Uruzgan Province, Southern Afghanistan. An Army convoy rumbles in on the dangerous highway from Kandahar, bringing vital supplies to American troops. This is facilitated by Matiullah Khan, a local warlord with connections in the Afghan government. When two US soldiers are assassinated by an Afghan ally, Naval intelligence officer Matt Cricchio suspects that Khan might be behind the attack. Vanessa Kirby joins Matt on a mission to bring him down.
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This is True Spies Episode 98: Lord of the Highway

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their secret skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 98: Lord of the Highway. 

MATT CRICCHIO: Think about this guy. He was a taxi driver. But he went from being a taxi driver to being a king. He was a mafia don - just, instead of being in New York City, he lived in Afghanistan. 

NARRATOR: Welcome to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The year? 2012. By all means, take a look around. But it’s probably best that you make it a short stay. This is the beating heart of Taliban country, after all. But, if you’re keen to continue your tour in a similarly daring vein, you could do a lot worse than Uruzgan, one province over to the North.

MATT CRICCHIO: Uruzgan province was the birthplace of the Taliban. The Dutch had it earlier in the war and - when they made a unanimous decision to leave Afghanistan - the Australians took it over. There was always an American special operations presence there, and we were a part of that.

NARRATOR: Take the highway through the desert from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan’s regional capital. It’s a snaking three-hour drive through the dust and debris of southern Afghanistan. But time your journey carefully. The highway can be a dangerous place for the unwary traveler. So play it safe. Wait for Security Day courtesy of a man called Matiullah Khan.

MATT CRICCHIO: Security Day was the weekly convoy in which Matiullah Khan's private army would protect US supply convoys traveling from Kandahar to Uruzgan province. 

NARRATOR: And - lucky you - there’s no need to hit the road alone. We’d like to introduce you to your guide.

MATT CRICCHIO: My name is Matt Cricchio, and I was an interrogator, military source handler attached with the Navy Seal teams. 

NARRATOR: Meet Matt Cricchio, formerly of the US Navy. In 2012, he deployed to Uruzgan Province with a Navy Seal team supporting combat operations by gathering human intelligence from assets in the province. By this time, Afghanistan had been occupied by America and its allies for more than a decade. Popular support for the invasion was flagging internationally, and tensions between American troops, Afghan forces, and local civilians were strained.

MATT CRICCHIO: I had a source that told me that Americans had abused prisoners and a prisoner had died. I tried to corroborate it among other sources and other methods and I couldn't. But when I got home two or three years later, this news story came out and it was exactly what my source said had happened, where he said it happened, how he said it happened. 

NARRATOR: In 2015, The New York Times reported that, three years earlier, civilian prisoners had been badly beaten by members of both the Afghan National Police and a Navy Seal team in Uruzgan Province. The prisoners, one of whom would later succumb to his injuries, were suspected of bombing a checkpoint. The incident was one factor in the erosion of trust between US forces and locals in Uruzgan Province. When Matt arrived in-country, months later, the situation had scarcely improved. And, as the occupation wound down, it just didn’t seem like there was much for Matt and the Seals to actually do.

MATT CRICCHIO: We are entering during the winter and so - I don't know if this is known by many people - the Taliban traditionally had stopped fighting in the winter. The commanders would go to Pakistan. The low-level foot soldiers would stay in their villages and it was quiet. Furthermore, we were told we were going to be the last unit to literally be in Uruzgan province. And so we thought our mission - beyond the simple combat operations - was to strengthen local ties with the leaders and then basically get out. 

NARRATOR: Even so, Matt was determined to do his job to the best of his ability.

MATT CRICCHIO: So when I arrived in-country, because we had somewhat of a presence, I had many of my sources turned over to me. So the first thing that I did was to have a meeting, a turnover meeting with the previous handler, in order to get to know them. We had people that ran the gamut from very high places in the Afghan government to other positions. And so, I was really focused on learning their background, learning what they'd already provided, and actually establishing the rapport that I would need to gain their trust and to continue the relationship that we had with them before. 

NARRATOR: But just three weeks after touching down in Uruzgan, Matt’s tour took a deadly turn.

MATT CRICCHIO: The green-on-blue on October 25, 2012, took place in a government center of a district in Uruzgan. 

NARRATOR: A green-on-blue, for those unfamiliar with military jargon, is…

MATT CRICCHIO: When an Afghan ally turns his gun on the Americans that he's working with. Army interrogators had traveled there to interview, interrogate a prisoner that was being held by the Afghans. They went into the compound to make entry into the building and, as they did, an Afghan police officer opened fire on them from a roof and killed two Army soldiers. This is how it kicked off. 

NARRATOR: Matt couldn’t help but take the incident personally.

MATT CRICCHIO: So I've been in-country for three weeks when that green-on-blue happened and, as an intelligence professional, as a human intelligence collector and interrogator, it's your fault because you didn't get the information to stop it. And you don't have the information to tell anyone what happened.

NARRATOR: But what he did know was that this was no random attack - someone, somewhere, had set the bloodshed in motion.

MATT CRICCHIO: And so, of course, rightfully so, people were coming to me - operators, senior members - asking: Did we have any indication that this was going to happen, and do we know who did it?

NARRATOR: The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility - revenge, perhaps, for the mistreatment of prisoners by US troops. American signals intelligence in the region corroborated the claim. But Matt’s sources painted a different, and altogether more disturbing, picture.

MATT CRICCHIO: I'm biased maybe about human intelligence, of course, but I think human intelligence in some ways was particularly effective in Afghanistan and maybe even Uruzgan province because, while a lot of people do have cell phones, while there's a lot of ways to collect intelligence there through signals intelligence, it's a culture that is behind the curve of technology. And so talking to people, getting to know them, forming relationships, it’s a relationship culture. That's a good way to find out. So I immediately went to all my sources, tasked them to find out anything they could, and it came back almost unanimously that while the Taliban was claiming responsibility - and there were members of our unit that agreed with it - that it wasn't the Taliban. That this was some sort of double-agent action orchestrated by Matiullah Khan and that he was behind the entire thing. 

NARRATOR: Matiullah Khan. We’ve heard his name once already during this episode. He’s the man who the Americans trust to protect their supply convoys en route from Kandahar. Security Day doesn’t happen without Khan. He’s a key US ally.

MATT CRICCHIO: The first time I heard of Matiullah Khan was actually from people I was working with. We called him by the acronym M.K. It's the military, we use acronyms. And they also called him the ‘Lord of the Highway’, which always stuck with me because it's very Mad Max and I didn't know what it meant. And so, as soon as I arrived, I was told this guy ran everything that's in Uruzgan. And I thought, initially, it was in his role as a Brigadier General in the Afghan National Police. But I quickly learned that it was as a gangster who controlled not only how money and goods flowed in and out of Uruzgan, but especially Tarin Kowt City. He worked the tribes to his advantage. He worked the Taliban to his advantage. He was a mafia don - just, instead of being in New York City, he lived in Afghanistan. 

NARRATOR: But ask yourself: If Matiullah Khan was making so much money out of working with coalition forces, why would he orchestrate an attack on US troops?

MATT CRICCHIO: I believe that our withdrawal from the area frightened him because he knew that we were his only lifeline. I mean, we were the bank.

NARRATOR: Khan’s protection racket had made him outrageously wealthy by Afghan standards. If the Americans withdrew, then much of his power, influence, and income would dissipate.

MATT CRICCHIO: And so, I think he wanted to show us that Uruzgan was still a dangerous place and maybe somehow affect the American withdrawal from the area, which seems to be - right now in 2022, especially after what happened in August - seems like a real arrogance on his part. But he was an arrogant guy, so I think at that point he felt he was powerful enough to affect US foreign policy by actively targeting Americans through nefarious means.

NARRATOR: Matiullah Khan was arrogant. But not without good reason. A former taxi driver, Khan was part of the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s. His fearsome reputation on the battlefield had allowed him a meteoric rise from cabbie to warlord. By the time of the country’s most recent occupation, Matiuallah Khan had amassed what amounted to a private army.

MATT CRICCHIO: And the Western forces hired his private army to protect our supply convoys that were coming up from Kandahar into Uruzgan from Taliban attacks on the road. And by doing so, he actually enriched himself. There are a lot of numbers floating around. What's kind of indisputable is that Matiullah Khan was probably the richest man in Afghanistan - and maybe the richest Afghan ever at this point.

NARRATOR: With wealth, came status and rank.

MATT CRICCHIO: And so, he scared the Afghan government so much with his private army that they actually made him a General out of nowhere. I mean, he was not in the police. He didn't attain rank in the normal way. And then they deputized all of his private soldiers into police officers as a means to control him. 

NARRATOR: Controlling Khan, as it turned out, would be easier said than done. 

MATT CRICCHIO: We had a rocky relationship. There were camps inside of our unit that thought the same way the Australians did, which was: Here's a strong guy who can hold back the Taliban. The Taliban is the problem. The enemy of the enemy is my friend.

NARRATOR: In contrast, Matt believed that Khan’s corruption and gangsterism would have long-term ramifications for Afghanistan, especially in regard to his dealings with the Taliban.

MATT CRICCHIO: His tribe was traditionally unfriendly to Talibs in general but that didn't mean he wasn't willing to cut any deals with them. And as far as I could find out from my sources and my research, he had been cutting deals with them since almost the beginning. 

NARRATOR: The more Matt learned about Khan, the more determined he became to take the Lord of the Highway down for good.

MATT CRICCHIO: I mean, this became an obsession. I needed to find out why. And then I wanted to get him, more than anything. And I knew that was a big ask because of not only how powerful he was, not only the fact that we were leaving, but this was a legitimate ally of the United States that might actively be targeting us for reasons that we didn't quite understand and some of us didn't even believe were possible. 

NARRATOR: Matt knew that the only way to uncover actionable evidence of Khan’s misdeeds was to mine his human intelligence assets for all they were worth. And in the face of an enemy as powerful and dangerous as Khan, he knew that he’d have to pull out all the stops to convince his sources to talk. What’s your angle? Bribes? Intimidation? Worse?

MATT CRICCHIO: My favorite thing to do was food. All cultures have food and meals as sort of the center of how they bond with each other. So we, fortunately, had an interpreter who we called her ‘Baji Jan’, which means ‘Dear Sister’, and she would cook these very elaborate Afghan meals for us. And so I would have Baji Jan cook all sorts of things that I knew my sources would be eating at home. And so, when they came to meet me, there would be this enormous spread that we would sit down and eat through that process of - not only impressing them with my knowledge of Afghan cuisine - we would get to know each other, talk about families, eat this food, and that would really bond us together. 

NARRATOR:  And if you’ve ever tried Afghan banquet food, you’ll know why it worked like a charm.

MATT CRICCHIO: So we would eat. I mean, my favorite was Kabuli rice. Kabuli rice is this jasmine rice with these fried onions that are very caramelized with raisins and carrots and cardamom, and it was very sweet. We had this milk tea, which to this day, I don't even know what was in it, but it was unlike any milk you have ever had. It tasted like liquid candy. Or we would have goat and lamb that had been braised for hours and was in this, this gooey liquid. It was some of the best food I'd ever had.

NARRATOR: Eventually, Matt’s efforts paid off.

MATT CRICCHIO: The best way that I collected information on Khan is that I had a source that was actually very close to him who wasn't happy with how he turned out. And he was willing - after a lot of coaxing, after a lot of relationship building, after the corruption of Khan was so obvious - to actually provide information to us that we couldn't have gotten otherwise.

NARRATOR: Sometimes, even in today’s cyber-heavy espionage landscape, nothing beats the personal touch.

MATT CRICCHIO: Because Matiullah Khan was very smart. He understood America's signals intelligence capability, and he had a vest - so Afghans wear, sort of, like the vest Americans or Westerners wear under their three-piece suits. Afghans just wear that as clothing over their long shirts. And inside of the vest was sewn multiple pockets because he carried 10 phones at one time because he knew that he could be listened to. And he made sure, like someone that runs a cartel or any criminal would, to have tight operational security and make sure that he switches up his communication sources. So these are the types of things that I could only find out by having someone close to him. 

NARRATOR: That someone was extremely well placed to report on Matt’s target. Remember, Khan was, on paper, a police officer, which means that, despite his considerable personal influence, he still operated within a political framework - with all the requisite backbiting, bureaucracy, and betrayal.

MATT CRICCHIO: The source that was close to him was very upset about the green-on-blue because one of the things that resulted in the fallout from that was the district governor in which that green-on-blue took place. He was actually removed from his position. And my source was very close to him. And so this source had been passed on to me by the previous handler. And the previous handler specifically goes: “This guy says nothing. He comes here for the food. Don't even worry about him.” But after that, green-on-blue happened, and this guy's friend was removed from power unjustly in his view, it turned him completely against his boss.

NARRATOR: As Matt began to make headway in his investigation, tragedy struck the Seal team.

MATT CRICCHIO: I don't know why our commanding officer committed suicide. I mean, why does anyone commit suicide? There's a multitude of factors. I do know he had been on multiple deployments - I think 11. He was a Navy Seal, so those were all combat deployments. I know on our specific deployment we had lost more people than anyone had - any Seal team had - other than two or three other incidents. All of those things could have been factors. I don't know why. I know it was devastating to us. It was devastating in the sense that we had - coming to a desperate situation when we thought we were the last people to be there - we were on, almost, I guess, a mop-up operation or closed-down operation. And I, personally, felt abandoned. I don't blame that on him. It's just how I felt. 

NARRATOR: You might expect an event like this, especially within a close-knit unit like the Seal team, to distract from the task at hand. For Matt, this wasn’t the case. If anything, his work intensified.

MATT CRICCHIO: The man that replaced him, I briefed him thoroughly on what I believed Matiullah Khan was doing, how I believed Matiullah Khan was behind the green-on-blue in other incidents. And he was much more willing to be aggressive in terms of how we were going to deal with that situation. 

NARRATOR: Through his well-placed sources, Matt became aware of a lead that might secure hard evidence of Matiullah Khan’s corruption and criminality.

MATT CRICCHIO: So one of the scams that I knew Matiullah Khan was running was that his police would conduct operations against the Taliban. They would seize weapons. They would take those weapons. They would give them to a middleman, a facilitator, and that facilitator would sell them back to the Taliban. So I knew if we could find one of those weapons facilitators, capture him, get him into the interrogation booth, that there was a chance we could uncover Matiullah Khan's complicity in these activities. One of the operations that I basically turned my sources on for was to not only identify who those weapons facilitators were but do what we call, ‘find, fix and finish’. So find where they were, know exactly how long they were going to be there, and then the Seal team would take care of the rest. 

NARRATOR: Soon, Matt made a pivotal discovery.

MATT CRICCHIO: The big piece of information we got was that weapons were being stored at a car dealership. And we had a source that had actually bought a weapon from there. So we knew that there were multiple weapons there - weapons that shouldn't be there. And so that was the trigger that we needed. Now we also knew the guy who owned the car dealership and that he was a cousin of Matiullah Khan. And don't forget, everything in Afghanistan is tribal-based - and tribe means family - so there's just going to be some relationship. That also made me feel like we probably had the right guy. There are other means of intelligence that confirm those things. 

NARRATOR: Unbeknown to the moonlighting car salesman, business was about to become very complicated indeed.

MATT CRICCHIO: So it was decided that we were going to go to this guy's house and get him.

NARRATOR: Throughout his deployment, Matt had been itching to get out into the field. Now, he had his chance.

MATT CRICCHIO: I'd been trying to get out into the country the whole time - and not because I wanted to be ‘GI Joe’ or Rambo - but I wanted to see the places where the people I was talking to actually lived. So I wanted to go on the raid and I was a qualified battlefield interrogator, so that was good to go.

NARRATOR: So far, so straightforward. But in Uruzgan Province, there’s no such thing as ‘simple’. We left Matt Cricchio at a make-or-break moment in his attempt to bring down Matiullah Khan, the robber-baron police chief with a deadly appetite for wealth and power. The stars are out in Uruzgan Province and a Navy Seal team is moving into position around the home of tonight’s target. His name is Hajji Janan. Matt suspects him of the illicit seizure and re-sale of weapons in the province. By day, he runs a car dealership. He’s also a cousin of Khan - and if he talks, he might just be the key to bringing the corrupt official to justice. Until now, Matt’s work as a Navy source handler and interrogator has kept him close to the Seal base. People usually come to him. But tonight, he’s asked to be present for the raid. Luckily, he’s anything but unprepared.

MATT CRICCHIO: Navy military source handlers and interrogators actually trained in a Marine Corps school. And this is not really well known in the intelligence community, but it's actually one of the more difficult schools that the whole military has to offer. We trained for six months in a live scenario, both tactical, operational. We're doing counterintelligence. We're doing interrogation.

NARRATOR: Matt estimates that approximately 70 percent of his class washed out before graduation. That’s not particularly surprising when you take into account the grueling live scenarios played out at the training facility in Virginia Beach.

MATT CRICCHIO: A giant mock village was built outside of the schoolhouse and there were actors. There were munitions, simunitions, explosions. We went in there for scenarios. Sometimes they were random and we didn't know we were going to do it. Other times we could plan for it. It was really to try to simulate the kind of environment we would go into supporting combat operations. 

NARRATOR: The aim of these scenarios was to produce intelligence officers who could operate effectively in active combat zones.

MATT CRICCHIO: So the expectation in those life scenarios is we would be a jack-of-all-trades. We were certified to interrogate. We were certified to handle sources and we are also certified in counterintelligence. In every other service or agency, those are three different jobs, but in the Navy, in the Marine Corps, you do all three.

NARRATOR: And we do mean all combat zones.

MATT CRICCHIO: The live scenarios were meant to emulate Afghanistan and Iraq but, beyond that, the Marines and the Navy intelligence analysts that were there getting trained, we could go anywhere in the world. So we were trained to operate not just in a combat environment, but in a permissive urban environment, semi-permissive environment. I mean, when I say we were trained to do the broad spectrum of human intelligence operations, we really faced that in that scenario. We were certified to that level. 

NARRATOR: In short, Matt was more than qualified to accompany the Seal team on their raid. But no amount of preparation guarantees flawless execution.

MATT CRICCHIO: So we went out at night, set up. We surrounded the house. They conducted the raids as they always do it. Unfortunately, in conducting the raid, a man was killed and it wasn't the guy we were going after. It was actually his brother. 

NARRATOR: The objective of the raid had been to apprehend and interrogate Hajji Janan - to get him to turn on Matiuallah Khan. Killing his brother had not been part of the plan. Both Khan and the Afghan governor of the province would go on to condemn the raid as another civilian death at the hands of trigger-happy Special Forces. 

MATT CRICCHIO: His brother had had friends in high places. The guy we were going after had friends in high places.

NARRATOR: And that’s an understatement. More on that later…But, on the night of the raid, the weapons facilitator - Hajji Janan - was captured as intended. The time had come for Matt to play his starring role.

MATT CRICCHIO: So you conduct battlefield interrogations on site. We were in his house. We were in his compound. He had a very large compound because he was wealthy from all his business interests, especially the car dealership. And I mean, I was in his backyard. There was a cow. There was a cow behind me mooing because he had several cows. And I had a flashlight and my interpreter and we were hammering him with questions.

NARRATOR: What kind of questions does a battlefield interrogator ask, exactly?

MATT CRICCHIO: The point is the potential to find follow-on targets. So, one of the things in a battlefield interrogation that you want to do is make sure you can find what would hurt you immediately. So your questions are geared toward: Where are the weapons in this house? Are there any bombs or are there any traps that we should know about? Is there anyone else here that we didn't find?

NARRATOR: Not the kind of thing that comes up when you’re working in the relative safety of the interrogation room. 

MATT CRICCHIO: And then when you move on beyond that, it's to find information connected to what you're trying to discover. So I was asking him all sorts of questions about Matiullah Khan. I was asking questions about what happened at the car dealership. I was asking him where the weapons were. You're hammering them because you want to take advantage of the shock of entering their compound and capturing them to see if you can get more information to prosecute your objective.

NARRATOR: Unfortunately, his efforts came up against a brick wall. Hajji Janan was in no mood to talk.

MATT CRICCHIO: He was a tough guy. I mean, again, like Matiullah Khan, you wouldn't look at him and think he's tough. They're not giant. They are not muscly. They're not covered in tattoos. They're nothing we would think of as a tough guy. But this guy was tough. And honestly, almost all the Afghans that we interrogated were almost unbreakable.

NARRATOR: It didn’t help that Jannan knew the ropes when it came to American interrogation techniques.

MATT CRICCHIO: His brother had actually been captured before by Americans, so they knew the whole deal. I mean, I would guess that they even knew the deal to how long they would be held for. So, much like a hardened criminal. They know how they know the system. They want to play the system. They know when to talk and when not to talk. And this guy, I mean, there was some information given, but he wasn't shocked. Nor was he awed.

NARRATOR: Jannan offered up some desultory tidbits about Taliban operations in the region.

MATT CRICCHIO: But that’s not what I was there for. I was there for Matiullah Khan.

NARRATOR: Matt and the Seals weren’t prepared to give up yet. They took their suspect back to the base for further questioning.

MATT CRICCHIO: And one of the things that was happening at that point is Americans weren't allowed to hold prisoners. They had to be given to the Afghan Army. So we were co-located with an Afghan army unit that was actually training up. So we gave the prisoner to them. We were preparing to conduct interrogations against our target all day. I went back to clean up because I was dirty and I had to put my weapons up, and all those sorts of things. And one of the interrogators I worked with actually started it. 

NARRATOR: As his colleague began interrogating Janan, Matt washed off the night’s dust and dirt. He might have felt quietly confident that his campaign against Khan was making headway. That feeling wouldn’t last long. What happened next was, as far as we know, unprecedented.

MATT CRICCHIO: Next thing I know? We were given the order to stand down, stop the interrogation. That had never happened before. We conduct interrogations autonomously - within legal limits - but autonomously. And no one had ever told us to stop an interrogation. This was for me, eight months, eight months of playing this game to get Matiullah Khan. And I finally had the guy that I thought I could. And now we're being told to stand down by the higher-ups in our unit. 

NARRATOR: By his own admission, he didn’t take the news well.

MATT CRICCHIO: And so, I'm a little bit of a hothead, especially when I'm passionate about something. And I went berserk. But I was finally told that the president of Afghanistan had called us, which had never happened before. The president of Afghanistan doesn't call a Seal team to tell them anything. He had called and said: “This man must be released.” And so we let him go. 

NARRATOR: President Hamid Karzai had demanded the release of Hajji Janan, the cousin of Matiullah Khan. It doesn’t take much, Matt says, to read between the lines.

MATT CRICCHIO: I think that that's all we needed to know at that point. And it's conjecture and like, this is not how intelligence should be done and it would not hold up in any court of law, right? But - we had captured many prisoners up until that point. I had interrogated - I mean, not innumerable people, but I interrogated a lot of people. No one, no one of any kind of power had ever demanded that we release anyone. And then the head of state who has a relationship with Matiullah Khan, and a close one, calls us and personally demands the release of an - anonymous, essentially - Afghan citizen. I mean, corruption is infamous in Afghanistan. And I don't know any other way to interpret that situation. 

NARRATOR: In the face of intervention at this level, there was nothing more to be done. Matiullah Khan had won. Hajji Janan was a free man.

MATT CRICCHIO: After we released him, we were essentially shut down. It was toward the end of our deployment anyway. And so the new team was going to come in because - lo and behold - we weren't the last team and they were going to relieve us. So there was a lot of turnover work to do. 

NARRATOR: The failure of the operation had consequences beyond the immediate sting of defeat.

MATT CRICCHIO: And because we had captured that guy, actually our security environment - the threat - heightened. I mean, you think: “Hey, you're in Afghanistan. You're surrounded by the Taliban. How could your threat get any higher?” Well, we got specific threats about suicide bombers, about specific attacks are going to be made on us in revenge for his brother's death. And actually, after we left, there was a suicide bombing in the canteen where the Afghan army ate and there had not been suicide bombers on that base, ever. Matiullah Khan was specifically trying to affect us. And after we captured his weapons facilitator, that guy was specifically trying to get revenge against us for his brother. It was a personal war and I don't know if you can win a war like that because it's just a war of vengeance. Where does it stop? I did feel a sense of defeat. I think even having the feeling that I could win there is hubris. And that's what I discovered later. There was no winning. And winning should never have been the objective. The Afghans have a saying, which is: “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” And that's what that war amounted to. 

NARRATOR: Deployments in Afghanistan were typically short. Before long, Matt was back stateside.

MATT CRICCHIO: So I got out of the military the worst way possible that anyone could. I came home from Uruzgan in June of 2013 and I got out of the military two months later. So I had zero decompression. I had zero, sort of, any way to understand my experience. And it was hard. So what I did was, I opened up my computer and I wrote down everything I can remember about what happened as a way to make sense of it. And through a long series of events and encouragement by my then-girlfriend, now wife, I turned that story into a novel, fictionalized it. And then I applied to a Master of Fine Arts and Fiction, and I got in - which is something I didn't expect. And so, after that, I was in the writing program. I was working on a novel about Afghanistan. I was making sense of what happened and how I had very arrogantly thought that I could take down an Afghan warlord. 

NARRATOR: A couple of years later, Matt had begun to come to terms with his time in Uruzgan Province. But Uruzgan wasn’t done with him.

MATT CRICCHIO: Maybe three or four years after I left, I was in a burger place, and it was loud, and it was one of those kinds of university college places where there's a bunch of younger undergrad students around. I'd ordered a beer and was actually sitting with someone from my graduate program and we had done what everyone does now, pull out our phones. And I had news alerts for Afghanistan and particularly Uruzgan because I'd been there, and I had this experience, and I was writing a book about it, and it was always on my mind. And I saw a headline that said an Afghan warlord was killed in Kabul. And, I mean, in this rowdy burger place/bar, all the noise dropped. It was like a movie. And I pulled it up and I saw the name. It was Matiullah Khan. 

NARRATOR: At the time of his death, it was reported that Matiullah Khan had fallen afoul of his rivals and sometime-collaborators in the Taliban. 

MATT CRICCHIO: And at that point, the official story was that he had been killed by suicide bombers, which, though he did cut deals with the Taliban, he was the enemy of the Taliban. And it wasn't surprising.

NARRATOR: As time went on, details of Khan’s death emerged that muddied the already brackish waters of his remarkable rise and fall.

MATT CRICCHIO: It came out in the media that the people who had cleaned his body - so the Islamic ritual cleaning of a body for the funeral - didn't find any wounds that were consistent with a bomb. So there were no shrapnel wounds. There were no concussive wounds or anything like that, and there was a gunshot wound in his neck and it appeared as though he had been assassinated. Maybe it was the Taliban. Maybe it was a tribal enemy he made. Maybe it was the Afghan government themselves because they were always terrified of his power. But in the end, he died like any mafia Don does. I think he thought he would die peacefully in bed. I think he believed in his power. I think he believed that. He was like all the great Mongol Khans that had swept through Afghanistan before him - but he wasn't. He was a criminal. He'd made a lot of enemies and they were eventually going to get him at some point. 

NARRATOR: Whatever the cause, the death of Matiullah Khan changed the face of Uruzgan Province.

MATT CRICCHIO: So after Matiullah Khan was killed, his brother tried to unite the tribes in the same way that he did, but he had very little success. And the Taliban quickly swept through the province and had control. 

NARRATOR: These days, Matt Cricchio writes for a living. His first novel, Security Day, is a fictionalized account of his time in Afghanistan. Matiullah Khan still looms large in his imagination.

MATT CRICCHIO: Think about this guy. He was a taxi driver. Yeah, yeah, he was a jihadist. But everyone was a jihadist, in a way. And I don't mean jihadists like radical Islamists but an Afghan fighting the Soviet Union - everyone had that credibility. He built a mansion right outside of our base. He built a mansion. It was four stories. It had a roof that shined like rubies. And he had a walkway right on the top that looked right over our walls into us. I would go outside and look at him sometimes because he would be looking out and I would look at him.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Richmond, VA-based author Matt Cricchio spent six years serving as a US Navy interrogator and source handler for special operations. His debut novel Security Day explores the complicated nature of the Afghanistan war.

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