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“On one hand we say we are against warlordism, and on the other hand we are creating warlords”

June 5, 2012

By Tim Foxley

After all the money and effort invested in creating a sizeable and accountable Afghan National Security Force we still seem to be using the word “militia” on a regular basis.  The punch line is that if people cannot be reassured that the government can take care of their population’s safety and security, then the population will probably turn elsewhere to someone who can.

These two stories highlight almost perfectly the dilemmas and problems of providing security in Afghanistan over the last twenty years and most likely for at the very least the next twenty years.  The first is a piece showing how a local militia commander is deemed, on the one hand, to be vital for maintaining security in his local village but on the other hand preventing the Afghan government from exerting its influence.

“So far, this works pretty well,” says German Army Lt. Col. Heiko Bohnsack, commander of the coalition’s Task Force Kunduz, which helps oversee the militias.

CIP, ALP, Arbaki…?

Well, let’s hope so.  But the annually shifting patchwork of international and Afghan government solutions for “fixing” security has created a national patchwork of militias of varying degrees of competence, criminality and accountability.  Most of the time they are not called a “militia”, but terms like Afghan Local Police (ALP) and Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) programme are used.  A myriad of groups have been hired, trained, equipped and paid by different ISAF nations according to local requirements.

Mr. Gechi’s fighters, however, aren’t […] keen to lay down arms. “If we are no longer paid, there will be problems,” says 38-year-old Said Mohammad. “There won’t be any security.”

We have a self-fulfilling prophecy in the making here – it sounds like a classic Mafia-style protection racket.  Fighters like this need conflict in order to be able to exist.  If they can’t find enemies, or the enemies have gone, they may need to create some so that they can continue to be paid by someone.  As ISAF visibility over the provinces and districts starts to dwindle and the Afghan government struggle to exert a presence, reliable information (and therefore the Afghan government’s capability to intervene reliably and effectively) will be harder to come by.  Local information will be controlled by these groups, so messages from the districts will, in a few years, start to sound like this: “We need more money”, “I need more weapons”, “There are more Taliban here, give me more support, “you need to drop bombs on this tribe in the next valley, they are all Taliban”, “I have captured some insurgents: I will take care of them…”.

What is particularly concerning is that Afghan officials seem to very much recognise what is going on here.  This is Konduz governor Jekdalek:

Konduz governor Jekdalek

“Mohammed Anwar Jekdalek, Mr. Karzai’s appointee, says Mr. Gechi is considered one of the province’s better-behaved militia leaders.

‘But even if we see him as a hero, problems are inevitable because his people can’t read and write,’ Gov. Jekdalek says. ‘On one hand we say we are against warlordism, and on the other hand we are creating warlords.’

The ideal solution, he suggests, would be to replace these militias with regular police. That is unlikely, however, as the Afghan National Police already is near its manpower ceiling—and is slated to start cutting its numbers once international funding shrinks after 2014.

So, despite his reservations, Gov. Jekdalek says CIP must continue for now. ‘If it’s dissolved, some of these men will become criminals, and the Taliban will return and attempt to control the area once again,’ he says. ‘If we ourselves cannot pay their salaries and the foreigners stop, there will be big trouble.’”

And here is Karzai’s spokesman:

This proliferation of anti-Taliban irregulars, some under loose Afghan government control and others a law unto themselves, has also led to killings, robberies and rapes by the fighters, according to human-rights groups.

CIP “is another example of the existing parallel structures which have created a gap between the Afghan people and government institutions, and which instill fear and insecurity,” said Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi.

Afghan officials say they intend to prosecute those charged with abuses, something that has rarely happened so far.

So with that last quote in mind, I wanted to tie it in with another story from this week, just to emphasise the perhaps obvious conclusion that unaccountable militias take Afghanistan backwards rather than forwards:

Lal Bibi (NYT)

“Lal Bibi is an 18-year-old rape victim who has taken a step rarely seen in Afghanistan: she has spoken out publicly against her tormentors, local militiamen, including several who have been identified as members of the American-trained Afghan Local Police…She says she was raped because her cousin offended a family linked to a local militia commander, who then had his men abduct her around May 17. She was chained to a wall, sexually assaulted and beaten for five days, she said…A number of Afghan women who are victimized like Lal Bibi are later killed by their relatives because they believe the women have brought dishonor to the family…”

“All of the men are part of the first 300 A.L.P. who were trained by the American Special Forces,” said the prosecutor, Gen. Mohammed Sharif Safi. “It is not the first time that they have committed such a horrible crime. All of them are a bunch of illiterate and uneducated bandits and thugs who go around harassing people.”

“a bunch of illiterate and uneducated bandits and thugs who go around harassing people…”

There is some pretty painfully earned hindsight here and we really are in danger of coming full circle.  You may dimly recall that back in the early 1990s in Kandahar a group of ex-Mujahideen emerged who were frustrated and angry at the dominance of criminal and unaccountable militias and started hanging them from tank barrels…

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