Welcome to my Kabul-based crime blog. I will post analyses of real life crimes that highlight the connections between crime and politics in Afghanistan. I will also link to articles that shine a light on the dark side of life in the Afghan capital.

In addition to this I will also review both contemporary and vintage crime fiction mostly revolving around random books I am able to buy or find. As ever I welcome your comments and analysis.

DTK Molise.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Suspicious Activity - Reconnaissance for Future Attacks?

KABUL CITY, October 2010.  Two men were observed acting in a suspicious manner in an area surrounding a supermarket and restaurant popular with internationals and wealthy Kabulis in Wazir Akbar Khan.  The two men appeared to be conducting reconnaissance of the area around the two businesses, though the behaviour and dress of the two men made them stand out.  The men were seen exiting the supermarket with a bag of meat at 1220.  From there, the men walked to a Toyota Corolla and deposited the meat in the vehicle.  The men then spent approximately 20 minutes walking around the immediate area, in a manner that suggested they were mapping the side streets.  At 1240, the men entered the restaurant, though they were not seen to place an order for food.  At 1300, the men returned to the Toyota.  One of the men took the bag of meat and handed it to a female Afghan and then the men left the area in an unknown direction.  

In a separate incident two men were observed acting suspiciously in the area of a popular international hotel in the central Shar-E-Now district.  A blue Toyota Corolla with a driver and one passenger pulled into traffic behind a Private Security Company (PSC) Toyota Land Cruiser.  The passenger in the Corolla immediately pointed a video camera towards the Land Cruiser and appeared to be filming the vehicle.  The passenger put his video camera away when he realised that he had been seen by the PSC personnel in the Land Cruiser.  The driver of the blue Corolla took the next available turning in an apparent attempt to get away from the PSC vehicle.   It is likely that the men were conducting a form of crude surveillance against the PSC vehicle, possibly attempting to identify the way PSC personnel operate in the city.

According to international analysts these activities are to be regarded as being particularly suspicious given the recent increase in reporting regarding insurgents intent to carry out a VBIED or SVEST attacks in Kabul City Centre.  During October there has been an increased amount of suspicious activity reported, particularly in areas heavily frequented by foreigners.   

Monday, 8 November 2010

Afghan Book Review on Pulp Curry

Andrew Nette, an Australian crime writer, who blogs at the excellent Pulp Curry website asked me to review a couple of crime fiction books set in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately I couldn't seem to find any that were suitable so instead I ended up reviewing two Afghan-set action thrillers: A Hostile Place by John Fullerton and The Network by Jason Elliot.  

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Beginnings of Progress, Chinese Style?

The Western media is notoriously focused on highlighting death and destruction in Afghanistan.  Whether it is reporting the latest military casualty figures or the latest suicide attack in an urban area violence, murder and terrorism is never far from the surface.  One area that gets very little focus is the role of China, that great, silent power, in a region that they border.

It would seem that China have very little involvement in the wars of the Western Democracies but if you scratch the surface there they are...involved, working, silently building their connections through trade, business deals, and most crucially infrastructure development. China does not tend to do diplomacy through the media and moral pronouncements.  This has been noted before with regards to its continued involvement in pariah states like Sudan.  However the same is true of their involvement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Silently the Chinese go about their business, courting favour with the leaders of Af-Pak.  Islamabad is full of Chinese restaurants where beer is freely sold, something similar is also happening in Kabul.  In the northern areas of Pakistan, around Gilgit, Chinese engineers wander around fixing and maintaining the wondrous Karakoram Highway.
Recently we have seen another example of this growing influence in Afghanistan.  On the 22nd of September The GIRoA and China Metallurgical Corporation Group formally signed an agreement to construct a railway corridor in Afghanistan.   The corridor will extend from Aynak Copper Mine in Lowgar Province to the eastern Torkham border town in Nangarhar and Hairatan border town in the northern Balkh Province.  A specialised company will conduct an extensive survey and study process, which is expected to take upwards of two years, prior to the commencement of any construction.

So whilst the USA and UK continue to fight insurgents, and carry out pointless impact assessments for crop irrigation and the like, the Chinese are going about building transportation links to the central areas of Afghanistan that are known to contain numerous minerals and metals.  It is debatable whether this project will go ahead due to the increasing insurgency in the areas that this survey will take place but you have to give the Chinese credit...they certainly know how to the play the game of currying favour with their strategic neighbours.  

Monday, 6 September 2010

Gangster Capitalism: The Unfortunate Reality of Kabul Bank

Afghanistan has once again been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The whole system of banking, regulation and financial gangsterism in the country has been put in the spotlight leading to a widespread run on the bank by thousands of worried customers who have been removing their money on a daily basis.

It appears that this crisis has its root in stories printed by the Wall Street Journal where accusations were made that Kabul Bank, Afghanistan’s largest commercial bank was running on fumes due a number of high-level financial gambles, off-book loans, nepotism and involvement in politics. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703467004575464061940925000.html).

This Bank Will Not Fail

So far these have been the words on the lips of all those in support of Kabul Bank. The central government and central bank have all promised that on the one hand Kabul Bank still has access to significant capital and is not in crisis and on the other hand promised that The Central Bank of Afghanistan will guarantee all deposits. The main problem with all of these pronouncements is that nobody believes a word the government says.

In a functioning political system the government would allay the fears of customers and people would generally believe them. In Afghanistan the opposite is true. Every day Afghan national news is reporting to people that Kabul Bank is sound, is supported by the state and has no problems. Every day more and more people are failing to believe a word that is said. This is not just a financial crisis but a political one too.

Too Corrupt To Fail*

Owned by its previous Chairman Sherkhan Farnood (28%) and CEO Khalilullah Ferozi (28%) Kabul Bank has been at the epicentre of capitalist development in Afghanistan and has grown to have assets of over one billion US Dollars.** However this money has been seen as the play-stuff of executives. According to the WSJ nearly 200 million US Dollars was invested in the Palm Jumeira development in Dubai a year or so before the world financial crash. These same apartments have now lost at least 50% of their value.

These apartments are now in the hands of family members of senior executives and political allies, which hardly seems an appropriate use of commercial bank deposits. In fact these are the tactics of gangsters who feel no connection to their clients and believe they have some god given right to use funds as they see fit. And of course as long as they scratched the right backs (such as funding Karzai’s re-election campaign) they can be sure that no one will speak out against them. Of course even in a country as corrupt as Afghanistan the truth will always out.

Many large companies deposit their cash with the Bank, payments to staff are made through the bank and even the government pays the salaries of ANA and ANP members through its system yet there appears to have been little or no regulation on how executives use the money entrusted to them. Armoured Land Cruisers for flashy relatives of high-level executives, blocks of flats in Dubai given to connected people. This has been the reality of Kabul Bank.

It remains to be seen if Kabul Bank will ever recover from this huge crisis. The Chairman and CEO have been fired but this has caused panic and the questions of whether the Afghan Central Bank is independent enough to force through major changes is still open to doubt. If it is to survive its working practices will need to be changed dramatically and even then building restored confidence with its customers will take months, if not years, of prudent development.

If Kabul Bank is allowed to collapse it is clear to me that Kabul, perhaps the only major success story that NATO can point to, will be hit by major riots and civil unrest. Kabul may well burn like the rest of the country. Whilst propping up a bank riven with debt, corruption and illegal practices will not help to develop Afghanistan’s burgeoning economy, and it may even be country productive due to the fact that it signals further impunity to corrupt officials, I believe it is the only option for a city that is only one crisis away from major strife.

The Afghan Way

France24 write that “for years Sherkhan Farnood insisted he was doing business the Afghan way”. According to my understanding I think he might be right – nepotism, grand gestures, explicit flaunting of wealth, and constant failure to tell the truth are a hallmark of “the Afghan way” in Karzai’s brave new Kabul. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the correct way to run a functioning commercial bank. 

As usual it is the man and woman in the street who will suffer due to the crimes of others.  What makes this crisis so depressing is that Kabul Bank is clearly not the only bank that operates in the same way.  I do not think it would be out of place to speculate that all Afghan banks are currently running their operations in a similar way to Kabul Bank.  So rather than this being a sign of corruption being condemned it can be seen as the sign of power shifting to other banks and finanical institutions.     

*The phrase used for this section is borrowed from Amy Davidson of the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2010/09/too-corrupt-to-fail.html#ixzz0ySI6LOA7)

** The Washington Post have put together an interesting graphic highlighting the cronyism at the heart of Kabul Bank. See it here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2010/08/31/GR2010083106533.html. 

Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy: A Review

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them.
So begins James Ellroy’s wonderfully twisted reworking of the infamous 1940’s murder case of Elizabeth Short, dubbed The Black Dahlia by the LA gutter press due to her penchant for wearing short black dresses. Ellroy’s novel of the same name was first published in 1987 to widespread acclaim and is the accepted first book in the loosely connected “LA Quartet”.

Bucky Bleichert is our narrator, our man on the inside, our guide to the increasing psychosexual-tinged criminal investigation that takes place through the books 383 pages. An ex light-heavy boxer with protruding teeth once ranked in the national top 10 by Ring magazine Bucky ends up working alongside Lee Blanchard, another ex boxer of altogether more powerful dimensions, before they eventually become partners in the Warrants section of the LAPD.

Blanchard and Bleichert or Fire and Ice, as they come be known throughout the force after an epic LAPD boxing match, end up being detailed to the Black Dahlia case where they both, in their separate ways, end up becoming obsessed not only with the case but with the Dahlia herself. Blanchard has issues revolving around the disappearance of his sister, which in some ways must match those felt by Ellroy himself about his murdered mother, whereas Bleichert gets slowly dragged into a deranged sexual obsession that leads to a hotel room and a hooker.

Los Angeles in all its post war, smog-bound, hazy neon glory is fully realized throughout The Black Dahlia with all its power to seduce and frighten its inhabitants. The period detail is wonderfully recreated with the language used by Ellroy both jazz-flecked in its sound, street smart in its apparent authenticity, and filled with descriptions of activities dripping with depravity.
The bar was a urinal trough. Marines and sailors masturbated into it while they gash dived the nudie girls squatting on top.
The book is not without flaws however. The plot is interesting but the way the ends are drawn together at the books conclusions seems forced and generic. It appears that the crime fiction genre was still very much within Ellroy’s particular mindset whilst writing the novel and he perhaps relies slightly too much on the genres expectations . The language, whilst described above as excellent, is not as fluent and avant-garde as is often suggested about Ellroy, which prevents this book from fully realizing his clear talents.

Having now read the first 50 pages of The Big Nowhere, his second book in the LA Quartet, it is clear that The Black Dahlia is an important developmental work.  Here is where Ellroy starts his transition away from the traditional crime fiction novels of his early days towards his potentially more important later LA Quartet novels The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz and his “big political books” as he terms his latest Underworld USA trilogy.

The Black Dahlia is an excellent crime fiction novel that is darker and deeper than most similar works, yet in this book Ellroy is still fully ensconced in the restrictions of the genre and this book doesn’t quite break free of those in the way I had first hoped. Whilst flawed, this bookcertainly begins to establish Ellroy's credentials as the only true demon dog of American crime writing.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Night Letters

Nangarhar - 03 Jul 2010 - BATI KOWT District: On the night of 3-4 Jul 2010, Anti-Government Insurgents posted 'night letters'* ordering local civilians to stop working with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Goverment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). 

The letters contained an ultimatum, stating that the local community had seven days to cease their co-operation with the government and security forces otherwise they would face “strong consequences”.  So continues the daily reality of intimidation and violence for people living in the countryside of Afghanistan. 

Life simply does not continue for those trying to live a life outside of politics.  Violence and crime litter the landscape like dust or flies.  Until these political problems are solved people will continue to live under the threat of mafia-style tactics like 'night letters' - a suitably shady, if obfuscatory, term for what in other countries would be called outright threats.

*'Night letters' are an unsigned leaflet distributed clandestinely that explain and threaten political opponents. These letters have been a political tactic of insurgencies and underground movements for many years and have been taken up by the Taliban to threaten those who are seen to work with the government and their allies.  Declan Welsh, of the Guardian, wrote an article about these letters in 2004: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/sep/19/afghanistan.declanwalsh

Monday, 5 July 2010

On the Loose, On the Streets, and Out for Blood: Point Blank by Richard Stark

Parker is the quintessential hard man of American fiction. There are men. Then there are men. And then there is Parker. A loner, a streetwise criminal intellectual with a burning desire to see his own form of justice wherever he deems necessary. Parker is hard, tough, and indefatigable.  Expect cold-hearted murder, tough justice, and a stack of freshly killed bodies. 

In this novel (originally titled The Hunter) Parker is double-crossed by his wife and partner in crime and left for dead in a burning building. This cannot, and will not, stand.  Parker proceeds to take us on a journey through which he will receive what is rightfully his regardless of the consequences.  Sit back and enjoy the ride as Parker makes up for these terrible crimes against him - Mafia or no Mafia.

Point Blank is a truly original take on the heist and thriller genres and deserves its plaudits. Try to savour the words and not rush it as the book is only 190 pages long.  Luckily for us there are 12 more Parker novels for us to enjoy.   I would, however, like to leave the last word on the book to the writer Elmore Leonard who clearly and unequivocally states: "Whatever Stark writes, I read".  Get out there and buy it, or borrow it.  Better yet steal it from the hands of your unjust assailant as he realises he crossed the wrong man...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Kabul City, 24-25 JUN 10.  It has been reported by the national police that insurgents stopped a vehicle carrying local civilians travelling along a busy road in the late afternoon of 24 Jun.  The men were then abducted.  The police service who were searching for the men found eleven beheaded bodies in a ditch close to a back lane in the countryside.  

The local Chief of Police has speculated that although these men had no link to the government or national security services, they may have been accused by insurgents of being spies as an intimidation measure against locals, due to the recent loss of a well known local insurgent commander in an ISAF raid.   

According to the latest information it has been indicated that all the murdered individuals were Hazaras and all came from a local village. According to prevailing understanding the insurgents in Afghanistan are invariably Pastun and generally hold the Hazaras in contempt.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Arrest Operation

Kabul City, April 19th 2010.  An Afghan Government statement released today indicated that nine men (including three Pakistani nationals) have been arrested in two separate locations of the capital.  One of the locations was said to be a Madrassa (religious school), the other, a nondescript family apartment in the restive eastern part of the city.

All nine men, including two teenagers and a man in his fifties, were charged with “intending to conduct terrorist acts” thought to be suicide attempts.  According to police a large quantity of arms and explosives including eight assault rifles, eight grenades, two RPG launchers, and 200 kilograms of explosives were recovered from the two locations and have now been taken into official custody.

Once again we see that crime and politics are inextricably linked in the Afghan capital.  Whilst arrests like this happen on at least a weekly basis none of the obvious questions ever seem to be answered.  
  1. Where are these guns and explosives coming from?  
  2. Are Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency behind the supplies to the insurgents?   
  3. Perhaps they are provided by sympathetic Afghan’s who have a stash of weapons?  
  4. Or maybe the insurgents are purchasing guns via the trade of drugs that filters through the Russian Mafia?

As with everything in this country being an observer of Afghan crime often leaves more questions than answers.      

Never Trust a Man in Uniform

In the UK we are told from a young age that a man in a uniform is someone to instinctively trust.  They are someone to go to if you find yourself in trouble, or lost, or without hope.  The situation in Kabul cannot be more different.  This teeming, bustling city of at least 5 million is home to thousands of Afghan National Police (ANP), Afghan National Army (ANA) and countless NATO troops.

Overall, it should be said, the ANA and ANP are doing a sterling job in what are very difficult circumstances.  How many cops in the West would be willing to be on the front line, on a daily basis, in stopping not just criminal activity but also anti-government terrorists?  Fair do’s to the guys out there trying their best to uphold law and order but this country must be one of the world's most dangerous places to fight crime.     

As the US has pulled back from day to day management of the city Kabul is now managed by ANP and ANA patrols and roadblocks that litter the city.  Distinguishing between these two groups is the first challenge for the uninitiated as the ANP have been created as a form of quasi-military force: “Bobbies on the Beat” they ain’t.

The most challenging and problematic element, however, is the use of uniforms (both ANA and ANP) by criminals and anti-government insurgents.  Over the last year or so a number of terrorist activities have been carried out by men dressed in stolen or illegally acquired uniforms.  

In one famous event, at a UN guest house, all four suicide attackers were dressed in this official garb.  When an attacker jumped on the back wall to attack the foreigners that were hiding the only armed civilian told me that he had to withhold his fire until the attacker pointed his gun directly at them and he was sure he was definitely not an officer.  You do not want to be shooting an official of the state unless you want to spend time in Kabul jail.

Only last week an insurgent dressed in an ANA uniform approached a NATO team parked at Kabul International Airport and initiated a Body-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (or BBIED as the acronym so vaguely puts it) that killed one and wounded six.  Once again this activity highlights the fact that ANA and ANP uniforms are readily available for a fee and that when that man comes walking to you looking officious your trust should be far from absolute.   

Poison, Misogyny and Politics

On April 20th 2010 in the potholed outskirts of the Shina Bagrami area, eastern Kabul City, seven female school students, along with one teacher, from the local girls’ high school were taken to the Indira Gandhi Hospital after falling sick and losing consciousness.

After discussing with teachers who stated that the air did not seem “quite right” school authorities have undertaken an investigation into this unsettling event.  The school has since concluded that some form of poisonous powder had been sprayed into the air of the classrooms at the school, which had in turn been inhaled by the unsuspecting students. 

An official British analyst who reports on daily events in the country has stated that “Although not proven, this sort of misogynist incident does unfortunately ring true”. So goes another criminal event in the Afghan capital.  Not many countries have crime and criminals that are so indelibly rooted to the politics of the state but in Afghanistan this is par for the course.  

The actions of criminals are often inherently connected to those of the anti-government insurgency yet the victims remain patently similar to those in Western states: vulnerable, weak and effectively defenseless.  In Kabul poisoning, misogyny and politics unfortunately go hand in hand.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Triptych by Karin Slaughter: A Review

For my first post I have decided to start with a review of a "found" book.  Due to the nature of my life I am currently not able to pick up much decent English language fiction in Kabul, let alone crime fiction, and at the moment I have to make do with what I can somehow acquire.

I found "Triptych" by Karin Slaughter on the bookshelf of a nice little cafe in the dusty backstreets of Kabul. If I am honest I wouldn't have picked this book up unless it was free because I see myself as more of an Ellroy, Peace or Pelecanos man and thought that Triptych would perhaps be a little commercial for my tastes. I think I was probably right in my initial thoughts and as a result I would seriously consider whether I would read another of Slaughter's books.

First, in order to be fair, it is worth exploring some of the books good points. The writing style is pretty lucid and reads at a good pace which means that as a reader you do not suffer from boredom. The first section of the book has an interesting plot with some pretty decent development of a good, yet flawed, Atalanta PD detective. The second section of the book, whilst putting the reader out of kilter by focusing on a totally separate story and characters, is also interestingly done with some quasi-psychological insights into the mind of a killer.

Whilst this is not a one star book Triptych is still deeply flawed. The third part of the story just does not piece together in any way. Slaughter tries to bring the two previous sections together but resorts to using cheap ways to link characters. The decision to have three separate sections meant that none of the main characters were developed in any meaningful way. It is hard to care about any of the main, or peripheral, characters and the insights into their motivations are very weak and yet because of the way the plot twists all of your insights turnout to be meaningless anyway.

One of the biggest failures of this book is in relation to its setting of Atlanta. I do not know much about Atlanta and after reading nearly 500 pages of a book set there I am none the wiser. Slaughter claims in her authors note that she "tried to capture the flavor of my city". On this she resolutely failed. If you compare her depiction of Atalanta with that of Boston by Dennis Lehane or DC by George Pelecanos you can really see the flaws in her judgment. However the biggest problem with this book is the ending...it does not make any sense with the killer suddenly dropping his years of careful planning for no apparent reason. A suspension of disbelief is possible but this plot takes the biscuit.

It is clear that, to a degree, Slaughter had a good idea but the delivery on that idea just did not live up to expectations. When I finished the book I just felt like she had given up. The denouement is so unbelievable that it just beggars belief and leaves a sour taste due to the fact that she appeared to have such little respect for her readers.