Kabul: The man chosen to be the fresh face of good Afghan governance in a town just seized from the Taliban has a violent criminal record in Germany, but Western officials said on Saturday they are not pushing to oust him.
Court records and news reports in Germany show that Abdul Zahir, the man appointed as the new civilian chief in Marjah, served part of a more than four-year prison sentence for stabbing his son in 1998. A US official confirmed that he did serve time in Germany, though Zahir denies he committed any crime.
"I was not a killer. I was not a smuggler. ... I didn't commit any crime," Zahir said in a telephone interview on Friday evening. He said allegations of a criminal record were "all a lie”.
Zahir's integrity is an issue because his job is to convince residents of the town in Helmand province that the Afghan government can provide them with a better life than the Taliban, which were routed during a three-week offensive by thousands of US, NATO and Afghan troops. Marjah is the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse the Taliban's momentum.
Adm Gregory Smith, director of communications for NATO, said the international alliance strongly supports Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, who picked Zahir for the job. "Zahir, from our reporting, is doing good work down there," Smith said on Saturday, adding that NATO is not pushing Afghan officials to oust him.
Zahir said he lived in Germany for 15 years before returning to Afghanistan in 2000. During his time in Germany, he said he worked in a hotel and at a laundry service. He said he took the job as civilian chief in Marjah because "I love my country and my country needed me. My relatives, my tribe were here."
Zahir said his adversaries in Afghanistan were trying to tarnish his reputation.
"This news is coming from those people who are against me," he said. "They are against my relations with the foreigners. They want to sabotage me. They don't want such a person to serve the people, who has good relations with Americans, British, and foreigners."
In an interview last week, Mangal, the Governor of Helmand, said he wasn't aware of anything illegal in Zahir's background.
"He is not being appointed forever, but he will be here for some time," he said.
Mangal said that a request was made of Interpol to check whether the new Marjah district governor had any outstanding warrants or was being sought. He said Interpol said he was not on any watch list or wanted for any crime.
Zahir has been tasked with bringing good governance to Marjah and ensuring that the new police in the area are symbolic of a new breed of Afghan policeman that is honest and committed to bringing security to the country.
"In Marjah we have a new strategy," Mangal said. "If we don't bring security and development and if we don't solve their problems, then they will think the Taliban is better than us."
If Zahir isn't up to the task, Mangal said, "We will dismiss him. If he doesn't have the ability, if he doesn't bring law and order and security, then we will dismiss him."
In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omar said he wasn't familiar with Zahir but that Marjah's residents will support the government if it brings security and an administration free of corruption.
Omar warned that poor governance could drive residents back to the Taliban.
Court and news accounts from the late 1990s provide details of Zahir's past.
First Published: Saturday, March 06, 2010, 15:32