Blood, kinship and the security of Musa Qal'eh - A meeting with Commander Koka

Afghanistan. 20 October 2010

Haji Abdul Wali was just twenty when he first fired an AK47. ‘I’ve had a rifle in my hands ever since’ he says, his fierce eyes glinting beneath a brow heavily furrowed from twenty-five years of war.

Now Musa Qal’eh’s District Chief of Police – affectionately nicknamed Koka by one of his many brothers – is one of the most feared and revered figures in the district. His reputation is well earned.

His first war was lengthy and brutal; as part of the mujahideen (literally meaning those who struggle), fighting the Russians amongst the high peaks of the Hindu Kush. His father and a brother were killed before the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

He remained with the militia group during the chaos of civil war in the early 1990s – until they were defeated by the newly formed Taliban. Escaping the violence, he sought refuge in Iran for the following year.

He arrived in Musa Qal’eh in the third year of Talib rule, where as part of a deal to protect his younger brother, he fought with them for nine months, serving under the local commander Mullah Salaam who went on to become the newly re-integrated district governor. In the transition he was appointed District Chief of Police where he remains, still fighting; this time against his former comrades.

“How have you managed to survive?” I asked, awed by his story. “It is in the hands of Allah” he says. “I’ve had a terrible life and done bad things. I don’t know how many people I’ve killed.”

Its not hard to see why his faith is strong. He tells me that he has survived three suicide attacks, and goes on to declare “I fight the Talib. I never compromise with them, and I’ve never hidden from them.”

As we speak, local men greet him with reverence, bowing low and kissing his hand. His protection is widely sought, and his judgement on local disputes rarely challenged.

In his time he has transformed a police force that was predatory and utterly corrupt. Now, his two hundred men are fiercely loyal and a competent force. “I respect my men.” He tells me. “I never steal from them. And I punish them if they do wrong. If there is fighting I will help. If they get hurt, I will provide medical treatment.” Its true – he may be the only Police Chief in Afghanistan with a special fund solely for helping his wounded.

“This is my life.” he continues, and the lines on his face reveal the truth. ”But I’m tired. The only desire I have is for peace to come to this district, so that I can spend time with my family.” He has four wives and fourteen children, the eldest of which also works in the local police force.

I wondered how he carries on after so many years of war. He tells me; “If things get better in Musa Qal’eh, they will get better in Helmand. If they get better in Helmand, they will get better in Afghanistan.” Then I asked him what would happen if the international forces were to leave.

He looks at me hard. “We might stay three or four days. And then on the fifth day, the Taliban would come. Our blood is mixed with the blood of ISAF. We have fought and died together. We must continue together.”

Hamish Wilson