A militia fighter wearing a loose-fitting Afghan tunic and sandals, and with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped to his back, stands at a checkpoint by a rickety bridge. To pass him requires the permission of Nabi Gechi.
To get married here also requires Gechi’s blessing. And to commit a robbery requires a contribution to Gechi’s arsenal. “If a person steals one watermelon, he has to buy me an AK-47,” he said. “If he steals a sheep, he has to buy me a PK machine gun.”
Gechi is neither a district governor nor a tribal elder. But in this sun-scorched territory of northern Kunduz province, where U.S. troops left long ago and there are no soldiers or police, Gechi and his fighters are the only resistance against a resurgent Taliban.
And that makes him the most influential man for miles around.
“Now, no one dares to steal anything in my area,” the militia commander said.
With its forces straining to combat a spreading insurgency, the Afghan government is partly outsourcing the war to irregular militias, many of them U.S.-funded, even as President Ashraf Ghani has pledged to disarm them. As a result, new strongmen have emerged while established ones have grown more powerful.
Operating with little accountability and accused of human rights violations, they have deepened ethnic divisions and weakened the central government’s influence in many areas.
The increasing reliance on the militias is the latest sign that the United States’ signature effort in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks — building a capable army and police force — is buckling under a challenge from the Taliban. That has prompted President Barack Obama to cancel the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops, prolonging the United States’ longest war.
In Qala-e-Zal district, power is in the hands of Gechi, a stout former mujahedeen warrior with a thick salt-and-pepper mustache, who was once bankrolled by U.S. forces and is again a beneficiary of their largesse.
In these rural parts, the ethnic Turkmen, 53, is not just the general. He is the judge, the police chief and the tax collector.
“I am the government here,” he declared, seated on a floor covered with red carpets and pillows in his headquarters, along with his followers.
His supporters, including provincial government officials, describe him as a savior who provides security where Afghan forces cannot. The U.S.-backed government is paying the salaries of 100 of Gechi’s mostly Turkmen fighters from money provided by the U.S. military. It has also supplied his militia with ammunition, olive-green Ford Ranger pickup trucks and tan Humvees.
“Commanders like Nabi Gechi are very important,” said Gen. Abdul Sabur Nasrati, the provincial police chief. “Without their support, the Afghan security forces cannot do anything.”
Gechi’s critics, however, contend that the government is legitimizing a warlord whom they accuse of abuse and extortion, particularly directed against ethnic Pashtuns, who, as a group, form the core of the Taliban. His tactics, they say, propel more people to support the insurgency.
“These militias are imprisoning the people like a bird,” said Amanullah Othmanzai, an influential Pashtun tribal elder. “If they find the slightest opportunity, they will escape from their cage.”
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For much of his adult life, Gechi has been at both ends of a gun.
At 18, he left his family farm in Qala-e-Zal to join the U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation. Back then, he was known as Abdul Nabi. In later years, he would earn the moniker “Gechi,” which means “goat” in the Turkmen language.
“Whenever he fought, he had quick moves like a goat,” said Hamdullah Danishi, until recently the deputy governor of Kunduz province.
The scars on Gechi’s body map Afghanistan’s numerous conflicts. In one battle against Soviet troops, a bullet went through his face and came out his neck. A second bullet grazed his face during the civil war that erupted after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Gechi survived five more shootings as an anti-Taliban battlefield commander for the Northern Alliance rebels.
After the puritanical Islamist regime was ousted in 2001, Gechi put down his weapons. He moved his three wives and 11 children to the northern city of Hairatan to start a restaurant.
By 2009, though, the Taliban had seized Qala-e-Zal and other areas in Kunduz. Turkmen tribal elders and officials from Afghanistan’s spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, urged Gechi to return to fight, promising weapons and funding.
“I entered here with one Kalashnikov rifle,” he said, recounting a story that has become part of the local lore. “And the villagers all took out their weapons, their AK-47s and their muskets, and we started to fight. In 21 days, we pushed the Taliban out.”
Gechi remained in Qala-e-Zal, accepting protection money from the villagers, most of them ethnic Turkmens.
In 2011, U.S. forces also began paying Gechi’s force and other militias. They made Gechi the district head of the Critical Infrastructure Police, paying him $200 a month and his 225 fighters $150 each per month, according to U.S. military documents obtained by The Washington Post.
U.S. officials renamed the fighters “guards.” But their ranks included men with checkered pasts. At one point, Gechi’s deputy was replaced because he was in jail on human-trafficking charges. By the following year, then-President Hamid Karzai shut down the program, fearing that the militias could one day challenge the government. But kept in place were hundreds of other troubled U.S.-created irregular forces known as the Afghan Local Police, or ALPs.
In October 2012, the U.S. military commended Gechi, saying in a citation that it had the “greatest respect and appreciation” for his “leadership.”
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A cellphone rings, and Gechi picks up. On the other end is an aide who informs him that two villagers are in a heated argument that threatens to escalate into a gun battle. Gechi orders one of his fighters to break up the dispute.
These days, hardly anyone in Qala-e-Zal goes to court or any other government office with their problems.
“The people come to me to solve disputes because they know if they go to the government, they have to pay a huge amount of bribes,” Gechi said. If the problem is serious, he convenes the tribal council he controls to deliver justice.
Other residents come to him for financial help when they get married or if they need a loan. He usually gives 70 kilos (about 150 pounds) of rice as a wedding gift, he said.
Gechi requires villagers to hand him Islamic taxes, about one-eighth of an individual’s earnings, similar to what the Taliban took. He takes a portion of harvests, livestock sales, land sales, any form of income. The money, he said, pays for the ammunition, food and salaries for his men not covered by the government.
“The people of Qala-e-Zal think they have to pay these Islamic taxes to someone,” said Hafizullah Safi, 45, an elder who serves on the tribal council. “So why not pay it for a good cause?”
Others call the taxes extortion.
“Nabi Gechi has become a wealthy man,” said Amruddin Wali, deputy leader of the provincial council in Kunduz city. “The government pays for 100 of his men, and yet he still charges every family.”
Human rights activists have accused the pro-government militias of extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture, kidnappings and drug trafficking. Although the militias are nowhere near as deadly as the Taliban, last year the United Nations recorded that they killed 53 civilians, nearly triple the number in 2013.
“This doesn’t happen in my territory,” Gechi said. “I don’t abuse the people.”
In interviews, though, villagers and tribal elders said that he and his force often prey on citizens, especially when they refuse to pay taxes.
“He forces people to sit on a wall, with one leg on one side, the other leg on other side,” said Othmanzai, the tribal elder. “Then he hangs some weights on their legs, to torture them into giving money.”
A 27-year-old ethnic Pashtun teacher from Qala-e-Zal, who did not know Othmanzai, described similar intimidation. Gechi’s fighters, he said, have accused villagers of being Taliban loyalists and forced them at gunpoint to pay $850 — or face arrest.
“There is no difference between Gechi and the Taliban in the way of collecting money,” said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his life.
Danishi dismissed the abuse allegations, saying that Gechi was “a worthy commander.”
“These human rights people are destroying us,” he added. “If it weren’t for their criticisms, we would finish off the Taliban.”
This month, Danishi was promoted to provincial governor.
And Gechi is now the ALP commander for Qala-e-Zal, said Kunduz provincial police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini. Gechi and his fighters receive funds through a program supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.
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One hot day last summer, in the village of Jagharogh, at the edge of his domain, Gechi entered a hilltop fortress built for him by U.S. and German NATO forces. His fighters stood atop the walls with their AK-47s, fingers on the triggers. On a rickety pole, the Afghan flag sagged in the windless sky.
A Taliban position was less than a mile away. A day earlier, the insurgents had killed two of his men. Gechi stopped at an opening to a tunnel. “On good days, we fight from the rooftop, and on bad days, we fight from down there,” he said, pointing down the hole.
There were plenty of bad days this year.
“Why are the Taliban so strong in Kunduz?” Gechi asked. “It’s because the security forces are not doing enough.”
What was needed, he added, were more “local uprisers” like him.
Soon, there may be.
On Sept. 28, the Taliban seized the provincial capital, Kunduz city, the first major urban area to fall to the insurgency since 2001. For the next 15 days, the militants wreaked havoc. In response to the assault, the government is considering a plan to increase the number of ALP fighters from 29,000 to as many as 45,000. A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, which oversees the forces, said that ALP abuses were not a widespread problem and that the ministry is creating structures to better vet recruits and control the militias.
“Our army and police cannot reach everywhere,” said Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman. “We’ll continue to invest in the ALP because they are a very important element of our security forces.”
Many observers are skeptical. A recent report from the International Crisis Group concluded that the ALP program had done little to improve security and “even exacerbated the conflict in a number of districts.” When the Taliban seized Kunduz, the ALPs fled instead of fighting back.
Gechi, in the end, also was unable to protect his territory. In the Kunduz offensive, the Taliban fighters also took control of almost two-thirds of Qala-e-Zal. Even after the insurgents withdrew from the city Oct. 13, they remained in the district.
“Sometimes we attack them; sometimes they attack us,” Gechi said in a recent phone interview. “But we will clear them out.”
The fortress, though, is now under Taliban control, he said.