The assassin’s bullet shattered the window and pierced the neck of Gulam Jan, a village elder, as he sat listening to the radio in his living room.
On hearing the shot ring out, his wife rushed into the harshly lit room. She found her 47-year-old husband, who had just returned from evening prayers at the local mosque, slumped against the wall with blood spurting from his wound.
She screamed, and through the broken pane she caught a glimpse of her husband’s assassin as he fled into barren fields and disappeared into the night.
“When I saw his body, I wept,” said a relative, who was too scared to be identified. “I cannot express the grief I feel. He helped build schools and wells for the people in our villages.”
Police have yet to catch the killer responsible for Jan’s murder last Monday in the Shahbuddin district of Baghlan province, in northeast Afghanistan.
The province is separated from Kabul by soaring mountain peaks. The drive there took us seven hours: a heavy snowfall had triggered a series of mini avalanches that blocked the high passes and the Soviet-built tunnels that link the capital with the north.
Baghlan nestles among the windswept foothills of the Hindu Kush, whose mountains ring the ramshackle provincial capital, Pul-e-Kumri. Since Nato opened up a northern supply route from Central Asia, the province has become a strategic target for the Taliban.
In Pul-e-Kumri, intelligence agents, police officers, government officials, family members and villagers all said they knew exactly who had killed Jan.
Yet the man they accuse of ordering the murder — Noor ul-Haq — is one of Nato’s newest allies in the Afghan war. As such, he appears to be virtually untouchable.
“I’ve already been told by Haq’s men that if I talk to anyone about Jan’s murder, I too will be killed,” said the relative.
Last August, American special forces began to train and fund Haq’s ragtag band of 70 militiamen as part of Nato’s latest and most ambitious plan to foster grassroots resistance to the Taliban.
The militiamen, who are known as the Afghan Local Police (ALP), are given guns, ammunition, a khaki uniform and a monthly wage of £80, which is about £21 less than a police recruit earns.
General David Petraeus, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, is convinced the ALP have the potential to crush the insurgency. He believes they will keep the Taliban at bay in rural areas where the regular army and police are spread thin.
The experiment is loosely based on his strategy in Iraq, known as the “Sunni awakening”, which is credited with having persuaded Al-Qaeda fighters to turn against their former comrades and drive them from their safe havens. But human rights groups and aid agencies say Petraeus’s plan to arm villagers with assault rifles is reckless. They warn that empowering militia commanders will fuel the same bitter fighting that devastated Afghanistan during the civil war of the 1990s.
In Baghlan the ALP have already begun to prey on the local population. Police officers and senior government officials accuse Haq and his band of hashish-smoking militiamen of robbing, taxing and kidnapping locals.
They say he is also behind a string of recent murders, including that of Jan, the village elder.
“Instead of stabilising the area, Noor ul Haq and his men have destabilised Shahbuddin,” said Mohammad Rasoul Mohseni, the head of Baghlan’s provincial council. “They are beyond the law. They kidnap or murder anyone they see as a threat to their new power.”
Haq’s penchant for brutality emerged a month ago. Gunmen under the command of his brother arrested Gharib Shah, 26, as he walked to work at a building site in the village of Akakhel. They dragged the carpenter to the home of one of Haq’s sub-commanders, Abdul Rahman, and locked him in a room.
Shah telephoned his brother, who sent a delegation of village elders to Rahman’s home to beg for his release. But the militia commander refused, insisting he was acting on the orders of American special forces.
Soon after the delegation visited, Shah’s phone went dead. The family received an anonymous demand that Shah’s captors would kill him unless they received $10,000 (£6,100) and two pistols.
“How could we pay that?” said Shah’s father, Ahmad, 64. “We can hardly afford food.” He never heard from his son again. Five days later, villagers found Shah’s bruised body washed up on a river bank.
“The people who found his body said that it looked like he was beaten and tortured to death,” said Shah’s brother, Mohammad. “People are terrified of Haq and his men. Many say they will leave their homes if he isn’t stopped.”
I met Haq at the home of a former Taliban commander in the centre of Pul-e-Kumri. When he entered, the elders from his tribe stood and bowed, shaking his hand warmly before waiting for him to take a seat on the red cushions that lined the edges of the room.
A short, wiry man with a neatly trimmed black beard, Haq dismissed the allegations against him. He claimed security in the district had improved since the inception of his militia.
His supporters, most of whom hail from the same tribe, nodded their heads in solemn assent. But when he was asked about the murders of Jan, the elder, and Shah, the construction worker, Haq got up from his cushion and stormed out of the room.
Last March fighting broke out between the Taliban and Haq’s insurgent faction, Hezb-e-Islami — one of the largest anti-government groups in Afghanistan. Hezb-e-Islami claimed responsibility for the massacre of Dr Karen Woo, the British aid worker, and her nine colleagues last year. Routed by a stronger Taliban force, the surviving fighters surrendered to the government.
Believing they had finally been presented with a golden opportunity to divide the insurgency in Baghlan, US special forces operating from a base in Shahbuddin district turned the Hezb-e-Islami fighters into a militia force, handing back their weapons and setting them loose on the Taliban.
In September the Taliban launched a full-scale attack on the militia’s base, a small, fortified outpost on the edge of a mud village. Special forces soldiers failed to show up for the battle and a relief force of German troops was cut off when the Taliban blew up a bridge over the Ajmir canal.
The militia held the base for 48 hours before retreating into a nearby village in the face of overwhelming Taliban firepower.
Finally, American warplanes arrived. The militiamen were told to spread blankets on the roofs of the homes they occupied to avoid being killed by the bombs. But something went wrong and the explosives struck the militia’s hideouts, killing four men, including their commander.
Some of the militiamen joined the Taliban, but Haq fled with 10 other survivors to Pul-e-Kumri. The Americans retook the base and installed Haq as the militia’s new commander. Small special forces teams now operate alongside Haq and his militiamen, who guide the Americans to Taliban targets.
Intelligence officials and police chiefs have since received dozens of complaints about Haq and his band of former insurgents. Officials say he has been accused of more than 100 crimes, including beating residents and detaining people. Police officers sent to investigate say they often end up in armed standoffs with his men.
Petraeus insists that in all 17 of the areas across the country where the ALP operate, village elders have requested the militias. But in Baghlan elders interviewed by The Sunday Times said they had never been consulted.
“The main problem is that there is no vetting process for these people. Special forces never check these people with us,” said Mohseni. “Special forces support Haq because he fights the Taliban but the people don’t support him and this will be dangerous for them. Ultimately, it will be the people who suffer.”
Critics of Petraeus’s plan use Haq — a Pashtun in an area dominated by Tajiks — as an example of how empowering one tribe over another risks sparking fresh hostility.
“People are saying to me: either we will flee the area or we will have to stand up and fight him,” said an Afghan intelligence official. “What choice do they have?”
There have already been cases of militia groups fighting each other, the Afghan security forces and Nato troops.
In the northern province of Kunduz, one pro-government militia ambushed another earlier this year. A commander and two of his fighters were injured while two of their assailants were killed.
In Marjah district in Helmand province, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the head after a fight erupted between the police and a pro-government militia. Despite fears that the American-funded militia will undermine the government’s authority in the province, Helmand’s governor said the ministry of interior was considering whether or not to expand it. Critics of the Helmand militia said the Taliban had infiltrated their ranks.
Nonetheless, Petraeus wants to add a further 4,500 paid recruits to the current 3,100 by the time the “fighting season” begins in the spring.
“I have one message for the foreigners in our land who never read the history books,” said a relative of the murdered Jan. “You will bring further bloodshed to our areas if you continue to arm men you do not understand.”