It was ten years ago this month that Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan. Now, with the United States preparing to draw down its military forces and other NATO coalition member troops already gone, the focus is shifting to what an exit strategy from that country might look like. And a key component of the security hand-over to Afghan National Security Forces is the establishment of community defense forces, known as the Afghan Local Police (ALP).
The ALP was launched last year by the Afghan government to recruit local units to defend remote, insecure areas of the country against insurgent threats and attacks. Recruits are nominated by a local shura council, then vetted by Afghan intelligence and trained for up to three weeks by U.S. forces. General David Petraeus, the former ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, touts the ALP as successfully thwarting the insurgency.
But this narrative is very different from the one Refugees International discovered on a recent visit to the country. In May, we traveled to Afghanistan to conduct an assessment of the humanitarian situation in the country, in light of the increasing displacement caused by conflict. During the course of our 16-day mission, we conducted over 50 interviews with displaced Afghans, local organizations, UN officials, aid workers, human rights researchers, government officials, security analysts, and journalists in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and surrounding areas. To our surprise, the rapid rollout of the ALP program was widely criticized by Afghans and humanitarian actors. Almost every single one of our interviewees highlighted the growth of the ALP and the simultaneous rise of other pro-government militias as their top concern for the security of civilians and stability in the country, particularly in the north.
Many told stories of ALP forces using their newly gained power and guns – furnished by the U.S. – to harass, intimidate, and perpetrate crimes against the very civilians they were recruited, trained, and paid to protect. Some even reported that powerful warlords were pressuring local leaders to formalize pre-existing militias into the ALP – often around tribal, ethnic or political lines – to avenge personal disputes or strengthen their influence.
But despite the fact that some ALP units have been implicated in murder, rape, beatings, arbitrary detention, abductions, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids, U.S. forces are under pressure to quickly help recruit and stand up ALP units – with the goal of adding another 23,000 men to the existing force of 7,000 at sites across the country. In our June report we called on the Obama administration to pressure the Afghan government to halt further expansion of the ALP and address its shortfalls immediately.
Since returning from Afghanistan, we have met with Pentagon officials and congressional offices to raise Refugees International’s concerns with the ALP initiative. By and large, the reaction from the Hill and Administration officials has been reserved, if not partial to the positive news coming out of the Congressional visits to "model" ALP sites and bi-annual Pentagon reports. Also, for many, it seems that the underlying assumption is that if the ALP program is halted, U.S. troops might not be able to depart from Afghanistan as rapidly as planned or expected, or that somehow Americans might be asked to spend more on this war.
This is a false choice: without a clear U.S. strategy to address the shortcomings of this program, abusive ALP units will only continue to spread fear, fuel tribal and ethnic tensions, and further destabilize the country. Moreover, left unchecked the ALP will become a catalyst for the insurgency.
Refugees International is calling on the Pentagon to take immediate steps to improve the vetting, training, oversight, and accountability of ALP forces. Furthermore, Congress can and should exercise its oversight responsibility by requiring the Pentagon to outline in detail how the U.S. is supporting the Afghan government’s roll-out of the ALP program, as well as the Afghan government’s capacity and efforts to effectively oversee and investigate allegations of abuse by ALP units or individuals and hold them accountable.
Similarly, the Afghan government should create an independent panel, including government officials and Afghan civil society representatives such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), to evaluate the program’s recruitment, vetting, oversight, and accountability policies and practices, and provide recommendations to the Government and its implementing partners.
Lynn Yoshikawa and Matt Pennington are advocates for Refugees International, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that seeks to end refugee crises and receives no government or UN funding. In May, Lynn and Matt traveled to Kabul, as well as Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and surrounding areas to assess the needs of internally displaced people in Afghanistan.