It's market day in this dust-blown farming district in the plains of northern Afghanistan, yet every clapboard stall in town is shuttered. The only resident to be seen is an elderly man who regards the approach of an unfamiliar vehicle with a mix of curiosity and apprehension. Nearby, a lone billboard for a parliamentary candidate is the only indication that national elections are to be held on Saturday. The air of tension that hangs over the hardscrabble town is palpable, but its source is less clear: Many locals accuse a government-backed militia nominally raised to fight a creeping Taliban presence of stirring trouble to scare voters away from the polls. The authorities counter that the militia are a disciplined and effective stopgap to combat the recent influx of militants into parts of Balkh Province that had been relatively stable. "Taliban or [militia] it's hard to say," says Haji Raz Muhammad, the old man by the road. "Either way, security is getting worse here day by day. People don't want to even come out from their houses anymore."
Traditionally known as arbaki, homegrown village militias have sprung up across the country in recent years with the support of the U.S. military, which sees them as an important adjunct to lackluster Afghan security forces. Success has been varied. In the eastern borderlands of Nangarhar province earlier this year, militia from the powerful Shinwari tribe were enlisted by U.S. commanders in exchange for development aid, but the effort fell apart when a simmering land dispute between sub-tribes erupted into a deadly shoot-out. But in Wardak province, just south of Kabul, a similar program has seen hostilities reduced in an erstwhile insurgent stronghold. A newer and broader incarnation of such programs, the Afghan Local Police initiative, is about to be launched. The new initiative will absorb some of the smaller existing programs, and fall under the control of the Afghan Interior Ministry. The Pentagon has reportedly requested a $35 million earmark to allow U.S. forces to begin training and equipping these units in the field. Putting the scheme under government control was key to winning President Karzai's support the government had been leery of the formation of militias that could become independent power centers that would weaken its authority.
In several restive districts of Balkh province, however, groups of militiamen led by ex-mujahideen commanders are already operating at the village level with the blessing of provincial authorities. According to Gov. Atta Mohammad Noor, an ethnic-Tajik former Northern Alliance leader whose testy relationship with President Karzai is no secret, the irregulars were mustered about a month ago to add security ahead of the parliamentary elections in areas threatened by insurgents. The governor concedes that he acted independently of central government authorization in starting the program, justifying the decision by the urgent need to protect communities amid the dearth of police and army forces in some remote parts of the province. He insists that that these militia are disciplined and have the full support of the people they protect. "The commanders are loyal [to the government] and the people who have selected them," he tells TIME. "It's clear they are the best ones to improve security in dangerous areas."
But Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said he was unaware of any local militias operating in Balkh at the behest of provincial authorities. He said the ministry had finalized a plan to implement the Local Police initiative in eight districts around the country, adding: "We don't have any local police or arbaki in Balkh. I'll have to check and see about this." The U.S. military declined to comment, deferring the matter to the Interior Ministry.
Dozens of current and former Charbolak residents who have fled the district argue that existing insecurity has only grown worse since the arbakis appeared. According to locals and opposition lawmakers, their ranks mostly consist of ethnic Tajiks, the majority ethnic group in the diverse province. Many accuse the militiamen of harassment, theft and intimidation, part of a bid to divide the community. "Pashtuns are really suffering," says one shopkeeper, who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisal. The flush of new weapons and men on motorbikes prowling the district suggests to him that some authority is covertly arming "thieves and criminals" a view echoed by many locals. He backed that claim by citing several recent killings of prominent Pashtun elders by unidentified gunmen.
Another Pashtun man from Charbolak, who gave his name simply as Najib, alleged that masked gunmen have gone door-to-door over the past three weeks, threatening locals with harm if they try to vote. Normally he would suspect the Taliban, he explained, but these men made no effort to identify with the group or proselytize, leading him to suspect they were militiamen posing as insurgents. Whatever their true affiliation, he said that he and many of his neighbors have moved to the provincial capital, convinced that the district vote will surely be skewed in favor of Tajik candidates as a result. "I cannot vote," he says. "If I ever go back, I know I will be killed," he says. (As of Friday, the Independent Election Commission says 17 of 319 voting stations in Balkh would be closed, with about 20% "under threat.")
In the gilded confines of his party offices, Gov. Noor dismisses the claims that militia are operating to suppress the Pashtun vote and boost the prospects of Tajik candidates allied with him as "propaganda" spread by political rivals and the Taliban. "Intimidation for what?" he shoots back when asked about the allegations. "All the security forces are under my command and the people of Balkh are loyal to me. I'm not a weak governor." While acknowledging that most of the militia commanders are Tajik loyalists, he points out that there are also Pashtuns, including one who killed a Taliban sub-commander and captured another earlier this week. What's more, in the coming months every man would receive training and a small salary, he went on, with an option open to some to join the national security forces. "This situation is temporary," he says.
Still, critics argue that that the governor's decision to deploy such militia without permission from Kabul is a blatant affront to the authority of the central government. Ahmed Nader Nadery, the director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, warns that the expanded use of militias where Afghan security forces are inadequate or unavailable could backfire. "In some places these militias may have a short-term effect on the fight against the Taliban. But over time they could be yet another source of instability and turn against the government," he says, with the added risk that alienated locals could also be driven into the arms of the insurgency. "There are no quick fixes."