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Updated Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 11:53 AM

An Afghan murder mystery: Why did cop kill U.S. civilian?

The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Sgt. Nargis went to work Monday with murder on her mind.

By the end of the morning, she would succeed, becoming responsible for this year's 62nd insider killing, in which Afghan security forces have killed U.S. or other coalition personnel.

Such killings have greatly increased this year, but Nargis' killing of a U.S. police adviser, Joseph Griffin, 49, of Mansfield, Ga., ranks among the strangest.

Was she an Iranian agent, as Afghan officials suggested Tuesday after they found her Iranian passport at home? Was she mentally ill, as some police interrogators said privately and other Afghan officials speculated publicly?

The first theories, that she was either a jilted lover or a Taliban infiltrator, were rejected by the authorities Tuesday, but even her interrogators were left perplexed by her motives.

Making the case even stranger was her job: a uniformed police officer attached to the Interior Ministry's legal and gender-equality unit, what would normally be seen as a plum job, one that is entirely underwritten by international aid, both American and European, earmarked specifically for women's-rights issues.

All she would tell her interrogators was that she went to work aiming to kill someone important, and that she did not much care who, officials said.

"I was myself asking her, trying to make her talk about what could make her do such a thing, and all she would say was she wanted to kill a high official," said Gen. Mohammad Zaher, the director of the criminal investigation division of the Police Department in Kabul province, who attended her interrogations after her arrest Monday.

What she would not say, however, was why she had done it, he said.

"We just don't know," Zaher said.

Her first stop was the Interior Ministry compound in downtown Kabul, where her own office was located. Zaher said she told questioners that she had prowled the compound looking for someone important enough to kill.

"She saw two foreign women ... and thought of killing them," he said.

They were foreign aid workers who had been gathering warm clothing for refugee children and were looking for police assistance in distributing it.

"She said she thought they were not worth killing," Zaher said.

So instead she went down the street and around the corner, about half a mile away, to the sprawling compound that includes the Kabul police headquarters and the Kabul governor's office.

There, according to Afghan officials and to what they said was her confession, she gained access by hiding her weapon on her body — women are searched much less thoroughly because of cultural norms, and only by other women, who are often in short supply.

As an official of the gender unit at the ministry, she probably had experience carrying out such searches herself and would know how to evade them.

Afghan security officials themselves have a well-founded fear of attacks by their own forces — "green on green," or Afghan on Afghan, attacks have been even more common lately than attacks on foreign forces, with at least 14 Afghan police officers killed in such episodes in the past week.

So even a uniformed police officer could not easily gain access to a building where she was not assigned.

According to Zaher's account, she first went to the restroom inside police headquarters, where she removed the gun from under her clothing and put it in her uniform pocket, where it would be more accessible.

She then tried to get into the Kabul governor's office but was turned away by guards there because she had no appointment. Next she tried the Kabul police chief's office, and again was turned away. She told interrogators she wanted to kill either of them.

Nargis went downstairs to the ground floor, determined to kill someone immediately now that her gun was no longer hidden and she would be caught with it if she tried to leave.

That is when she encountered Griffin, an employee of DynCorp International who had been working with the Afghan police as a trainer since July 2011. Afghan officials said he had just bought an Afghan flag at a canteen in the police headquarters, for some sort of ceremony.

According to police accounts, she came up behind Griffin and shot him in the head. As more details about Nargis emerged, they did little to shed any light on her motive.

Afghan officials at a news conference produced a copy of her Iranian passport, which showed she was 33 years old and, as with many Muslim women in conservative areas, had only one name of her own.

She was a native of Iran, the officials said, and married an Afghan refugee in Tehran 10 years ago before moving to Afghanistan with him. He got a job as a low-level employee — a tea boy, or servant — at another department of the Interior Ministry. Nargis joined one of the first classes of female police recruits in 2008 and would have had a much higher income than her husband.

Officials produced no evidence that Nargis had any recent connection with the Iranian authorities, although there was plenty of innuendo, and some Afghan news outlets ran with the theory that she was an infiltrator. Intriguingly, Nargis returned to Afghanistan less than a month ago from a monthlong police training program in Egypt.

While on that course with other female officers, she disappeared for two days without ever giving a satisfactory explanation for her movements, according to a police official who spoke to other police officers who had been with her.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information about the case. The only thing Afghan officials seemed to be certain of was that Nargis was not a Taliban infiltrator.

Even the Taliban did not claim as much, in a statement issued by the group quoting a spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, and reported Monday by the monitoring organization SITE Intelligence Group.

But Mujahid did add that such attacks had been on the increase not only by Taliban infiltrators, but also by "Afghan soldiers who have an awakened conscience and feeling against the occupation forces."

That last theory resonated with one police commander close to the case. Either that, he said, or "she was just nuts."

Afghan police officers stand guard Monday outside of Kabul police headquarters, where an American contractor was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan.


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