Police officer Kalik Dad keeps watch along a southern Afghanistan road… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan — A shy boy with filthy hands and a shabby tunic approached the great man, bowed and tried to kiss his hand.
Gen. Matiullah Khan was seated like a sultan on a cushion in his hojra, his airy receiving room. He barely looked at the boy. He nodded to an aide, who withdrew a thick wad of Pakistani rupees from his pocket and handed it to Matiullah.
The most powerful man in Oruzgan province, a warlord and tribal leader turned police chief, glanced at the cash. Then Matiullah pressed the entire roll into the boy's hand.
"Nobody helps the people; it's up to me," Matiullah said as the boy withdrew.
Thousands of desperately poor Afghans in this remote province rely on Matiullah for charity and protection. And his presence here is equally important to the U.S. military, which views Oruzgan as a linchpin in southern Afghanistan. It relies on Matiullah to support a U.S. special forces team and to secure the crucial supply road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital.
Matiullah is America's go-to man in Oruzgan, a mountainous badlands that was a Taliban stronghold before Matiullah beat the insurgents back.
Not much happens in Oruzgan without Matiullah's blessing. He approves government appointments and directs government services. He says he has paid from his own pocket to build 75 mosques, two schools, a hospital and his own modern police headquarters.
Although he has been accused of corruption and drug-running — allegations he denies — Matiullah has made himself indispensable to U.S. interests. Like other Afghan strongmen supported or tolerated by American forces, he has the gunmen and the iron fist to hold off the Taliban, even at the cost of undermining the very government institutions the U.S. is trying to bolster.
Despite attempts to sideline warlords, men like Matiullah remain in power because the weak and corrupt central government has little authority, especially in remote areas, and U.S. forces need strong military allies where the Afghan army is unreliable. President Hamid Karzai formalized Matiullah's control over Oruzgan by naming him police chief in August 2011.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force says its convoys have suffered only three attacks on the Kandahar-Tarin Kowt supply road in the last two years. For the last decade, Matiullah's gunmen have secured the winding dirt road, earning the chief millions of dollars in fees from trucking companies that contract with ISAF to deliver supplies to Tarin Kowt.
He says he pays 1,200 gunmen to protect the convoys, in addition to his cops stationed at posts along the road — meaning he makes a profit from security provided in part by government-paid police.
ISAF spokesmen deflected questions about Matiullah's relationship with coalition forces, referring a reporter to the Afghan Interior Ministry, which directs the Afghan National Police. Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi denied that Matiullah was involved in the opium trade — a claim made by his political rivals — or that he maintained a private militia.
Matiullah is literally at the center of the coalition military presence here. A base for U.S. Special Operations Task Force Southeast is just 200 yards from his sprawling compound, which is powered by an enormous generator in a province with no electricity service. An Australian special operations base lies across a muddy field.
The chief's compound overlooks a busy military airport where Apache attack helicopters soar toward the mountains day and night to support Special Forces operations. His reception room is festooned with photos of him posing with U.S. Special Forces soldiers. There are framed certificates of appreciation from a series of Special Forces teams.
One, from a commander in April 2011, reads: "Your superior work ethic, professionalism, expertise and bravery are the epitome of the Special Forces motto: The Quiet Professionals."
U.S. special operations commanders declined to answer questions about Matiullah's role or allow interviews with the U.S. team here.
Matiullah said special operations teams visited his compound often, and that he supplied them with security and intelligence.
"They are my good friends," he said. "They don't know who are our friends in Oruzgan and who are our enemies. I know very well, so they rely on me."
Enemies from rival tribes have portrayed Matiullah as a warlord with his hands on the levers of graft. Matiullah dismisses the accusations with a wry smile. He considers himself a man of the people and his government rivals as thieves who steal salaries, weapons and equipment meant for his 3,160-man police force.
Elders in villages a three-hour drive from Tarin Kowt praise Matiullah for opening the only roadway from the capital and lining it with police checkpoints after years of Taliban assassinations and kidnappings. But they complain that security has not brought help from the central government in faraway Kabul.