| ||Herat Reeling from Violent Crime Wave|
By Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali in Herat
A spate of murders and kidnappings is denting the economic prospects of a formerly stable part of Afghanistan
Deteriorating security in Herat has led to businesses shutting down and left residents wondering who is behind a recent wave of kidnappings, murders and armed robberies.
After the fall of the Taleban, investors flocked to open factories in what was considered one of the most stable cities in the country. Now many say they are afraid to continue operating.
One businessman, who did not wish to be named, told IWPR he was kidnapped about a month ago and only released following lengthy negotiations and the payment of a ransom. He has now shut down his factory, which produced bread and biscuits.
“The security forces aren’t capable of arresting a pickpocket, let alone a kidnapper,” said the entrepreneur.
This man was just one of six businessmen recently abducted and released for money, according to Tooryalai Ghausi, who is deputy head of the local industrialists’ union.
Of more than 170 factories based in Herat province, about 60 per cent have ceased operating in recent months, Ghausi said.
Even government officials are not safe. Ghulam Mohammad Mudabber, the head of the provincial mines and industries department, was reportedly kidnapped and badly beaten. A relative, Noor Mohammad, told IWPR that Mudabber was released after the family paid a ransom of 140,000 US dollars.
Police spokesperson Noor Khan Nekzad said the number of armed robberies and kidnappings in the city was actually down 60 per cent in September. He predicted that the trend would continue, attributing this to continued cooperation from local elders and former commanders from the mujahedin factions, along with the recent appointment of a new police chief, Mohammad Juma Adeel.
Despite the fall in crime figures, security officials said there were five murders, five kidnappings and 15 robberies during the month.
While Nekzad would not say who he believed was responsible for the crime wave, he denied it was the Taleban. Instead, he suggested the criminals are linked to influential figures vying for power in the area.
Some residents and analysts suspect that armed men loyal to Energy Minister Ismail Khan are attempting to regain lost power by destabilising the region.
The former mujahedin commander and self-styled emir of western Afghanistan ruled Herat until the Taleban overran the city and imprisoned him. After the fall of the fundamentalist regime, Ismail Khan was appointed governor of the province, before being sacked by President Hamed Karzai in September 2004, a move which sparked massive demonstrations in Herat. Following the presidential election in October that year, Karzai appointed Ismail Khan as energy minister.
Mohammad Rafeeq Shaheer, head of the Experts’ Council, a non-governmental institution, said Ismail Khan loyalists have been well armed over the years. “Those who have been armed may be the cause of such incidents today,” he added.
Herat resident Ghulam Mahboob told IWPR that he had witnessed an attempted abduction by men connected with Ismail Khan.
“A few days ago, armed men wanted to kidnap my neighbour. He shouted out, and I came out of my house. I saw a person loyal to Ismail Khan there whom I knew very well,” he said, adding that the would-be kidnappers gave up after neighbours intervened.
Qari Mohammad Yousuf Masoon, a former spokesperson for Ismail Khan, who is now secretary of the minister’s Afghan People’s National Solidarity Council, denied the allegations.
“These rumours and accusations are being spread by those who are in some way involved in security problems,” said Masoon.
He blamed the skyrocketing crime rates on a lack of Islamic values within society, as well as on ineffectual security forces. Masoon claimed that some government officials know who the criminals are but refuse to arrest them.
Mohammad Musa, a local resident who was once a combatant with one of the Afghan militia factions, Hezb-i-Islami, said the government’s attempt to marginalise the former mujahedin groups has caused resentment among their members.
“People who stood up to foreign invasion for 20 years are now looked upon as criminals,” he said. “They were discharged via the DDR [Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration] programme, and this is one of the most important contributory factors in the lack of security in Afghanistan.”
Musa recommended that the government focus on integrating former combatants into the new national army and police force.
While crime in Herat is hurting the local economy, it is also affecting the Afghan government’s revenue, according to Khushhal Rasi, head of the provincial customs department. He said customs receipts in the province for the last five months have fallen by 30 per cent compared with the previous five-month period.
Herat province, which borders Iran and Turkmenistan, is a key transport corridor for the region, but traders are becoming more wary of bringing goods across the border with Iran.
At least one business is benefiting from the security problems, however. Metalworker Gul Ahmad welds iron grills to keep the criminals out of homes and businesses. These days, he said, “I have so much business, I am turning customers away.”