Engineer-Turned-Militia Leader Takes on Taliban
As he jolted along village roads recently in a pickup truck with a machine gunner standing in the back, Farhad Akbari stopped every few minutes and pointed to another invisible landmark among the mud-walled houses, swaying poplars and rippling wheat fields. “This corner used to be a Taliban check post, but now everyone can pass freely,” he said with a satisfied nod. “That orchard is where the Taliban used to escape from fighting. We ambushed them and killed seven.” Farther on, he paused by a stream with a dirt culvert.“This is where a mine exploded under two of my men,” he said.
Just a year ago, Akbari, 33, was a construction engineer getting rich off military contracts in Logar province, an hour’s drive south of Kabul. Today he is an armed vigilante, leading villagers and gunmen in a local rebellion against the insurgents who killed his mother in a roadside shooting in July. Akbari asserts that since taking up arms, he has purged Taliban forces from more than 100 hamlets in Kolangar, a quiet farming region, killing dozens of insurgents in what he called “my uprising.”
He has recruited about 70 young men to his mobile fighting force, including former Taliban fighters. He also works closely with the Afghan Local Police and said he has urged older or jobless men in the area to join the police force and help patrol their villages.
Akbari’s ability to carve out a swath of Taliban-free territory has drawn both praise and alarm from Afghan military and civilian officials in Logar, where the insurgency remains a serious menace despite sustained Afghan and U.S. military pressure. In contrast to those forces, which are either foreign or recruited from other regions and are spread across large areas, Akbari’s local roots and small mobile force appear to have made him more effective in a confined and familiar target area.
But Logar officials express concern that his freelance exploits could inspire other forms of vigilantism that could undermine the authority of Afghan security forces as coalition troops pull out over the next year. “We are happy with what he has done, but we need people like him to come in under the established security framework and abide by the law,” said Logar Gov. Arsala Jamal, who was recently appointed by President Hamid Karzai, a longtime critic of private militias. “He might be effective in one place, but if there are 10 other Farhads, one of them might make a serious mistake.”
Akbari said he has not received any backing from coalition forces, and U.S. military officials in Kabul said they were not aware of his crusade. But they said that they had tracked more than a dozen local uprisings in other provinces and that none of those isolated efforts lasted long or amounted to much.
“At one time, we hoped these kinds of uprisings would catch fire, especially as the coalition presence gets thinner. But they mostly sputtered out,” said a U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The regional Afghan army commander, Gen. Abdul Razzeq Safi, has become something of a mentor to Akbari, often stopping for tea at his spacious house in the provincial capital, Pul-i-Alam. The compound, built with profits from a decade of U.S. military contracts, is a command post full of long-haired fighters in their early 20s.
Razzeq, who lost 17 family members to the Taliban, expressed admiration for Akbari but said other officials view him as a threat. “He is getting people to rise against the Taliban, so we should support him. But they’re afraid he’ll become too powerful and take their place,” the general said. Although clearly ambitious, Akbari is also fighting for revenge. He said that after insurgents opened fire on the family car, leaving his mother dead, he lost all interest in making money, suspended his construction projects and went into action. Within days of her funeral, he was buying guns and recruiting supporters.
“Farhad stopped all our construction projects and started encouraging people to stand up with us and fight,” said his brother Toryalai, who survived the attack with five bullet wounds in his abdomen. “For the past 10 months, we’ve done nothing else.”
During recent visits to half a dozen villages that had been cleared of Taliban fighters, Akbari’s success was palpable. Farmers, shopkeepers and police officers greeted him warmly as “engineer” and described him as a hero. In one village, officials at a crowded elementary school welcomed him and said attendance has soared recently. In another, several tenant farmers working in a field put down their tools and offered tea to his armed entourage.
Mohammed Zamen, 38, his hair and tunic covered in dust, said the Taliban had been a constant presence in the area for years, harassing government workers and ambushing troops. Next to the fields, he said, he built an undergound dirt bunker to hide from crossfire. “It wasn’t safe until the engineer had the courage to come and ask for our help. Now I am part of his uprising, too,” Zamen said. “The real jihad is to defend your home.”
Several miles away, Akbari visited a new Afghan Local Police post fortified with sandbags and barbed wire. The senior officer on duty was Mohammed Qasim, 45, a gaunt veteran of the anti-Soviet conflict who said he had joined the force at Akbari’s urging. “I’m just a laborer, but I’m proud to be carrying my weapon again,” he said.
The ALP, launched in 2010 and funded by the U.S. government, has been controversial because of its similarity to local patrols established under the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and members of the force have been accused of rape, shootings and pro-Taliban insider attacks. But Jamal, the provincial governor, said the government is pleased with the force’s recent growth in Logar. Members receive only a few weeks of training and earn about $150 per month, and the provincial force now includes 900 men.
“They are an effective tool against insurgents, because they know who goes in and out of villages much better than the security forces do,” Jamal said. “For every 10 ALP, there are 100 relatives and neighbors behind them.” Akbari said grateful villagers were easy to win over after he and his men drove insurgents away. But in this war-battered country, survival often depends on siding with the strongest.
Many people in Logar share ethnic Pashtun roots with the Taliban. Some grow opium poppies under the insurgency’s protection. Razzeq said Akbari may be underestimating the insurgents’ ideological drive and the combination of fear, need and frustration with the government that has led people to accept their authority. “This enemy is highly motivated, and they will keep going no matter what,” Razzeq said in an interview at his base headquarters near Pul-i-Alam. “You don’t blow yourself up for money. You do it from conviction.” Nevertheless, Akbari has managed to persuade some former Taliban fighters to switch sides. One is Ahmad Reshad, 20, a lanky gunman who said the Taliban recruited him with videos of suicide bombers making farewell speeches and then driving trucks up to military bases and exploding their hidden cargo. “Once, I wanted to be a suicider, too. They were going to send me to Pakistan for training, but my parents wouldn’t let me go,” Reshad said. “I thought the Taliban were doing jihad against the Americans, but the engineer came to our village and told us that was a lie,” he said. “Now I am happy to be alive.”
It is difficult to gauge whether Akbari’s success in pacifying Kolangar could be replicated beyond such a confined, close-knit area. The Taliban remains a persistent threat in Logar’s districts of Chark, Kharwar and Baraki Barak, where insurgents clash frequently with Afghan and U.S. forces, and many aid and development projects are on hold. One Afghan engineer who works in Baraki Barak said two of his colleagues had been seized and beaten by insurgents who warned them not to work for foreigners. He said the only way he can travel safely to work is to leave behind his identification and other documents and have a cover story ready in case Taliban fighters stop and board his bus. “They have two or three checkpoints on the way, and they search all the passengers,” said the engineer, whose employers allowed him to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity. “If they found my work ID card, I would be finished.”
It also seems doubtful that Akbari’s model would work in provinces with a larger, more entrenched Taliban presence. The short-lived “uprisings” in Ghazni and elsewhere, which died out because of lack of funds or mounting casualties, suggest that small, isolated movements cannot be expected to reinforce Afghan defenses nationwide as foreign forces withdraw.
Akbari said he is eager to expand his crusade, but Razzeq offered some cautionary advice as the two men sipped tea in Akbari’s carpeted command post. Instead of fighting alone, the general said, he should send his best gunmen to train with Afghan security forces. “I’m here to help you, but you need to surround yourself with a broader base of support,” Razzeq said. Once the Americans and their attack helicopters are gone, he noted, Afghan troops will be stretched even thinner. “I may also be gone tomorrow,” he said, “but the Taliban will still be here, and so will you.”
Pamela Constable has covered South Asia from New Delhi and Kabul for the Post, and Central and South America for the Boston Globe.