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.
"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.
The governor declined to discuss Matiullah, saying he was busy. Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, the Afghan army spokesman in Kabul, said the army had had great success in Oruzgan, working closely with Matiullah's police.
Despite Matiullah's successes, the Taliban still maintains a presence here.
Insurgents have mounted two deadly suicide bombings in Tarin Kowt in recent weeks, and roadside bombs are a constant threat. On Dec. 26, a turncoat police officer and Taliban cohorts killed three of Matiullah's cops and wounded two others as the men slept inside a police post less than three miles from Matiullah's office.
Oruzgan's lucrative opium crop gets to market primarily via roads controlled by Matiullah's men. Yet he denies any role in drug trafficking, saying his police recently seized and burned 3 tons of opium on a local road, arresting 18 men.
The chief also denies accusations by rivals that he has colluded with the Taliban. "Impossible," he said. "I'm fighting them.... I'm stronger than they are, so why would I need to work with them?"
ISAF convoys have been well protected from the Taliban on the Kandahar-Tarin Kowt road, he said. But over the last decade, he said, 470 of his men have been killed in Taliban attacks there.
Each week, dozens of supplicants line up in Tarin Kowt to implore Matiullah for cash or help. He recently boosted teachers' salaries by $100 a month each, he said. He pays for student scholarships in Kabul, and for food and clothing for the poor and dispossessed.
"The government is supposed to provide all this, but they don't. I do," he said.
And still the demands come.
A police officer approached the chief at his desk to request money for a police training course in Kabul. The Interior Ministry had refused to pay, he complained.
Matiullah shrugged and reached into his pocket. He withdrew a bundle of cash the size of a pomegranate and peeled off several large bills. The officer bowed and saluted.
Next was a leathery old man with a soiled cloak and calloused hands. In a high, squeaky voice, Haji Abdul Wadud poured out a tale of woe: Heavy rain had flooded his village in nearby Shamansor. He had pleaded with the governor for help but was turned away.
And another thing: The village could use a mosque, he told the chief.
Matiullah gave a dry laugh. He told an officer to help the man write a letter to the governor demanding help. The chief himself would sign it.
"If he doesn't help you, come back to me," Matiullah said.
And the mosque? the old man asked.
Matiullah patted the elder's bony arm. "It's winter now, and rainy," he said. "But in the spring you will have your mosque."
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report