of his shop in the southern part of the city, how it had been a popular neighborhood hangout, and of the winter morning when a commander who served under Jajo had walked in through the door.

He had been hunched over a ledger as the commander perused the merchandise. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a second man enter and raise his arm toward the commander. Before Wodin knew what happened, he was covered in blood. For a moment, he thought he’d been shot. He looked up to see the assassin fleeing down the street and the commander motionless on the floor. “I’d never seen anything like this. It felt like I was in a dream.”

A brother and sister walk past a checkpoint in Subdistrict 2, April 27, 2014.

A brother and sister walk past a checkpoint in Subdistrict 2, April 27, 2014.

Soon the police were at the scene, enraged and rounding up everyone in the vicinity. Wodin tried to explain, but they threatened to kill him right then and there if he didn’t keep quiet. He was brought to a police base and locked inside a shipping container, together with a few others who’d been picked up with him, including an off-duty police officer. Throughout the day they were beaten with cables, sticks, pipes. The next morning, he was dragged outside and had each of his hands tied to a police truck, in a crucifixion pose, while he stood barefoot on a block of ice. As his feet sunk in, a policeman poured chilled water on them.

At this point in Wodin’s story, he grew quiet and looked at the floor. He began whispering to my friend and seemed reluctant to go on. Finally he looked up at me. “Why am I telling you this? I’m going to die if I tell you this.”

I assured him I’d protect his identity. My friend coaxed him to continue. He stared hard into his lap.

“I lost my money, I lost my house, I lost my health,” he finally said. “He’ll kill me. I have nothing left to live for, but so that this might help others.”

He told me he was made to stand on that ice block for thirty minutes at a time, and would then be forced to run barefoot across the gravel while an officer cable-whipped him. “My feet were burning,” he said, “and then I could no longer feel them.”

He was accused of being a member of the Taliban, of Al Qaeda, of Pakistani intelligence. He denied it, but they did not believe him. The police moved him to the facility I saw in Mirwais Mina. He was kept in an underground bunker, directly beneath the building where I’d met Jajo. Throughout the morning, he could hear voices from above discussing his case, exploring ways of getting him to talk.

In the afternoon, three policemen entered and stripped him naked. Then they forced one of his legs behind his neck, and then the other, until he was in something that, but for the bone-crunching pain, was like an advanced yoga pose. A policeman appeared with a crescent wrench. He fit it around Wodin’s testicles and began to tighten, slowly. Wodin doesn’t remember much of what happened next.

Sometime in the evening, the bunker door opened and Wodin saw Jajo himself standing above him. Before he could say anything, he was slapped across the face. Jajo then told him to go home and return with community elders who could vouch for his innocence. He showed up the next day with them, begging for his freedom, the elders swearing that he was uninvolved in the insurgency. Jajo let him go.

In the months since, Wodin, whose kidney was damaged, has spent a fortune on doctors in Pakistan. While he was away, the police looted his shop, and he was forced to sell his house to make ends meet. He showed me his scars and his medical papers, then asked if I knew where he might find work.

In late May, a few months after my meeting with Wodin, Jajo was driving alone through Kandahar’s streets in an armored SUV when a burqa-clad figure approached. As Jajo slowed, an explosion rocked the vehicle. He was rushed to the hospital, where he soon died of his injuries.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that they had sent a suicide bomber to kill a “notorious enemy.” It was unclear how they knew where to find Jajo alone, and without bodyguards, suggesting either that they had an accomplice inside the government or that they merely took credit for the attack after the fact.

General Abdul Razik in his office in Kandahar, April 30, 2014.

General Abdul Razik in his office in Kandahar, April 30, 2014.

Before his death, Jajo had made enemies throughout the city. Not all were suspected of Taliban ties; one man recounted how, after being caught with hashish, he was taken to the private jail. He was forced to the ground, a scarf stuffed in his mouth, while four men beat his extremities repeatedly with wooden planks and sections of pipe.

Some of Jajo’s victims, like Wodin, simply had bad luck. Some, it seemed, were killed because they were Noorzai, members of a tribe that in the government’s eyes is infested with Taliban. “This is a tribal war,” said Payenda Muhammad, a man I spoke to after his brother was plucked off the street one afternoon and subjected to “twenty-two different types of torture.” And some, like the victims in Jelahor, were associated (knowingly or not) with insurgents.

The only thing linking these categories was the role the murders played in bringing some semblance of order to Kandahar. The Taliban insurgency following the U.S. invasion had succeeded, in part, through fear and domination. Now, in Kandahar, the counterinsurgency had come to mirror the thing it sought to eradicate.

If the Taliban were the ones responsible for Jajo’s death, then there was a certain symmetry to the whole bloody mess. But the end of Jajo’s reign of terror doesn’t necessarily mean the end of torture in Kandahar. After all, three of the four horsemen are still alive, and above them all sits Razik. Already, new bodies are starting to show up around the city.

’s article “Welcome to Free Syria” appeared in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His book No Good Men Among the Living was published in April by Metropolitan.

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September 2014