By Mujib Mashal
Here is a meme that briefly made the rounds on Afghan social media: “Breaking news,” it reads. “A suicide bomber has been robbed by thieves in Kabul. The thieves took from him his suicide vest, the detonators, and 2,000 afghanis.” (About $25.)
It’s kind of a joke, but mostly not.
For years, the bombing and infiltration attacks that racked Kabul have dominated headlines and reshaped the city. But that kind of violence in the capital has been at a relative lull for months as the Taliban and United States conduct peace negotiations that officials hope could lead to some sort of lasting cease-fire.
Now the headlines are coming to grips with the rampant crime that has become a steady drumbeat in the city: kidnappings, robbery at gunpoint, extortion, murder. Even without the bombings, Kabul is proving a dangerous place to be.
Social media platforms are filled with daily reports of muggings and knife attacks, often just to steal a cellphone. In one of the most brutal recent cases, a family of four was axed to death at home in the daytime.
Afghan security officials said the brief window of calm from terrorist attacks has provided a wake-up call. They said the country’s law enforcement has been so militarized over the two decades of constant war with the Taliban that officers are profoundly unprepared for the basic needs of policing in time of peace.
Massoud Andarabi, Afghanistan’s interior minister, said crime trends are not drastically worse than in past years — some weeks are more intense than others, as you would expect. But collectively, and compulsively, Kabul residents have seized on crime as the topic of the day.
“If someone’s mobile phone was stolen on the afternoon of a suicide attack that killed 80, family and friends would have told him it’s good you are not killed. But now people are looking at the deeper reality,” Andarabi said.
For years, police forces have borne the brunt of the Taliban’s campaign of violence. Their staggering casualty rate, even as many in their leadership ranks prospered from corruption, has made recruiting and training more of a matter of triage than a consistent, thorough program.
On any given week, about 70% of Taliban attacks — some weeks as high as 90% — target police outposts around the country, Andarabi said. In some of those places, police forces can barely count on being resupplied, let alone on retraining for a future of crime fighting rather than counterinsurgency.
“We are talking about post-peace when the peace is not yet known,” Andarabi said. “When it comes to police’s professionalization, I have no doubt the fight is really impacting it.”
Andarabi, 39, a systems and data man who spent a decade in the country’s spy agency before he was moved to lead the interior ministry, was part of a young team brought in last year to shake up a corrupt bureaucracy that was losing on the battlefield. The team largely delivered on its immediate task — holding ground in the face of what amounted to the highest number of Taliban attacks in a decade.
But in a sign of how distrusted and depleted regular police forces had become, the ministry had to draw heavily on the elite special forces. From police chiefs of half of the country’s 34 provinces up to the country’s top cop, all were replaced with young special forces officers who are more used to leading commando raids in enemy territory than the patient work of community policing.
To aid their fight, Andarabi has introduced improvements. They include assigning remote police outposts GPS technology to help in resupplying them (and avoiding being mistakenly bombed by the United States) and bringing more accountability to the force’s use of munition, fuel and food.
He initiated a 2,500-strong “internal security” unit tasked with watching over police, long seen as corrupt, and starting detailed files on each officer around the country.
But all that was mostly to try to stop the bleeding on the battlefield and establish basic accountability. Andarabi also believed that it was time to improve the force’s crime fighting, too.
In Kabul, he brought in Col. Aryan Faizy, a 14-year veteran of the intelligence agency, as the head of the Criminal Investigations Department. (The Afghan intelligence agency is seen as having built better capacity and systems, and their officers are in high demand in the police and army.)
But Faizy’s work is likely to focus on improving systems to make efficient use of the existing resources, injecting some discipline and accountability. The city has much deeper structural problems that are beyond his remit.
Designed for about 1 million people, Kabul has grown to about 6 million residents, and in unregulated ways. Shantytowns are splashed high up on the hills that cup the city. Electricity is rationed, with large parts of the city in the dark on any given night.
Accessibility is a problem, too. In the winter, some neighborhoods are inaccessible by even heavy-duty police trucks. Other alleys are blocked by the blast walls and watchtowers that attend the moneyed elite. Getting to a police office, one of the premier targets for car bombers, requires weaving through layers of concrete blast walls.
“You need foundations for a city to be able to secure — a proper address, residents with proper IDs, a municipal system with standards,” Andarabi said. “These are the foundations on which you can build a security layer, and these foundations are not there.”
Faizy’s task is both to answer the daily demands of deterring and responding to crime and to restructure for policing in a peacetime that Afghans long for.
Kabul has about 15,000 police personnel, many of them out in checkpoints and guarding buildings. But only 1,200 of that force are assigned to criminal investigations, roughly 1 staff member per 5,800 Kabul residents.
Faizy, 38, said he is trying to improve and expand local information networks and the ways they can be centrally managed. He has created a command center with large screens installed to monitor feeds from the surveillance cameras in the balloons over the city, along with feeds from social media streams like #KabulIsNotSafe. A pilot project is underway to install GPS trackers in all of the 2,500 police vehicles in the city for easier dispatch to a crime scene, their locations monitored on another screen.
On a Thursday night in January, Faizy worked on two laptops alongside an iPhone that flashed with WhatsApp group messages from around the city and a military radio. His desk was covered with paperwork — newly drafted standard procedures, files of cases.
Then the radio crackled with news of an all-too-common kind: A gunbattle had broken out in central Kabul. But this was no attack by a Taliban suicide squad. It was a family feud, and in a further complication, one of the parties was until recently a senior police official.
Omid Nizami, whom police described as a gangster stuck in a long bloody feud with a relative, had been shot dead. The relative, a former police general named Zemarai Paikan, has been on the run.
Knowing well how armed that neighborhood is, Faizy feared that a retaliatory attack could overwhelm the precinct’s police. He dispatched a 50-man quick reaction force to cordon off the area. Police worked much of the night to prevent escalation.
In the days that followed, supporters of Nizami pitched protest tents on a major road in Kabul, demanding justice. Police not only had to investigate the killing of a gangster but now had to provide security for the protest as well.
That part, at least, was all too familiar: They went back on watch for suicide bombers.
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