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.
"When the Taliban were here, the government said they couldn't give us schools and clinics because there was no security," said Abdul Manan, a leader in the village of Marabat. "Now we have security, but where is the government?"
Matiullah rose from outwardly humble origins. A farmer's son, he never attended school. He is illiterate; his police officers read aloud from official papers before the chief signs them. He writes his name laboriously on each document.
A decade ago, Matiullah was a lowly highway cop. He has since built a power base through guile and savvy, and via his hereditary role as a leader of the powerful Popalzai tribe. Matiullah said he protected Karzai, a fellow Popalzai, when Karzai took refuge in Oruzgan as the U.S.-led invasion was toppling the Taliban regime in 2001.
Matiullah then commanded a mountain militia that waged a guerrilla war against the Taliban in Oruzgan, the birthplace and former power base of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
"During the Taliban time, the people trusted Mullah Omar. Now they trust Matiullah Khan," said police Lt. Col. Abdullah Sultani, the chief's liaison to the Interior Ministry.
Matiullah is close to Karzai, who presides over a kleptocracy in which his cronies have access to graft and sweetheart contracts. The chief was also close to Karzai's half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the political boss of Kandahar who was assassinated in July 2011 and had been described by U.S. officials and others as flagrantly corrupt.
Now Matiullah lives in a mansion on a compound that includes a radio station, swimming pool, rose garden, guest quarters and mosque. Many of his radio station employees double as police officers.
He travels in a fleet of Humvees painted green, protected by a phalanx of cops and gunmen. He says the Taliban, under orders from Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's intelligence agency, has tried to assassinate him at least six times. He claims the Pakistani agency directs and controls the Afghan Taliban.
Matiullah looks nothing like the aging, paunchy warlords the U.S. relies on elsewhere in Afghanistan. At 38, he is slender and physically fit, with a trimmed beard and thinning black hair combed into a widow's peak. He wears a neatly pressed gray wool police general's uniform, or a pristine white shalwar kameez, the baggy Afghan tunic and trousers.
He smiles often and projects an air of calm and civility.
People here say many things about Matiullah, but on this much they agree: He has brought a measure of stability to a province that two years ago was dominated by the Taliban.
"Before Matiullah, the police chiefs were afraid to send their men out of Tarin Kowt," said Faiz Mohammed, a district governor in Oruzgan. "Matiullah has chased away the Taliban. Now the roads are open and the police are in their posts there day and night."
In 2010, then-Oruzgan Police Chief Juma Gul Himat told the New York Times that Matiullah's security company was "an illegal business" that he tried to shut down. Now an official at the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Himat says that though Matiullah's police could use more discipline, the chief has delivered security.
"I've talked to a lot of villagers and elders in Oruzgan, and they're all thinking positive about Matiullah Khan," Himat said.
A large neon sign over the guest quarters features a photo of Matiullah and a message: "The hero of peace and unity." His photo is pasted to the windshields of police vehicles. It adorns the walls of rural police posts and the main traffic circle in Tarin Kowt.
Matiullah is not charitable toward other provincial officials appointed by the Kabul government. He regards the Oruzgan governor, Amir Mohammad Akhundzada, with a mixture of scorn and pity, saying he "does nothing but sit in his office." He is contemptuous of Afghan army units, saying they're afraid to leave their bases except for major operations.