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Our Man in Marja
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- The newly appointed top official in Marja, Abdul Zahir Aryan, is the Afghan face of the American-led military offensive. As the lone government representative in this town, he stands at the center of the next phase of the battle: the fight to build an Afghan government that is more attractive than Taliban rule.
But Zahir, who goes by Haji Zahir, arrived at this position after a tumultuous personal history that American and Afghan officials have not publicly disclosed. During more than a decade living in Germany, Zahir, 60, served four years in prison for attempted murder after stabbing his stepson, according to U.S. officials.
Three top U.S. officials in Afghanistan and one senior administration official in Washington confirmed his German conviction, though none would speak on the record. They did not say if the Afghan or U.S. government had known of his criminal conviction before Afghan officials appointed him to his post.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan said Zahir's criminal conviction did not undermine their confidence in his ability to govern.
"He served his time, so I suspect he will survive this," a U.S. military official said, adding though that the U.S. government had expressed concern to the Afghan government about this issue.
His criminal record casts a different light on Zahir than the one American officials have chosen to emphasize: that of a respected elder from the Alozai tribe, a landowner who lived in Marja in his youth and who hopes to re-create those peaceful days in areas recently wrested from Taliban control. U.S. Marines and civilian advisers in Marja have given him money and protection in an attempt to persuade a wary population to follow him.
"We want to ensure that Haji Zahir's face is on everything we do," said one official who works with him in Marja.
In interviews this week in Marja, Zahir spoke about the years he spent in exile living outside Frankfurt, sometimes unemployed, sometimes working in laundries and hotels. He chatted in German at length with a U.S. Marine who spoke the language.
He could not be reached subsequently to discuss his time in prison. But the details of his case as described by U.S. officials in Afghanistan correspond to that of an Afghan man who went by Abdul Zahar while in Germany.
The account of Zahar's life and trial in Germany, as related in newspaper articles and confirmed by German officials this week, including his defense attorney, Manfred Doering, described a man with a volatile family life and a willingness to flee from justice. He arrived in Germany in 1989 after working as a Ministry of Defense driver in Afghanistan. He settled in Rodgau with at least two wives and 13 children -- including twin 18-year-old stepsons.
On Dec. 15, 1997, after beating his wife and being taken to task by his stepson for it, Zahar went to the home of a stepdaughter and stabbed the stepson in the chest and an arm, wounds that required hospitalization...
No doubt he'll survive this, but what does it say about us? The entire Afghanistan mission has become completely untenable.