Crime Wave Further Rocks Confidence in Afghan Government

Afghan officials are trying to contain a spate of kidnappings and armed robberies that appear designed to bolster public thirst for Taliban-style justice—just ahead of a critical donor meeting.

Foreign Policy

KABUL—As Afghanistan’s government was sitting down with the Taliban this fall to discuss an end to the war, urban residents already traumatized by an escalation in terrorist attacks were hit by a surge in violent crime that many believe was orchestrated by the insurgents. Whether or not the Taliban did instigate the crime spree, they deftly exploited it by reminding Afghans of their own harsh anti-crime tactics as they maneuver to return to power as the United States accelerates its withdrawal of troops from the country.

Taliban leaflets appeared across the capital, promising to make the streets safe from a spate of muggings, kidnappings, and armed robberies, spurring an alarmed President Ashraf Ghani into belated action. Senior Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former spy chief, last month launched the “Kabul Security Compact,” which appears to have yielded fast results: Officials say incidents of crime are well down from a September peak in Kabul of hundreds a day.

The apparently successful crackdown—which Saleh aims to roll out to the rest of the country in coming weeks—comes at a critical time. On Nov. 23-24, international donors will meet in Geneva to renew foreign aid for Afghanistan. But this year, many donors are suggesting big cuts to their aid budgets, amid ongoing concern about Afghan corruption and lingering doubts about the country’s ability to maintain progress on human rights after the end of the conflict.

Saleh’s crackdown has highlighted that much of the recent crime is linked to corruption, and he has set out to target warlords, mafia gangs, politicians, and businessmen whose criminality now jeopardizes that foreign aid, which makes up about three-quarters of the government’s budget. The U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said Ghani has only seriously tackled corruption when donor funding is on the line—and with the Afghan economy wracked due to the pandemic, and with U.S. forces bolting for the exits, the Afghan president needs donor support more than ever.

Antonio Giustozzi, an expert on terrorism and security in Afghanistan at the Royal United Services Institute, said the crackdown is unlikely to change the minds of donors who had already decided to cut funding and that it is too early to say how sustainable it might be.

“The reason they want to cut funding is, in part, because they are decreasingly able to monitor projects. This, of course, is only going to get worse,” Giustozzi said.

Crime, corruption, nepotism, and a perceived lack of government regard for citizens’ security are nothing new in Afghanistan. But the massive fall crime wave, worst in Kabul but evident in other cities, only further undermined the unpopular government’s legitimacy and highlighted simmering security vulnerabilities.

According to some estimates, the government has control of little more than half the country. In regions under Taliban control, their savage approach to crime—severing the hands of alleged thieves and stoning women to death for “adultery”—is often seen as preferable to the government’s judicial system, mired in patronage.

Since talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government began in Qatar in September, terrorist attacks have intensified across the country, killing hundreds of people in Kabul alone as the Taliban, working with other terrorist groups, seek to gain an advantage that will speed their return to power.

That effort was compounded by the recent crime wave, which fueled even greater public frustration with government ineptitude and corruption. Rasheed Hossaini’s experience was typical. While walking with a friend one September evening, a white Toyota Corolla screeched to a halt beside them. “Two men with guns got out of the car and said, ‘If you move, we will shoot you,’” Hossaini, 35, said. “They stole our computers, mobile phones, and money.”

He reported the incident to police, who showed him CCTV footage of the same men robbing a supermarket at gunpoint. No arrests have been made. Like many, he blamed the Taliban. “I think the Taliban are trying to make people afraid, to make Kabul insecure so they can say only the Taliban can offer security,” Hossaini said.

An internal government analysis obtained by Foreign Policy acknowledged the public relations coup the crime wave handed the insurgents. “The Taliban reacted and took advantage of the situation by announcing that they will relieve Kabul citizens from growing insecurity by acting against criminals in the city,” the report said. This they did with notices handed out to residents, posted in mosques, and on social media.

Senior police and intelligence officers felt greater loyalty to power brokers and warlords than to the government, enabling the powerful to operate outside the law with impunity, the internal government analysis said, describing intelligence officials as “oblivious to security threats in the city.”

“The worsening security situation in the city, and lack of strong reaction from the government, has emboldened criminals to commit all sorts of crimes in plain daylight and sometimes at the proximity of police checkpoints without fearing any consequence,” the document added.

The Kabul crime wave, though seemingly now under control, also has had a couple of knock-on effects that could harm Afghanistan’s future prospects, the government analysis found. The internal report mentioned that the rash of kidnappings for ransom had driven many local businessmen and investors to take their money out of the country. And it has undermined the Afghan government while in talks with the Taliban over the shape of post-conflict Afghanistan.

“The level of crime in the city became unbearable to the citizens, and growing criticism in mainstream and social media weakened the position of the Afghan government” in the talks in Qatar, the analysis found.

That’s why the Afghan government is so eager to tout any progress against the rash of terrorist attacks and the upsurge in crime. Last weekend, Saleh announced the arrest of the alleged mastermind of the Nov. 2 attack on Kabul University, which killed at least 22 people according to government numbers—though other sources place the death toll higher. Saleh said the suspect worked for a conglomerate of terrorist groups, including the Taliban, its offshoot the Haqqani network, and the Islamic State.

But the bigger question at this point is whether his crackdown on crime and corruption will pay dividends where it most matters: in terms of convincing international donors to keep propping up the country.

“The crackdown does seem to have had a short-term effect, but how will crime adapt? It is possible that the current crime wave has its roots in efforts to professionalize the security services and eradicate links between police chiefs and crime gangs and bring the security forces back under government control,” Giustozzi said.

“The gangs might be trying to make a point that without them, security in Kabul cannot be maintained. But I suspect donors have stopped caring anyway,” he added.

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.