Aust, US back ex-warlord as head policeman

Australian and US forces are confident the Oruzgan police chief Matiullah Khan will be able to maintain order once they leave at the end of this year.

In a nation of colourful characters with questionable pasts, one stands tall.

That's Brigadier Matiullah Khan, the long, thin chief of police of Oruzgan Province, regularly described as a tribal warlord who amassed significant wealth through use of his personal militia to guard the main supply road, known as Route Bear, between Kandahar and Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan.

A US Congressional report described that as vast protection racket.

The Dutch military, which led the coalition operations in Oruzgan in the period 2006-10, would have nothing to do with him.

On one account that stemmed in part from an incident in which Dutch soldiers died in an IED attack, allegedly a result of failure to pay the going rate for convoy protection on Route Bear.

So eyebrows were certainly raised when he was appointed the province police chief.

Australia and the US have found no problems dealing with him and his power and prestige have only increased.

With Australian and US forces withdrawing from Oruzgan by year's end, much rests on him to sustain the progress achieved though the vast investment in blood and treasure.

Australian Brigadier Patrick Kidd said he did not know the Matiullah Khan of old.

"I just see him as I see him. As far as I am concerned he is a person who values the same things that we value in terms of developing the police force. Whilst he is prepared to play in that way, I am very happy to do business with him," he said.

The proof is in the 5700-strong police force in Oruzgan, traditionally the poor cousin of the better resourced and trained Afghan National Army (ANA). This isn't a police force by Australian standards, more a para-military organisation with an investigative branch.

It does include 24 female police now in training. It also includes around 1000 members of Matiullah Khan's former militia, the KAU, now operating as a private security company and set to be absorbed into the police.

Under Matiullah Khan - generally referred to simply as MK - it's performing better than ever. In isolated outposts, Afghan police are on the frontline of the insurgency. Their checkpoints are occasionally overrun, though that mostly means the police simply withdrew.

With ANA assistance, none has remained under insurgent control for more than 48 hours, most much less.

Importantly, a more disciplined police has attracted growing community support.

US Lieutenant Colonel John Siepmann, who heads the 184 Security Force Assistance Team, which mentors the police, sees this first hand.

He said he had witnessed only sound and responsible decision making.

"My impression is he is a competent leader who is genuinely interested in Oruzgan's future. He cares about the province because it is his home," he said.

Commander of the Australian Task Group in Tarin Kowt Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Bye said Matiullah Khan certainly had a colourful background.

"He is an entrepreneur. He is a smart guy who rose from very humble beginnings to be now an active and positive contributor to security within Oruzgan. He is on the record supporting human rights," he said.

"He realises he nexus between good governance and accountability and foreign funding which is essential for governance and development here in Oruzgan. It is not in his interest or anyone to allow a resurgent Taliban."

Major General Gus McLachlan, the senior Australian officer in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said many people Australia dealt with in Afghanistan had interesting pasts.

"You can't sugar coat these things. This is a land of survivors, of tough people, of hard men and women and at the end of the day what we need are people who bring stability and security to the population. Matiullah Khan is one of those people," he said.

MK is indisputably wealthy, certainly by the standards of Oruzgan and also by the standards of the rest of the world. This he mostly achieved while illiterate, a condition he's apparently worked hard to correct.

He's also regarded as generous where it matters. Most recently he personally funded new uniforms for his entire police force as a gesture for the Islamic festival of Eid.

That generosity was on display when he invited a group of Australians and US officers to dinner at his place, a sprawling well guarded compound just outside the main base at Tarin Kowt.

This was a social and business occasion and media photo opportunity.

MK proved a gracious, unassuming and quietly spoken host. He proudly showed off his grounds which feature extensive rose gardens, a large swimming pool, perhaps the only one in the province, volleyball court with spectator seating, his radio station and a private zoo featuring miniature deer and ostriches.

Present at the start were some of MK's 13 children, but none of his three wives. They greeted guests politely, with two of the young boys shaking and kissing the hand of each guest.

Dinner guests sat at a long table, dining sumptuously on lamb skewers, meatballs, rice and salad.

The evening ended on a slightly sour note, with Brigadier Kidd conveying the bad news that the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul won't agree to MK's proposal for an initial police training centre in Tarin Kowt.

It's insisting that all initial police training be conducted in Kandahar with a standardised curriculum, starting next month. There will be further meetings to finalise details.

Source AAP

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