Matiullah Khan, the police chief of Uruzgan and once a strong ally of US and Australian special forces in the Afghan province, was killed yesterday in Kabul.
It is unclear if it was a targeted suicide killing or simply a lucky 'shot in the dark'. At this point reports from Kabul are conflicting, though the Taliban did eventually claim responsibility. It was well known that the Taliban was out to get him, and Matiullah knew his fight against the Taliban was not only about defending his country and home, but also a personal struggle to stay alive.
I wrote in 2011 that Matiullah had finally reached his goal to become the chief of police of Uruzgan province that year, a position he had being trying to get for some time. Before he became chief of police, Matiullah had been watching from the sidelines and running a private militia protecting the Kandahar-Uruzgan road. That road was one of his major income sources; international militaries in particular (US, Dutch, Australian) paid handsomely to get their supplies safely into Uruzgan. This arrangement along the Kandahar-Uruzgan road was infamously profiled by the US Congressional Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.
Matiullah is just one of many casualties of Afghanistan's war. Does his death matter?
It does, and the aftershocks might yet follow. He was, after all, Uruzgan's 'unofficial king' and with the departure of the Australian and US military, effectively the most powerful person in the province.
Matiullah called Uruzgan 'his house', a house he aimed to keep in order – meaning above all, that he would hold the front against the Taliban. He never really tried for the post of provincial governor, arguing he was not qualified (at least that's what he told me). But of course never wanted a strong governor above him, and he wanted other commanders to play to his tune.
That is after all what strongmen do – they rule in their own way. The greater conflict against the Taliban aside, Matiullah did maintain a stability of sorts in Uruzgan, and without him neither the Dutch (who shunned him), the Americans nor Australians would have come as far as they did in the province. He was their man, and he was especially close to US and Australian special forces.
I still remember on one of my interviews with Matiullah. He proudly showed me photos of him and various US and Australian commandos. He reached into the pockets of his Kamiz and pulled out two handfuls of coins given to him by US and Australian special forces in appreciation of his services. I almost felt sorry for him at this moment. The coins were his proof that he was liked and that he was useful, something the Dutch had denied him. At that moment he seemed like a young boy, trying to please, wanting to be accepted and respected.
I wondered why he bothered. This was his country, his province — why did he need the acceptance of foreigners?
But this was the name of game at this point. You needed the support and acceptance of powers who had the resources and access to make 'kings'. In order to rule when you did not come from a landed elite background (which Matiullah did not), you needed money to buy your constituency and patronage network. Matiullah did this skillfully.
He also showed that he could fight and defeat the Taliban. He was one of the early allies of Hamid Karzai and helped wrangle Uruzgan from the Taliban in 2001. Though controversial and hated by many that did not belong to his Popalzai tribe, he was seen as the man that could protect Uruzgan from the Taliban, especially after international forces withdrew.
But now he is gone. Knowing Matiullah, I think he rather would have died in battle defending himself and staring into the eyes of his enemies. He was a fighter and he was proud. To die far away from his 'house' in Kabul is not the end he likely anticipated.
The deaths of men like Matiullah always have repercussions because they leave a vacuum. And in conflict and war, such vacuums are often filled with turmoil and instability. Who is now going to rise to the task of defending Uruzgan? It may be up to individual tribal leaders again, but many of them are weakened. The province is too marginal to matter for most. If more of it is overrun by the Taliban then much of what the West, and specifically Australia, tried to do only lasted a short time. One thing is for sure: things will get messy in Uruzgan now. That's happens when 'kings' die and there is no clear leadership transition in place.
And that was the ultimate problem with how the West fought in Afghanistan. Why fight in a war you cannot win militarily, especially if you leave before it is over? Why fight the war if it means that in the end you need to align with men of questionable reputations? When the Australians left Uruzgan, the job was not done. With a stretched Afghan National Army, it was for the Afghan National Police, and hence Matiullah, to continue the fight.
When I heard of Matiullah's death, I did not only feel sad for the man who wanted to be king, but also for the province which now is very likely to slip further into instability and conflict. I know he was a strongman and did many horrible things, but I also know he cared for his province and had desperately tried to redeem himself by supporting the education of young men, giving money to widows and others in need. On my last visit to his office, when we discussed security and the battle against the Taliban, I noticed a large container of Tums antacids on his desk. Even strongmen get heartburn.
Maybe his death, and what might follow, could be lesson in how we approach war and counter-terrorism. Is collaborating with strongmen the ultimate and even best answer? Or does it delay the challenge we should have faced all along: finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Afghanistan?
Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.