The South Asia Channel

The Contractor


This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Name: Shoaib Sultan

Age: 33

Ethnicity: Tajik

Province: Panjshir

On the rooftop of a five-story building, I met Shoaib Sultan, a young businessman. He is friendly and youthful, but without the elegance of a typical business tycoon. When he steps out of his black luxury Lexus SUV, someone might think he is a bodyguard, not the boss of the crew. Now in his 30s, Sultan runs a multimillion-dollar business with investments in security, petroleum, tourism, transportation, and property. The father of two children and a student at the American University of Afghanistan, he is rarely settled down in the country, often roving around for corporate work. (He takes short summer classes to complete his degree requirements.)

Yet he is also firm, abhorring the Taliban as much as a typical Panjshiri. For instance, when I asked him if he was happy with President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, he replied: "If so, then what is the difference between me and the Taliban?" -- the implication being that if he rejected the pact, he would be the same as the militant fighters who are trying to sabotage the agreement.

A difference I noted between Sultan (and maybe many of his class) and ordinary Afghans is that he is concerned about security -- the BSA, peace talks with the Taliban, and U.S.-Afghan relations -- while ordinary people are worried about something different. They are more concerned about a staggering economy, a lack of employment, the rise of commodity prices, and issues related to their basic survival, all of which will be hugely affected by the international withdrawal. The difference might be because business elites and political power holders always have a chance to flee while common Afghans don't.

The following are the words of Shoaib Sultan, as told to and translated by Moh. Sayed Madadi.

In 1982, as they called the "cease-fire year," when the mujahideen and communists paused fighting, our family left Panjshir for Kabul and later moved to Pakistan. I went to school until fifth grade and when the mujahideen took over Kabul -- which was a long-held wish of ours -- in 1992, we returned. But things weren't so smooth. Only 10 days before I was to finish high school, the Taliban conquered Kabul and I joined the resistance (the anti-Taliban front). Later, I started working with the U.N. Habitat [Human Settlements Programme] until 9/11 happened.

Due to the instability, the U.N. closed its offices in Afghanistan, paying us a month's salary in advance, and I went back to Pakistan. In Pakistan, I was introduced to some foreign journalists who knew the situation would turn dramatically different in Afghanistan. So I joined them to enter Afghanistan through the Chitral Mountains. It was the time that Amer Saheb [Ahmad Shah Massoud] was killed. The team covered the emerging conflict in the country and we were present in the closest distance from the battlefield between the American bombers and Taliban sanctuaries.

I worked with several international media organizations, including the National Post, Der Spiegel, the Sunday Times, and many others. In those early days and months, the primary question was whether Afghans wanted direct American involvement or just assistance to Afghan forces like the Northern Alliance. And many, including myself, told them that we wanted support instead of direct boots on the ground. Massoud used to say that if there is any help, it should be channeled through them, otherwise there is no difference between a Soviet and an American invasion. But when Massoud was assassinated, there was a chaotic and uncontrollable situation. The Northern Alliance had no leadership in command, and against a brutal enemy like the Taliban, there was no choice but to compromise.

Thirteen years ago, when the United States came, with the alliance of the mujahideen, they toppled the Taliban and brought peace and security, especially during the first two or three years. Though the situation changed for the worst, still there were opportunities for people to work without fear. The international presence proved to be good: Living conditions improved, a broken army was revived, a new police force was founded, and ministries that had no furniture found the money and staff to function.

Along with [U.S.] troops came a large convoy of businesses that could provide opportunities for wider economic activity in Afghanistan. I was a contractor of a security company named The Global for several years. In 2006, I thought, this is not a hard business; an Afghan can also run it. That was when I founded my own security company, which is now a group of companies investing in property in Ukraine, a hotel in Dubai, tourism in Tajikistan, petroleum in Afghanistan, and, for sure, primarily security. I owe this whole thing to a large extent to the opportunities foreigners brought here; I have been a contractor for their embassies, military bases, and compounds.

The United States has a pivotal role to play in the security of Afghanistan and that is why I think their full withdrawal can cause anarchy in the country. Yes, our security forces are strong, but they heavily rely on international money. I believe that if the United States draws down fully, the predicament would again be a civil war, where each party would be galvanized by an outside country. I accept that the army and police are strong, but I don't think they are sustainable. I believe it would be like the post-Soviet era when, after two years, the whole system collapsed. That is why, for me, the danger is not 2014, it is 2017 and 2018, when the resources to fight a war will be plummeting.

It is so frustrating that Karzai hasn't signed the pact. We Afghans are so resolute; once we say "No," there is no way to reverse. I think Karzai has said his "No" and he will not sign it. After all, he has to save some face. Over the years, every home in his tribal homeland [southern Afghanistan] has been raided and searched by Americans; there has been insecurity caused by those raids and he, as the president, had to subdue them. Now he wants to rebuild his reputation among his tribe and say, "I was not a stooge and I did not sign the pact." There might also be people around him who have advised him not to sign it in order to maintain a stronghold among his local power base. Otherwise, I think his family won't be able to go back to Kandahar or Uruzgan. He has to show some bravery, some patriotism.

But for me, this is against the interests of this nation, a nation that has called them [the Taliban] "enemy" -- an enemy that has targeted our elites, our educated ones, an enemy that even killed Karzai's brother. There is a Persian poem explaining Karzai's approach to the Taliban: "Pitying a wild tiger is injustice to sheep." At the end of his term, I think favoring our enemies is not a good thing to do; it is playing with the future of this nation.

Moh. Sayed Madadi is a Kabul-based Afghan civil activist working on democratic governance and human rights. He is a member of the Afghan Coalition for Transparency and Accountability, a civil society group advocating for good governance, and the co-founder of the Youth Empowerment Organization, which focuses on youth engagement in local governance.

Moh. Sayed Madadi / Author Photo