Photo: via Kathleen Reedy
I first met Pacha Khan on a sunny day in October 2010. He had been invited onto the Afghan Army base where I worked to be congratulated by the Afghan Brigade Commander for winning the recent Parliamentary elections. With a bandolier strung jauntily over his shoulder and a turban gracefully adorning his brow, he nodded sagely at the Commander and staff, accepting their gracious and humble aplomb after his hard-fought battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate.Well, that may have been what he was envisioning, but it wasn’t quite the truth. He was, in fact, visiting the base to throw a man-sized temper tantrum. He did have the bandolier, though.
Pacha Khan Zadran’s deep history is a little murky, but he claims to have fought the Soviets as a mujahaddin, side by side with the likes of Jalaluddin Haqqani (founder of one of the more problematic sets of insurgents in southeast Afghanistan). But they’re not so close now, as he and Haqqani reportedly had a bit of a falling out after the Haqqanis tried to assassinate his son.
Prior to 2001, he was hiding out in Pakistan, where he was recruited by American forces after we arrived to help control the local population. With some American money and guns and some men, he basically set himself up as a local warlord in service of the Americans in the provinces of Paktiya, Paktika and Khost, helping us hunt down al-Qaeda members (OK, so maybe some of the targets were actually his political opponents he wanted the Americans to take out for him, but that’s reasonable, right? The Mafia would be proud).
The local population didn’t like him much and he did tend to lob rockets at them and put up “taxed checkpoints” (i.e. roadblocks demanding bribes) up and down the major highway, but he declared himself governor and the newly-minted President Karzai sort of acknowledged it, almost out of sheer amazement. He attended the Bonn Conference and the Loya Jirga in 2002 to help decide the fate of Afghanistan (where he declared support for the former king Zahir Shah rather than Karzai, who he never seemed to really like).
After a time, Karzai changed his mind and accused PKZ of murder, so Pacha Khan was ousted as governor and embraced his new outlaw status, generally making a nuisance of himself for everyone. He eventually fled to Pakistan again, was arrested there in 2003, and returned to Afghanistan in 2004. His punishment? He was allowed to run for Parliament in 2005 and won, going from warlord to governor to outlaw to member of parliament in less than four years. Though how he won in the same province where he launched rockets at the population is beyond me. And then, for some icing on the cake, his son was appointed as (and still is) a District Governor in that same province. Another son is a contractor and conveniently wins a lot of bids for work in that area…
In the fall of 2010, Afghanistan held its second set of elections for Parliament and Pacha Khan was trying to keep his seat. Lo and behold, he did not win. He was shocked. (The people of Paktiya Province, incidentally, were less than surprised.) Everyone loved him. (They didn’t.) Surely the only way he could have lost was if the ballots were rigged–it must have been fraud! (OK, the elections were far from perfect near as I could tell, but he insisted over a million votes needed to be reincluded and if he lost by that many…)
So what did he do after being cheated out of his seat? He went to an old standby, got some men (hey, enough money and guns will buy a little loyalty), and threw up a roadblock to protest.
Civil society in action, right? That’s great! Except the roadblock was on a major highway that the American and Afghan Armies use daily. And that was why he had been “invited” to the Commander’s office, where he waxed from cool to quite vehement in declaring that he refused to end the roadblock until there was a recount and he was declared the winner. He was firm and unyielding and had the upper hand when it came to rhetoric. The American XO and I watched in amazement and amusement as he stormed across the room.
Until a relatively low-ranking, generally light-hearted and unassuming Afghan Battalion Commander leaned forward and said in a low voice, “Either you take that roadblock down, or I will.”
Pacha Khan stopped his pacing and stared at the Commander. There was a long, uncomfortable pause …
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