Afghan Militias: The Perils of Trying to Duplicate Iraq

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Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

U.S. Marines head out on patrol from an outpost at Kunjak in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province

American military officers like to boast that the Afghan army is growing faster than expected, a positive trend in a grinding war campaign. Yet deep in the southern battle zone where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest, the ranks are faltering, plagued by desertions, spotty performance and drug problems that cast doubts on their ability to secure their own homeland. Now, U.S. commanders have concluded that extra measures are needed to secure critical gaps around the country. With some of the foreign troops they're leaning on scheduled to begin leaving next year and an Afghan national police force that is widely distrusted, they have to come up with those measures quickly.

Enter the militias. After months of pilot programs under a litany of different names, the Afghan Local Police initiative was formally launched over the summer with the goal of giving some 10,000 village men basic weapons and training to secure areas where government and NATO forces are sparse. At face value, raising homegrown militias, traditionally known as arbakis, serves an urgent and practical cause: empowering locals who best know their own communities to help themselves — on the cheap. A similar strategy helped turn the tide of the Iraq war, when Sunni insurgents were co-opted by American forces to fight al-Qaeda. Commanders in Afghanistan are now saying they want to double the number to 20,000 militiamen — with talk of expanding to more than twice that figure. A senior military officer with knowledge of the plans insists that General David Petraeus, the man in charge of U.S. and international forces who convinced President Hamid Karzai to green-light the local police program, "wants this to grow as much as possible."

The apparent success of several militias provides some reason for hope. In Wardak province, a short drive south of the capital, levels of violence have plummeted since the Afghan Public Protection Program took hold in longtime Taliban strongholds. Two years ago, when U.S. military convoys patrolled its once notorious Jalrez Valley, they invariably came under heavy attack from militants dug into its craggy flanks. Today, schoolchildren walk carefree along the main road under the supervision of uniformed militiamen trained by U.S. Special Forces at a nearby base. In the rugged hamlet of Gizab, situated about 100 miles (160 km) north of Kandahar, a grass-roots revolt this spring managed to evict Taliban fighters who had filtered through the area. That opened the door for American units to step in to provide the locals with formal training and material support. It is precisely the kind of turnabout that U.S. commanders are eager to replicate around the country.

Yet the bigger picture is messier. The program in Wardak, for instance, is largely dependent on the cooperation of a former Taliban commander who was issued a sharp ultimatum by U.S. forces. Some Afghan officials privately suspect he might be playing both sides, waiting to see where the balance of power tilts to. Indeed, some members of the Karzai administration voiced concerns up front that given Afghanistan's complex, bloody history of warlordism and tribal rivalries — writ large during the civil war of the 1990s when thousands of civilians were killed by warring factions — state-sanctioned militias are liable to get out of control, further undermining the government's authority rather than boosting it. A broader survey of recent militia initiatives shows that, in many cases, these fears may be coming true.

Indeed, the U.S.-backed and government-supported militias may just provide warlords with another avenue to reassert control over their fiefdoms or to carry out vendettas. In northern Kunduz province, dozens of militias led by former warlords who were disarmed following the Taliban's ouster have rearmed with government backing in order to combat the resurgent Taliban and other rebel groups. Although a few of these militias are credited with stemming the threat, there are widespread reports that some have engaged in rampant theft, murder and rape. Worried residents say these militias are worse than the insurgents they were meant to combat. Armed groups in Kandahar reportedly financed by the CIA and with connections to area strongmen have gained a reputation for thuggery and targeted killings that have included local police officials among the victims. In Balkh province, Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, an ethnic Tajik and open rival of President Karzai, went ahead and activated local militias a couple of months back in several troubled districts — without Kabul's approval. During the run-up to September's parliamentary ballot, there were reports that these mostly Tajik militias were harassing remote ethnic Pashtun communities.

Despite the known irregularities, the Pentagon has asked Congress to divert some $35 million from the Afghan war budget to fund the countrywide program. General Petraeus has said the Afghan Interior Ministry has already designated 68 locations, with plans for eight to 10 militias to come on line each month. Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary says each recruit will be handpicked by influential tribal elders to ensure accountability before receiving three weeks of training, an AK-47 rifle, uniform and a modest work stipend. Anyone found to be involved in foul play "will be followed and punished," he warns. "We are not going to mess around." The senior U.S. military official assures that while it's still far too early to gauge the impact of the program, "we're looking to institutionalize the best practices from all the different programs as we look at this rapid expansion."

With a host of potential pitfalls, however, U.S. and Afghan officials would be wise to do their homework. In February, prior to the much touted uprising in Gizab, elders of the Shinwari tribe in eastern Nangarhar province agreed to cooperate with U.S. forces and take on Taliban militants transiting through their ancestral borderlands in exchange for development aid, paid to them directly instead of through the central government to avoid graft. Within weeks it backfired: a long-standing land dispute between subtribes erupted into a fierce gun battle on a barren plain that left at least 13 men dead and the security pact in tatters. More than seven months later the tensions still persist, and fighting the Taliban is admittedly the last thing on either side's mind.