STEVE INSKEEP, host: And let's talk next about Afghanistan, where Americans face questions about what kind of behavior they will tolerate from their Afghan allies. Journalist Matthieu Aikins has spent years reporting from southern Afghanistan.
And in the Atlantic he profiles a southern Afghan leader who works with the U.S. He's been extremely effective and led men into battle. And now Abdul Raziq is a top police official in Kandahar, the most important province. Aikins says the trouble is that he's also been accused of torturing, even massacring prisoners.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: He's a very much sort of rags to riches character who started as a small shopkeeper living in exile in Pakistan during the Taliban period and has ascended to the most dizzying heights of wealth and power and this warlord character, as a result of the dynamics that were unleashed after the U.S. invaded in 2001. So he became the head of this tribal militia that controlled a key border crossing between Kandahar and southern Afghanistan and Pakistan.
INSKEEP: So if you're the guy who has some gunmen who can control that area and extract a little bit of money from every truck driver going through, you can become a rich man.
AIKINS: You're sitting on a gold mine. And of course the other thing is that he oversaw the most dramatic expansion of the opium trade in history.
INSKEEP: So this guy's from southern Afghanistan. He was in exile for a while. He came back. He was along the border. He was a gunman. He rose in various organizations there. And where has he gone from that kind of border crime?
AIKINS: Well, now he's become the police chief of Kandahar province. He started off as sort of a small time smuggler. He's from a clan of smugglers that've long controlled the border. And after the fall of the Taliban, he became this important border police chief. And then last fall, the U.S. military put him at the front of their clearing operations west of Kandahar city to recall the surge. And there was this big operation in Kandahar, and Abdul Raziq was actually our partner. So his career kept rising and rising. And then in May, when the former police chief of Kandahar was assassinated, Raziq became the new police chief of Afghanistan's most important province, arguably.
INSKEEP: What did you first hear about him that made you think that he was perhaps more dangerous than other Afghan leaders?
AIKINS: Well, certainly this massacre that occurred in 2006, where he basically conspired with another man to abduct 16 people from Kabul, where they had sort of been on vacation, and then take them out into the desert and murder them there and leave their corpses there and claim that they had actually been Taliban infiltrating from across the border.
INSKEEP: You have just said that a U.S. ally was responsible for massacring 16 people, so I want to lay out the evidence that you have. You're publishing here in The Atlantic a photograph of the dead bodies from that massacre. And you point out that, at the time, Abdul Raziq made an announcement that he and his men had killed 16 Taliban fighters. So there's no doubt that his people killed someone, right?
AIKINS: There's no doubt that he was personally involved in an incident that killed these 16 people.
INSKEEP: What leads to questions about whether they were Taliban or not?
AIKINS: Rather unusually, there was actually a proper police investigation of the incident. So there was a European Union official who got wind of it, and he tipped off a higher up in the Afghan Ministry of Interior and basically triggered a chain of events that led to an investigative team from Kandahar city going out. And they took photographs and basically established conclusively that these men had been massacred.
INSKEEP: And it was also established that they didn't have connections to the Taliban.
AIKINS: They didn't have connections with the Taliban. They're essentially rivals.
INSKEEP: Have you had a chance to talk to Abdul Raziq?
AIKINS: I met him briefly in 2009, when I was living with his men in Spin Boldak.
INSKEEP: What was he like?
AIKINS: Shockingly young. He was 31 when I met him, and he had this sort of boyish look to him that didn't seem characteristic at all of a fire-breathing warlord.
INSKEEP: A sensitive thing to do while you're living with a bunch of gunmen on the Afghan border as a reporter, but did you ask him about the allegations that he had massacred people?
AIKINS: No. I mean, it would have been really foolish of me to do that. We did contact Abdul Raziq eventually, and he just categorically denied it, basically, and stuck to his original story, that they had been Taliban.
INSKEEP: Do you find any grounds to think that maybe he himself believes that he is only torturing or killing the bad guys?
AIKINS: He has grown up in a moral universe where torture and brutality has been commonplace. And so for someone like Abdul Raziq, I could see very easily how he might justify it.
INSKEEP: Matthieu Aikins is the author of an article in The Atlantic called "Our Man in Kandahar." Thanks very much.
AIKINS: My pleasure, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt of the article at npr.org. Now, we contacted the NATO forces in Afghanistan about Abdul Raziq. A military spokesman did not comment on him, specifically referring questions to the Afghan government. But the spokesman says NATO concerns itself with the humane treatment of detainees, which is why NATO is no longer transferring detainees to jails where Afghans are suspected of violating the law. This is NPR News.