Comments from Canada’s foreign affairs minister that the controversial governor of Kandahar province should be replaced echo what many Afghans have been saying for months.
Accused of torture, held responsible for a government seen as corrupt and a deteriorating security situation that has stalled development, Gov. Asadullah Khalid has lost a lot of support in Kandahar since he first got the job three years ago.
Nowhere is that more evident than a current movement to appoint a high-ranking Canadian military interpreter in his stead – an Afghan-Canadian whose arrival in Afghanistan nine months ago has been cited by many as the first positive step forward in Afghan-Canadian relations.
But as political observers noted, getting rid of Khalid isn’t easy. And Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier’s comments are not expected to help.
Amir Attaran, the Canada research chair in law, population health and global development policy at the University of Ottawa, said he would be delighted if Khalid is ousted from office.
“But unfortunately the back-handed way in which Bernier’s done it all but assures he’s not going to be removed.”
Khalid was not available to comment on Bernier’s remarks Monday.
The relationship between him and Canadian military leaders has cooled considerably in recent months.
After a suicide bomber attacked a Canadian convoy in the border town of Spin Boldak in February, injuring four soldiers and killing 38 Afghans, Khalid effectively laid the blame at the feet of the Canadian military for ignoring Afghan military intelligence.
Khalid has vehemently denied allegations that he personally tortured detainees. He has also denied ever speaking with Defence Minister Peter MacKay about these allegations against him, although the meeting took place in the presence of political and military officials.
In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press on the day that more than 100 civilians were killed at a dog-fighting match outside Kandahar city, Khalid voiced his frustrations on working with international troops.
He accused them of not having the best interests of Afghans at heart. But a growing number of Afghans say the governor doesn’t have their interests in mind either.
Some locals said Khalid has lost touch with the people of Kandahar.
The fact that he hails from Ghazni, a province in the centre of the country, makes him an outsider even though he is an ethnic Pashtun like the majority of Kandahar’s citizens.
He’s also not as conservative as many would like.
“The governor of Kandahar must understand the people of Kandahar,” said a former Afghan security official. “He must be confident, courageous, bold and intelligent but he must, most importantly, follow the same customs as the Afghan people.”
Articles that are highly critical of Khalid have circulated on Afghan news websites, attacking him for spending too much time in Kabul, regarded as a more liberal city, or even outside the country.
One article blamed attacks on Canadian forces on Khalid.
“In Canada, there is some support for the Afghan mission,” the article stated.
“In Kandahar, Canadian forces, due to lack of responsible provincial authority, are running into problems … Taliban insurgency has increased and the upcoming spring offensive is expected to be the bloodiest one.”
Khalid works at cultivating an image of authority.
The Canadian military often has him make announcements on development fundings and projects, arguing that it builds respect for the local government.
Khalid parades bombing suspects in front of the Afghan media to show that his government is combating the insurgency.
He recently fired more than 200 police officers in the troubled district of Maywand after allegations of rampant corruption in their ranks. Maywand is now considered one of the insurgency’s strongholds in the province.
In February, he claimed that the Taliban had made an attempt on his life on his way to a high-level community meeting. The bomb actually detonated more than an hour before he was in the area.
He has been particularly outspoken with the western press and government officials on civilian casualties. But at the same time, he was lambasting the Afghan media for continuing to report on them.
Karzai appointed Khalid to the governorship in 2005, bringing him in to replace a Kandahar native, Gul Agha Sherzai, who had held the post prior to the Taliban seizing control of the country.
Khalid and Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are known to be close associates; the latter represents the province at the national government.
Besides his close ties to Karzai, Khalid is seen as a key ally of the American forces in Kandahar, helping push forward their strategy of poppy eradication.
“Karzai said to us he could replace any governor in the whole country, but not the governor of Kandahar,” said one Kandahar elder, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from Khalid.
The elder, and three others, began a petition in late January to remove Khalid from office in favour of a man called Pasha – an Afghan-Canadian who is the cultural adviser and interpreter for Brig-Gen Guy Laroche, the commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
The name Pasha is a pseudonym given to him by the military. For operational security reasons, interpreters are not identified by their real names in Afghanistan.
The elder said in the nine months Pasha had been working in Kandahar, tension between locals and the Canadian military had eased considerably.
He said it was simple things, like encouraging the Canadian military leadership to pay visits to the family of respected leader Mullah Naqib who died in the fall, that helped smooth the relationship.
“Asadullah Khalid is an active person but he is not being supported by civilians,” the elder said. “If there has been a problem in the last nine months, people are calling Pasha.”
The elder also accused Khalid of being responsible for the continuing presence of Taliban in the province, saying he was turning a blind eye while they were bribing their way out of prison.
“Everybody knows this but even the Canadians cannot do anything,” the elder said.
“But if the governor were Pasha, because he has the support of the Canadians everything would be better.”