Criminality in Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul, has soared in recent years. An increase in the city’s population, coupled with shrinking economic opportunities, appears to have forced more people into illegal activities as a means of survival. On top of this, the activities of well-armed and politically-connected criminal groups, present in the city and its surroundings since 2001, have grown in volume and brazenness. Kabul has lost, in a very tangible and dramatic way, that aura of relative security which – except for the recurrent instances of political violence – was remarked upon so often by observers. Such security, they said, was exceptional for a metropolis featuring such economic and social problems, and in the context of a war-torn, heavily-armed country. Nowadays, criminality constitutes the biggest threat and concern for a majority of the city’s inhabitants. In the first instalment of this two-part report, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looks back at the origins of Kabul criminal networks.
- Kabul has seen a crime spike in recent weeks and months, with police recording a 40% jump over a two-week period in the winter and some high profile acts of brutality that have shocked the public (for more on the crime wave see Part 2)
- Historically Kabul has a history of relatively low crime rates, despite conflict and poverty
- Antecedents of today’s crime mafia can be seen in the pre-war figures of the rural ‘ayyar (bandit) and urban kaka (gang leaders with a vigilante streak)
- During the civil war, some of the mujahidin tanzims were strongly associated with looting and extortion
- Since the fall of the Taleban, criminality has flourished, fed by the international aid and securitization boom
- Economic contraction, rising unemployment and a population surge in Kabul resulting from rural-urban migration, conflict related displacement and refugee returns all contribute to a state of social flux and a growing crime wave
- Changing patterns in the social behaviour of young people is also a factor, including indigenised ‘gangsta’ trends
- Kabul police have been largely ineffective, as criminal gangs become more emboldened and ruthless (more on the police response in Part 2)
Criminality has beset Kabul for years, but 2020 has started in the worst possible way. The turn of the year has been marked by a spike in episodes of violence: according to a newspaper report the last week of 2019 and the first of 2020 totalled 70 instances of crimes recorded by the police, compared to an average of around 100 per month. Social media activists have recently started a campaign, “Kabul is not safe”, protesting against the deterioration of the security situation in the capital.
Afghanistan’s capital is both plagued by targeted killings disguised as criminally-motivated attacks (1) and by a massive wave of common criminality that hits the lives of all its beleaguered residents, as the events of the past few weeks clearly show. On 4 January, Ali Sina Zafari, a student of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), was stabbed to death at a small distance from his house in Dasht-e Barchi in West Kabul. Robbers approached him and tried to steal his money, phone and laptop. When he tried to hold on to his laptop, they killed him. The pointless death of a bright young man who was working hard to pay for his studies has been taken as a rallying point by many Kabul residents, who joined the social campaign started by the AUAF students.
One day after Zafari’s murder, on the evening of 5 January, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) raided a house in the Khairkhana neighbourhood of northern Kabul. A major militia commander from Parwan province, Abdul Sattar Ghorbandi, formerly affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami, who had recently been supportive of Ashraf Ghani’s bid for re-election and had mobilized his militia to fight on the government side in his native Ghorband valley, was killed along with four of his relatives and hosts in the ensuing firefight with the NDS. President Ghani ordered an enquiry to probe the reasons for the raid; a Parliamentary delegation has also been appointed to investigate the issue) – reportedly Ghorbandi was targeted because of his illegal armed group and allegations of their various crimes, ranging from murder to land grab. (2)
In the following days, Afghan and international media outlets have flagged up the issue of Kabul criminality amidst continued instances of brutal crimes (a professor of Kabul University was shot and almost killed by robbers in broad daylight on 8 January and four members of a family, including women and children, were brutally slaughtered on 19 January, again in West Kabul). In an editorial on the 8 January issue of the newspaper Mandegar, the city was labelled “World’s deadliest capital.” This may not be statistically accurate, but we are nonetheless a long way down from the relative security that the city could offer as recently as a decade ago. AAN takes a look back at the roots of the problem. (3)
Lost forefathers: Kaka and ‘Ayyar
Before venturing into Kabul’s current underworld, one should take a historical detour and see how it has changed, along with the city, through the ages.
Mid-20th century Kabul, a city of less than half a million inhabitants, had reasonably low crime rates, as confirmed by the account of then western residents. Even back then, the city was experiencing rapid inward migration from neighbouring rural areas that would bring the population to around 600,000 in the 1970s. Depending on their social status, newcomers would integrate quickly or remain at the margins of the urban society. Kabuli urban culture remained the dominant form of social interaction as compared to perceived lower-status ‘village ways’.
Even back then, the Kabul underworld had a distinct flavour which set it apart from the countryside. Well-represented in Kabul at the time was a peculiar type of social character, the kaka, a sort of ‘man of honour’, whose behaviour was strictly bound by – and bound others to – social norms of honour, with violence often employed against trespassers or rivals. A kaka would make a point of keeping watch over a small neighbourhood (usually not larger than a couple of streets), assisting its inhabitants in times of need and at the same time claiming control over the area’s illegal activities. (Hints to the values and code of honour prevalent among kakas of pre-war Kabul are given in the short novel Mardha ra qaul ast by Akram Osman, translated in English as “Real Men Keep their Word”). (4)
Kakas were by no means a phenomenon unique to Kabul, but rather the local denomination for similar characters who would appear in other major urban centres of the broader region, from the payluch (barefoot) of Kandahar to the luti of Tehran.
Some scholars have traced the origin and the symbolic values adhered to by these groups of people to the ideals of futuwwa and javanmardi, an ideal type of spiritual chivalry that, closely connected to the development of Sufi brotherhoods, developed in many urban areas of the eastern Islamic World after the end of the Caliphates. What is of interest here is that the kakas of Kabul filled not just a criminal role, but also a vigilante-role in the neighbourhood, in a way akin to proto-mafia phenomena that developed in Southern Italy and elsewhere.
Kakas from different neighbourhoods were bitter rivals and engaged in fights or, at other times, came together to discuss and solve issues concerning the well-being of their constituencies. However, assuming such a role in pre-war Afghanistan remained a strictly individual choice, with almost no hereditary transmission. It may seem a paradox for a country which is often seen only through the lens of tribalism and rural clannish politics, but, compared to the average Italian mafia, kakas were more individualistic and urban. And that’s probably why they vanished during the civil war of the 1990s, when armed gangs arriving from the countryside replaced them as the main criminal networks in Kabul.
The title of another important novel of pre-war Afghanistan, ‘Ayyaran-e Khorasan by Khalilullah Khalili, a romanticised account of the rise and fall of Habibullah Kalakani in 1928-29, serves the purpose of introducing the figure of the ‘ayyar as well as an area very central to Kabul’s criminal underworld: the Shomali Plain. The ‘ayyar is another term common to the broader region, from Persia to India, used to indicate a brigand or a highwayman. (5) The term originated in the same cultural milieu described above for the kakas. But as Khalili’s title choice also points to, the ‘ayyar in Afghan popular culture comes closer to the description of a social bandit as given by Eric Hobsbawm (Bandits, 1969) of somebody who, consciously or not, embodies the rebellion of the oppressed, usually peasants, against an oppressive power located at the centre of the polity. In pre-war Afghanistan, the term can thus be applied more aptly to those outlaws who, banding together outside of cities, acted more collectively and politically than the urban kakas.
Here the Shomali plain comes into the picture: a densely-populated rural area to the north of Kabul, well-connected to the city and the economic surplus available there, it was the natural breeding ground for social bandits who may, given the chance, turn into political rebels, as in the case of Kalakani, the brigand who managed to briefly become king after joining the rebellion against Amanullah in 1928 which forced him to flee Kabul. Also, the Shomali features a not-so close-knit society in terms of tribal or ethnic loyalties, with a constant population of migrants and commuters to the city among its inhabitants. Bandits hailing from there have been able to find supporters and informants among their co-regionals in Kabul and protection in their home villages, where they would be able to portray themselves as ‘Robin Hood characters’. (6)
However, the presence of bandits in the Shomali – as well as in other areas along main communication routes exiting Kabul, like Logar – was only sporadic during Afghanistan’s decades of peace. A major breakthrough in terms of the Shomali criminal networks’ ability to operate inside the city came with the collapse of the communist government in April 1992. The Jamiat-e Islami, the mujahedin tanzim in whose ranks most of the Shomalis and Panjshiris fought, came to control most of the city in the following years, with the civil war between mujahedin factions offered many opportunities for looting and other criminal activities. The most notorious pillagers during those days were probably Dostum’s Jowzjani militias – then called the gilam-jam (read here), which can be loosely translated as “carpetbaggers” – but after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 it was commanders’ networks from the Shomali and Panjshir who would make the best use of their position of power to enhance their criminal activities.
New godfathers: the commander-criminal nexus
After they conquered Kabul in 1996, the Taleban, despite all their emphasis on law enforcement, did not succeed in eradicating crime in the city. Some of the militia commanders who had developed a taste for looting during the civil war of 1992-1996 sided with them, and some took refuge in the Panjshir. The struggling economy of the country, reduced to its minimum, and the tough fight on the Shomali frontline, which kept commanders busy, probably helped suppress instances of crime in Kabul more than the Taleban’s strict policing.
However, business restarted on a totally different scale after the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001 and the arrival of the international community and its money. Kabul did not witness a frenzy of violence or looting in the wake of the arrival of the so-called Northern Alliance (NA) troops, who rather managed to control the situation. What followed over time, however, was a redistribution of military control over various parts of the capital, in the form of appointments as police chiefs for commanders who were part of a circle connected to Marshal Qasim Fahim, successor of murdered Ahmad Shah Massud as commander of the NA and defence minister from late 2001 to 2004.
The most prominent militia commanders managed to occupy positions in the security ministries and the parliament, thus finding legal – or quasi-legal – ways to perpetuate their ability to offer economic opportunities to their followers and constituencies around Kabul, like the grabbing of land to redistribute or re-sell (read here). A number of lesser commanders and militiamen, however, were either demobilised or opted for another shortcut to riches, engaging in criminal activities in the capital. These criminals were not only heavily armed but could count on safe hiding places in their home districts around the city and on the varying degrees of complicity by their former brothers at-arms now in the police. To supplement their meagre police salaries, officers would tolerate minor offences committed in exchange for a baksheesh, and police units could become accomplices in more profitable operations such as extortion and kidnapping for ransom. In the years 2005 to 2008 in particular, a vicious kidnapping ring arose, targeting rich Afghans as well as foreign workers. It became a concern for the international community as well as for Afghans and their government (read here).
Periodic crackdowns and tougher stances assumed by the Ministry of Interior and the Kabul Police did not significantly weaken these groups, most of whom managed to survive unscathed. These de facto remainders of the old militias, evenly split between the new police and the crime gangs, came to be considered as a natural extension of the so-called mafia circles deeply entrenched in the local and national institutions and in Kabul’s economy. For political powerbrokers, cultivating links with criminal networks was not only a matter of honouring ethnic, tribal or family links with their ‘rogue’ countrymen. In the competition between Kabul powerbrokers, all sources of revenue and tools of leverage (potentially armed) have to be taken into consideration. Every major political actor in Kabul, and particularly those with a militia background, have once in a while found it useful to have some luchak, some bad character, ready at his or her disposal. These disreputable connections can serve to intimidate or eliminate enemies, to add violent overtones to political rallies in order to put pressure on the government or foreigner actors and to be subsequently seen as the only dependable powerbroker capable of reigning in this or that dissatisfied constituency. Politically connected criminals thus became a fixture of Kabul’s landscape, their presence especially tangible in the outer ring of the city suburbs, which is dominated by community-oriented settlements that are closely connected to rural districts outside the city.
A list with the names of Kabul’s most wanted criminals, published by the Ministry of Interior in January 2019, shows a clear prominence in Kabul’s underworld of individuals or families originating from those areas. Out of 172 criminals whose place of origin is made known, there are: 35 from Hudkhel, 34 from Paghman, 24 from Panjshir, 15 from Shakardara and a further 21 from various districts of Shomali.
Despite the problems caused by these networks of heavily armed and politically connected criminals, security in Kabul remained better than in many rural areas directly hit by conflict. In particular, some central areas of Kabul such as Shahr-e Naw, Taimani, Qala-ye Fathullah, Karte Parwan, Karte Se, Karte Chahar were fairly safe, offering middle-class Afghans and low-profile foreigners a relatively normal life.
The residual security of Kabul’s streets against such a violent background owed a lot to the central position given in Afghan society to a tightly-controlled social order aided by a strong security presence However slowly, though, things were changing in the social fabric of the capital.
Meanwhile, the city
Post-2001 Kabul has been an ever-changing city, in terms of boundaries and inhabitants, where many basic problems remain impossible to address. (For a sketch guide to the city’s neighbourhoods see AAN’s previous study.) Kabul’s current insecurity is also a product of the sheer number of people that the city is now hosting, despite inherent shortcomings in terms of infrastructure, housing, sanitation and employment.
Nowadays a metropolis of more than five million residents, Kabul has witnessed a constant flow of people coming and going: returning from decades of exile, relocating from one part of the city to another in search of better economic opportunities and security, settling precariously in the city after being displaced by war or poverty or leaving the country to go abroad in search of a better future. More than half of the residents of Kabul were not born there. However, after the initial years after 2001 when many Afghans in the diaspora returned with the objective and means to start a new life in their country’s capital, the last decade has witnessed an increasing number of immigrants to the city who were driven by conflict, violence, poverty and unemployment. These later newcomers have often settled down in vulnerable conditions, sometimes in veritable shantytowns across the city; in 2016, the UN counted 52 informal settlements in the city. Recently, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the vicious fighting between the government, the Taleban and, in some places, Daesh, are coming mainly from Nangarhar, Laghman, Ghazni, Logar and some northern provinces like Kunduz, Baghlan or even Faryab. They have joined the previous batches of IDPs from Helmand and Kandahar and the labourers from the provinces neighbouring Kabul, who came to the city to make a living for their families back home. Young men between the ages of 15 and 24 have long been over-represented in the city. (7)
In addition, the city has also seen the return of hundreds of thousands of former migrants to Iran and Pakistan who have been forcibly deported back to Afghanistan or pressured into leaving those countries in recent years (see here and here). Families who had often lived abroad for at least a decade have usually lost their assets or means of living in their home districts when they return to Afghanistan, while men who had gone to Iran or Pakistan in search of work fall back on Kabul as a last chance of finding it. The same is true for smaller numbers of Afghan deportees who tried to settle in Europe but were brought back to Kabul by EU governments or Turkey (AAN analysis here). Many returnees among the migrant workers, in particular those coming back from Iran, have become drug users during their stay abroad and they are likely to see their situation worsening considerably once in Kabul due to the lack of medical services and the easy availability of drugs. According to many observers, some drug users left without economic means resort to petty crime in order to buy drugs.
There is also an aspect linked to changing patterns in the social behaviour of young people to be considered. Some of them, disenfranchised from school learning and exposed to tough street life, develop attitudes which make them rasher and cynical – or according to the concerns expressed by more senior Kabulis, less respectful of traditional values – and become more likely to engage in criminal acts. (this is not a phenomenon limited to Kabul – read here previous AAN reporting about youth in Herat). Afghan society has evolved in terms of the availability of status symbols and entertainment tools and there are scores of young people with lofty ambitions and scarce money to achieve these goals. Besides, there is by now a well-entrenched culture among the youth of ‘you want it, you have to grab it by force’ borrowed from the political arena.
In recent years, a short ride through a neighbourhood like Khairkhana would have revealed the presence of dozens of young idlers, conspicuous all-day long around the ‘hotels’ (restaurants) and snooker clubs of the area. Emulating and eventually joining the ranks of armed groups loyal to jihadi commanders, these youngsters had developed manners and language typical of city gangs. This sort of Afghan ‘gangsta style’ already present among some sections of the city youth has recently evolved into something closer to a coherent youth trend, that of the so-called bachaha-ye ba-subut (which could be translated as the “worthy” guys, as they are considered to have a ‘proven record’ of their “deeds”). This includes a language made of newly-coined idiomatic expressions and a shared dress style, with very long qasemi piran shirts (those with a vertical line of buttons on one side of the chest that can be opened to leave a triangular piece of cloth hanging outside or folded inside the collar) and withtomban (trousers) worn very high, leaving the ankles and the shins naked, trainers (or hi top) shoes and a tasbih (a Muslim rosary made of beads symbolizing the names of God – already featured as a staple by kakas and lutis of old) worn either as a necklace or around the temples. (8)
Generally speaking, the rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation has created new economic and security challenges inside the city. Kabul experienced major political crisis and movements of people before, but the residual urban social fabric that had remained in place at least at the surface level, helping to preserve a social order that guaranteed some degrees of security, is now disappearing fast.
The increased frequency of crimes and the increased level of violence they entail have led to a notably different attitude by Kabul residents. According to many witnesses of crimes AAN has spoken with, until a few years ago there was some degree of public response towards instances of criminality. Local residents, shopkeepers and simple passers-by, although powerless to prevent abuses and crimes by the major criminal networks, helped keep in check at least the activities of the occasional or small-time crooks. Nowadays, people in Kabul seems to have lost heart and adopted a more cautious attitude towards getting involved, while criminals appear to be more and more brutal and ruthless.
Criminal activities and police reaction
(1) In past years there were many instances of targeted killings for private reasons camouflaged as insurgent attacks, or, especially in restive provinces, achieved by labelling the target an ‘insurgent’ and wielding government or even NATO force against him. It seems that criminal or police violence can offer a new cover for such private feuds, especially in an environment like Kabul.
(2) At this particular juncture, different takes on his killing circulate in Kabul. One rumour suggests he was killed on American orders because of his having been approached by Iran to disrupt security at Bagram airbase as retaliation for Qasem Soleimani’s killing.
(3) Harassment of women and girls and other forms of sexual and gender based offences have not been the focus of specific research during the compilation of this report and are therefore not dealt with here. AAN plans to devote separate research to the subject.
(4) In 1979 the novel was turned in one of the arguably most popular Afghan movies of all times, by the same title, available here.
(5) A distinctive ‘ayyar-literature flourished during the Safavid period in Persia (with influences in India as well) where ‘ayyars, in an ambiguous role akin to that of the ninjas in samurai ballads, feature, attached to regular armies as spies and stealthy warriors entrusted with secretive missions.
(6) The romance of the rob-the-rich, give-to-the-poor would be revived even in recent years around the criminal deeds of the likes of Rais Khodaidad, probably Kabul’s most notorious criminal, executed in 2015.
(7) For a detailed analysis of the changes in Kabul population, especially between 2001 and 2016, see Foschini, Kabul and the challenge of dwindling foreign aid, USIP 2017, pp 9-16.
(8) A picture, allegedly of Nabi Kohbandi, published here, or the young men being arrested by police at the end of this Tolo TV service can more or less give an idea of their attire. Some self-proclaimed Bachaha-ye ba-subut are very active on the social media and it is said that the trend is also present among young Afghan refugees to Europe; there, girls are also admitted into the circles and reportedly play a prominent role.