Shades of Gray in Afghanistan


In August 2010, I assumed command of combined Team Uruzgan, a diverse force of coalition soldiers from ten countries, including Australia, Singapore, France, New Zealand, and the United States, created to push back Taliban influence in the province and to “promote effective governance, provide development and transition security to the Afghan National Security Forces.”

One day prior to assuming command, I faced a dilemma, exemplary of the larger difficulties Western efforts in the country face. On July 31, 2010, in Uruzgan, Afghans associated with the Taliban accused the coalition forces of “stabbing” a Koran. There was concern among the Afghan leaders in the provincial capital city of Tarin Kowt that there would be widespread unrest in the Mirabad valley, just five miles from Kamp Holland, regional headquarters of the Dutch command representing NATO in Afghanistan. The coalition forces were transitioning from Dutch control to a combined organization of ten countries under a U.S. Army colonel.

The local warlord, Matiullah Khan approached the coalition leaders and offered to broker a meeting between the local leaders who believed that a NATO soldier had stabbed the Koran, and the coalition leaders who knew that the charges were false. Dutch authorities considered Matiullah a criminal and refused to work with him. The new coalition leaders decided that although Matiullah had in all likelihood committed illegal acts, as a tribal leader, he was best placed to defuse the situation.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

At Matiullah’s headquarters, a group of five Australian and U.S. leaders were led into a long narrow room in which approximately 100 Afghan leaders were assembled. Matiullah, police chief Brigadier General Juma Gul, Afghan Army commander Brigadier General Hamid, and National Director of Security commander Brigadier General Zakaria led the coalition leaders through a narrow gauntlet that opened to the front of the room. There, the coalition representatives sat down in front of a small lectern while their Afghan partners moved to their own places at the head of the assemblage. At the lectern a black turbaned mullah began ranting. With flaming red eyes and profuse spit, he exhorted the Afghans in the room to defy the coalition and local Afghan leaders; to kill coalition soldiers; and to take retribution for the blasphemous act of stabbing a Koran. After 45 minutes of the mullah’s tirade, General Hamid moved forward and suggested politely that it would be best for the coalition leaders to leave.

We spent the next four hours in Matiullah’ s office waiting for the meeting to conclude. Finally, the Afghan partners returned to inform coalition leaders that the issue had been resolved and that the assembled Afghans were on their way home. The coalition leaders were told that the police chief, General Gul, had taken the podium and looked each Afghan in the eye, telling them to swear on the Koran that they had seen the Koran being stabbed. When everyone in the room denied having witnessed this evident sacrilege, General Gul, said “If no one can swear on the Koran that they saw the Koran being stabbed then it did not happen!” Convinced of the facts through exhaustive discussion and debate in an Afghan “Shura,” the assembled leaders filed out of the hall and headed home content that the Koran had not been violated.

Shades of Gray

As the coalition commander in the room, I faced a dilemma: Should I work with the Afghan warlord who had defused the crisis or should I follow the Dutch example and spurn those Afghan leaders believed to be corrupt and criminal. Is it better to follow a black and white path and only cooperate with Afghans who met strict Western definitions of appropriate conduct? Or, is it better to accept the leaders on the ground as constituted within a spectrum of shades of gray? How should I distinguish shades of gray? At what point is a person too gray and approaching black and just too bad to be tolerated? These were the critical questions I faced as I prepared to take command on August 1, 2010, the next day.

The Dutch assessment of Matiullah was very critical. They had gathered credible evidence that Matiullah’s uncle, Jan Mohammad Kahn, a tribal leader, warlord, and deposed governor of Uruzgan, had recruited him to enforce order in the region. In this role, Matiullah was accused of killing locals and Taliban for his uncle. Matiullah was a colonel in the Afghan National Police force and commanded the “2000” man Private Police Militia, Kandak Amniante Uruzgan (KAU). The police chief, General Gul, accused Matiullah of charging the government for KAU policemen that did not exist. The KAU were accused by other local tribal leaders of attacking non-Taliban locals and of torturing captured prisoners. Matiullah was known to over-charge coalition forces for security of convoys traveling for 22 hours along the 160 miles of dirt road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, known as Route Bear. If the coalition refused to pay the inflated charges then incidents along the route increased. Matiullah was accused of instigating these attacks in order to justify the security requirements. Coalition leaders, principal elders of opposing tribes and local Afghans shared these concerns. Although not indicted or convicted there was clearly a pattern of suspicious behavior associated with the KAU Commander’s actions in and around Uruzgan.

The Australian and U.S. Special Forces in the region had a much different assessment. Matiullah was seen as warrior who hated the Taliban and would readily provide well-trained and effective augmentation to combat operations. His KAU provided excellent security along Route Bear with minimal loss of equipment and supplies enroute. He escorted medical and humanitarian goods at no charge. I personally witnessed his ability to quietly broker agreements between competing tribes who were fighting over a wide variety of issues. He presided over a “Thursday Shura” during which local people, usually women, would come to ask for assistance with opening businesses, supporting schools, building athletic facilities, and other basic needs. Matiullah was able to provide this assistance, resolve problems, and support the local community. His ability to gather tribal leaders from all local tribes in order to help resolve disputes was a critical element in sustaining relative peace in Uruzgan. There are conflicting opinions regarding the ultimate purpose behind Matiullah’s civic actions; however, he clearly assisted the coalition in maintaining security and keeping the Taliban out of Uruzgan.

Facing a dilemma of how to view Matiullah and not compromise Dutch cooperation, seeing him as a corrupt warlord versus seeing him as an effective and reliable commander and supporter of coalition operations, I had a decision to make. From my perspective, I saw him neither as all white, à la coalition Special Forces, nor all black, à la the Dutch. I viewed Matiullah as a deep shade of gray. I accepted that he was in fact a commissioned colonel in the Afghan National Police who, despite a trail of ostensibly incriminating actions, was an effective commander who supported coalition security operations. I recognized that although his suspect past and current dealings were not acceptable according to official Western practices, they fell under the tacit moral aegis of the Afghan National Police, provincial governor and Afghan president. From my perspective it was better to work with the accepted and appointed Afghan leader despite conspicuous flaws than to marginalize him due to accusations of improper behavior. I concluded that building a cautious and wary relationship was better for the security of the region than to confront Matiulah and work at cross purposes, potentially creating another enemy.

Matiullah Khan was a quiet, enigmatic tribal leader who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Afghan National Police. He cared deeply for his people, despised the Taliban, and was instrumental in maintaining security in the region. He worked closely with the coalition to eliminate Taliban influence in Uruzgan. By working with Matiullah and the other leaders in Uruzgan, all different shades of gray, we were able to dramatically increase the volume of goods in all provincial bazars, build a 42-kilometer asphalt road from Tarin Kowt to Chora, more than double the number of children in school, and all but eliminate Taliban Influence in the province.

During my last flight from Gizab, a small mountainous village 120 miles north of Tarin Kowt, I noticed that what ten months earlier had been pitch black was now covered with a multitude of lights. And the lights of progress shone too, security and economic growth made possible by working with local leaders who helped create a more stable environment, despite characters of murky gray and rigid perceptions of black and white.

Matiullah Khan was killed in a targeted suicide bombing in Kabul in March 2015.

Colonel James L Creighton is chief operating officer of the EastWest Institute. He served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army for 30 years.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief