June 29, 2009

On the KC shooting

There are some conclusions one certainly shouldn't jump to when evaluating today's reports of the killing of the Kandahar Chief of Police in a gunfight.

One would be that there's anything unusual about this. Like Leonidas of Sparta would have said... "This. Is. Kandahar." As a policing environment, it has been for years and remains to this day highly volatile by our standards, often a home for rough, frontier justice: Deadwood with AKs. There's lots of armed men, lots of small arms, and lots of scores to settle. The insurgency bears the same relationship to this baseline that Indian raids did to the American Wild West: in that not all the social violence, perhaps not even most of it, is insurgent-driven. There's no reason at this time to believe the McGuffin at the centre of this tragic incident was anything more than someone "appropriating" somebody's car, or jailing somebody's brother for something minor even by Afghan standards. One shouldn't expect a sense of proportion in Kandahar City between the offense and the outcome in these things.

Another would be that any ISAF or OEF forces anywhere had the vaguest clue this was going to happen today, or were in any way complicit. It's simply highly unlikely that this was an attempt to "snatch" a high-value target or anything like that. Even if that sort of thing were going on, the last people Special Forces would use, or need to use, would be the kind of trigger-happy Afghans who would be likely to get into a gunfight with the Police Chief. If the U.S. special ops guys (or the NDS, or the ANA) really wanted somebody to disappear from formal custody, for whatever reason, friend or foe, there are other, quieter opportunities open to them for that sort of thing.

Another would be that because a lot of papers say "U.S. forces sealed off the area" after the event means that Canadians weren't involved, or possibly even the lead agency in the arrests of those responsible. Both Kandahari civilians and Western stringer reporters can tell Afghans from Westerners easily enough, but have extraordinary difficulty distinguishing Canadian soldiers from Americans, in my experience. In Kandahar City, there is little in the way of a uniformed U.S. presence, limited mostly to police mentors... odds are the Western forces responding were a mix of both nations' soldiers.

The only real question mark is who the shooters arrested will prove to have been employed by. They almost certainly weren't ANSF as the term is understood... even the Afghan Commandoes and other ANA soldiers working with Western Special Forces in the region are distinctive enough in uniform and bearing that they likely would have been identified by now by both spokesmen and eyewitnesses as Afghan army. (Note though, that the Globe, quoting a CF source, calls them an "Afghan special unit." I'd wait for some confirmation, though, before concluding that means these guys were directly on the Afghan government payroll.) Regardless, the shooters' visit to the police was almost certainly in no way connected to the effective prosecution of counter-insurgency, although many anti-war commentators may use the opportunity to suggest otherwise.

Rather more likely is this crew will turn out to have been involved in providing un-uniformed but armed base security for OEF at one of the Special Forces locations near Kandahar City (ISAF and the Canadians have already said they weren't employed at one of theirs.) The second-most likely possibility is they were from one of the large private companies providing ride-along security to civilian convoys in this region... So they are "private military contractors," sure, but not Blackwater, or anything sexy like that. Just another bunch of hired Afghan guns in a city that's full of them. I've stared at a few (of the road-guard variety) in ANA custody myself.

As such, they would have no standing to take possession of any prisoner from the police, obviously, or, depending on the exact nature of their day job, do anything more than search cars at a gate or stop traffic while the food trucks drive by. (And fire back at attackers in self-defence, which they do do a lot...) But there are a lot of them, they are (many of them) undisciplined, heavily armed, poorly documented, and obviously unmentored by us, and like most Afghan males, each of them is enmeshed in the Kandahar cobweb of tribal and family allegiances, any skein of which could have led to today's events. (And regrettably, there have been reports previously that the ones doing guard duty for the SOF guys sometimes tend to put on airs...)

By all accounts the Kandahar City police chief, Matiullah Qati, was a pretty good guy by local standards. Appointed last June (his predecessor having been fired after the great Kandahar Prison Break), he was nearly killed in a well-planned suicide attack on the city police HQ just as I arrived in Afghanistan last September. This is obviously going to be a pretty big setback for ANSF mentoring in the area, unfortunately.

UPDATE, 5 pm: The first coherent attempt at a narrative I've seen yet in commenter RYP's post at Ghosts of Alex. The AWK observations are worth noting. The president's brother's coterie is known to local authorities for being both well armed enough and cocky enough to end up in this sort of situation, and are not opposed to appealling to high places when they get in a jam. That these might have been AWK's men is not exclusive to the other hypotheses floated above, either.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM