Afghan militias: the sorcerer’s apprentice’s genies
By Thomas Ruttig The case of Abdul Razeq’s police-unit-cum-militia (see here) should send a stark warning to those envisaging a new version of ‘community-based’ defense forces. It is not clear yet how this exactly will look like but it seems to be sure that it will come. A few titles, names and concepts swirl around ...
By Thomas Ruttig
By Thomas Ruttig
The case of Abdul Razeq’s police-unit-cum-militia (see here) should send a stark warning to those envisaging a new version of ‘community-based’ defense forces. It is not clear yet how this exactly will look like but it seems to be sure that it will come. A few titles, names and concepts swirl around in Kabul and the provinces again.
The lynchpin for a new militia system seems to be the new ‘Independent Directorate for the Protection of Public Spaces and Highways by Tribal Support’ led by former Minister for Tribal and Border Affairs and former deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, Aref Nurzai. It was established by presidential decree already in April, opened an office and hired staff in summer and — before the elections that can change things like this — recruited twenty provincial directors (for provinces along the major highways), some of whom have started activities already identifying possible members of ‘community forces’. At the same time, the directorate has no officially approved tashkil (structure) yet. There is a lack of clarity where currently its money comes from and how it fits with similar initiatives (ASOP, APPP, a MoI local guard force, arbaki) and government departments like the Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs and the IDLG, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance.
Secondly, there is the Community Defense Initiative (CDI), a plan of the U.S. military the Noorrzai directorate seems to be closely linked to. The following short article in USA Today (read the full piece here) gives an idea what this would look like:
U.S. and Afghan officials have agreed on a new nationwide strategy that will funnel millions of dollars in foreign aid to villages that organize "neighborhood watch"-like programs to help with security. The plan will provide an incentive for Afghan tribal leaders to form their own militias and guard against Taliban insurgents, says Mohammad Arif Noorzai, an adviser to President Hamid Karzai on security and tribal issues [he was appointed to this position at the same time the new directorate was decreed — TR].
Karzai’s government had previously declined to sponsor such militias on a large scale, fearing they might pose a threat to its authority. By placing more responsibility for security in the hands of villagers, Noorzai said U.S. troops will be able to focus on more urgent matters at a time when the Taliban is on the rise. "With (little) money, we can accomplish a lot," he said.
The U.S. military will oversee the plan [… K]nown as the Community Defense Initiative, [it] "is designed to assist the local population to provide their own security with defensive ‘neighborhood watch’-type programs," the NATO command said in a statement in response to a query by USA TODAY.
The effort is similar in some ways to an initiative that helped turn the tide of the Iraq war in 2006 by paying members of Sunni tribes, including some former insurgents, to defend their neighborhoods.
Unlike in Iraq, aid will not go directly to individuals. Afghan villages that cooperate will receive roads, health clinics, fuel, and other aid, Noorzai said. He declined to provide an estimated cost for the program or an exact start date.
Here, the link between CDI and the new independent directorate with the long name is already made. Also funds are mentioned (note the ‘little’ the author of the article has added to Noorzai’s remark about money involved), follow-up development projects and that Afghan and U.S. officials were involved. On this issue, see also Andrew Wilder’s recent post "A ‘weapons system’ based on wishful thinking" here.
Of course, those neighborhood watch brigades are not called militias. Milli Mahali Satunki is the term in Pashto (and Muhafezin-e melli-ye mahalli in Dari) is the new term and can be translated as ‘Local National Guards’ or ‘Defenders.’
According to other reports from people watching these matters up close, these non-militias are to curtail the influence of the insurgents, create ‘pockets of tribal resistance’ against them and hopefully push them into ‘reintegration’ after — in another, rougher version of the above — militias had identified local insurgent leaders who would then be ‘taken out’ and, by this, ‘decapitated’ the insurgents.
Already in September, this plan was somehow outlined by Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb, the former British special forces commander who was appointed in August to mastermind a programme of reconciliation with members of the Taliban under ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In a BBC interview he said — without calling it CDI — that he would use the knowledge of village leaders to help identify militants who could be persuaded to lay down their arms. "The leaders of the communities know who is acting badly, and who is acting very badly, and who is a young fellow who has taken an opportunity for money."
CDI takes up ideas of the earlier IDLG-led Afghanistan Social Outreach Programme (ASOP) and the MoI-led Afghan Public Protection Forces or Program (APPF or APPP). ASOP also started as a community mobilization and defense initiative involving shuras. According to information gathered in Kabul, the MoD, MoI, NDS and IDLG have bought into this project.
The procedure to establish CDI militias (reports from Uruzgan say they are known as ‘Karzai militias’ there) includes the establishment of local tribal councils, or shuras. These councils will work in touch with the directorate’s provincial director. Every tribal council can have 25 to 40 members, related to the population and the ‘attention’ the tribe pays to the directorate. The councils identify militia fighters — between 80 and 150 people — and introduce them to the director. The provincial directorate, in the presence of a representative of the governor, pays them a salary of 8,000 Afghanis ($160 per month and person), but not directly but through the tribal leaders. (In Iraq, individuals were paid.)
U.S. Special Forces — and I know there are many different ones (see the reply of a specialist to Susanne Schmeidl’s article) — seem to get the oversight over the program. Possibly they even will be ‘embedded’ into tribal communities or militias. When the insurgents in a certain area are sufficiently weakened, the tribal councils declare the area ‘safe’ and development projects are massively implemented. In military language, this area then constitutes a ‘beacon of hope.’ And an ink-spot at the same time, because this will create — so called by a U.S. officer quoted in the Washington Times — ‘dislocated envy’, i.e. neighboring districts’ tribal elders will also come and ask for this program.
As the Baraki Barak example shows, this seems to be already ongoing.
According to some, U.S. Special Forces operations have already increased ‘drastically’ in the period between late September and end of October. Another source says that the U.S. forces are already ‘trying out something in Paktia.’ A third source assumes that Wali Karzai’s militias, the Kandahar Strike Force, already implements ‘unorthodox’ tactics, including sometimes posing as Taliban. (From here, the source says, the rumor of so-called U.S. Taliban originates.)
Currently, there seem to be some 14,000 to 18,000 CDI militiamen country-wide, at least on paper, those allegedly or really mobilized for the August 20 elections. Apparently, it is the attention to transfer many of these arbaki that were meant to exist temporarily only have been or will be integrated into the CDI structures. In any case, the President has extended the mandate of those arbaki in mid-October. On the other hand, the directorate’s head is said to already planned to have 50,000 fighters.
Otherwise, some basic information is missing about these militias: Who will give them their arms? (Or do the militia members bring their own ones, like the real arbaki?) What exactly are the terms of reference that will guide the work of the new directorate and its militias? What will be the vetting procedure for militia members — if any? Is a guarantee of the tribal elders sufficient for this? Who can be sure that the elders chosen by the directorate are really representative and not, as the practice of the previous government showed, rather divisive because they again exclude certain groups? From which money will they be paid? Is this linked with the planned Reintegration Trust Fund said to be filled up by the U.S., the U.K., Japan and the Emirates — and that will be managed — according to some reports — by a private contractor that is not yet involved in Afghanistan (or will be created)? And these are only some questions…
The most surprising thing in the whole issue is the ahistoric approach on which the CDI concept is based. Any Afghan who would be asked could tell the planners of this latest militia incarnation —the fourth, if I counted correctly, after ANAP, APPF and the Afghanistan-wide arbaki how damaging this concept is, that it has never worked here and done a lot of long-term damage by ‘warlordizing’ Afghan society.
Therefore, the end of Najibullah’s regime should serve as a warning. It was the powerful militias created on an ethnic basis — the Uzbek gelim-jam (carpet robbers) led by Dostum and the Ismaili militia set up by the Naderi family from Kayyan in Baghlan — that brought about his downfall in 1992. Even more importantly, the main cause of the collapse was the cut of military and food aid by Jelzin’s Russia to the Kabul government. The national army and police propped up with a lot of Soviet resources disintegrated and its components joined different mujahedin groups, adding enormous fire-power for the civil wars to come. And the militias looked for alternative incomes. Ask Abdul Razeq.
Finally, let me quote a tribal elder in Uruzgan I met earlier this month. He said that to establish militias "regardless under which title or in which uniform" was "dangerous." Pointing to Afghanistan’s history, he said: "We already have a militia system and people are tired of this. The militias will inevitably violate the law and turn against each other. If you pay them 5,000 Afghani they will soon find that insufficient and start robbing shopkeepers and people on the road."
 So-called Arbaki (so-called because real arbaki traditionally were not paid by the government but supplied by the tribal jirgas, but here it was announced that the government would pay them) were already supposed to be formed for the elections. However, a presidential decree on this was issued on August 18, only two days before the elections. Nevertheless, some arbaki emerged in various areas in Uruzgan and the southeast. In Uruzgan, reportedly, the recruitment process started a week or so earlier than the decree came out. So, it probably was known that there would be funding. It is, however, far from clear whether the arbaki really were formed, protected polling stations on E-Day or whether they existed on paper only. And whether the money was transferred to the provinces. A deputy governor I spoke to said no — probably true: even in Germany a bank transfer takes two days. And E-Day was off in Afghanistan. Mangal elders in Paktia said they had identified arbaki members but those went home when no money came. Maybe, in other areas arbaki members stayed, hoping that money might still arrive. Maybe, it had arrived but was not paid to them…
Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally posted. He speaks Pashtu and Dari.
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