Human rights and the Afghan security transition

As the deadline approaches for the transition to Afghan control ofsecurity in 2014, the Afghan government and its international backers haveembraced a high-risk strategy of funding and arming militias in the country’snorth (a process that was started by the Afghan intelligence agency, theNational Directorate of Security (NDS), in 2009), as well as a village-levelforce called ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

As the deadline approaches for the transition to Afghan control ofsecurity in 2014, the Afghan government and its international backers haveembraced a high-risk strategy of funding and arming militias in the country'snorth (a process that was started by the Afghan intelligence agency, theNational Directorate of Security (NDS), in 2009), as well as a village-levelforce called the "Afghan Local Police" (ALP). But they have done so without providingthe necessary oversight mechanisms, thereby creating instability in the very communitiesthese forces are supposed to protect. Human Rights Watch has found that both government-backed militias in northern Kunduzprovince and some units of the ALP in Baghlan, Herat, and Uruzganprovinces have been implicated in rape, arbitrarydetention, abduction, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids. Those responsiblehave largely avoided accountability, encouraging future abuses.

The Khanabad district governor in Kunduz province told us that there areover 1,500 militia members in his district alone. And militias in Kunduz havebeen implicated in beatings, rape, and killings. In most cases no militia membersare held accountable for their actions because of their affiliation with alocal strongman or government official. For instance, in Khanabad in August 2009, a militia member killedfour men in a family dispute. An NDS official confirmed that the police couldnot arrest anyone involved in the killing because of the militia commander'sconnection to the provincial chief of police and a local strongman who isclosely involved with abusive armed groups. A prosecutor who is also the fatherof one of the men killed told Human Rights Watch, "No one has helped me, and Iwork for the government, so what about the other people? Who will listen tothem?"

Into this mix, the Afghan Local Police -- a U.S.-backed initiative -- wascreated in 2010 as a critical element of the current U.S. strategy inAfghanistan. The formerhead of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. David Petraeus, called the ALP "arguably the most critical element in our effort tohelp Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself." The use of communitydefense forces is not surprising given the weakness ofAfghanistan's national army and police and the lack of government securityforces in some conflict areas. An advisor to U.S. special operations forces explainedto us: "Local defense forces can be a bottom-up strategy in rural areas, and ifkept small, defensive, and under the control of legitimate elders."

As the deadline approaches for the transition to Afghan control ofsecurity in 2014, the Afghan government and its international backers haveembraced a high-risk strategy of funding and arming militias in the country’snorth (a process that was started by the Afghan intelligence agency, theNational Directorate of Security (NDS), in 2009), as well as a village-levelforce called the "Afghan Local Police" (ALP). But they have done so without providingthe necessary oversight mechanisms, thereby creating instability in the very communitiesthese forces are supposed to protect. Human Rights Watch has found that both government-backed militias in northern Kunduzprovince and some units of the ALP in Baghlan, Herat, and Uruzganprovinces have been implicated in rape, arbitrarydetention, abduction, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids. Those responsiblehave largely avoided accountability, encouraging future abuses.

The Khanabad district governor in Kunduz province told us that there areover 1,500 militia members in his district alone. And militias in Kunduz havebeen implicated in beatings, rape, and killings. In most cases no militia membersare held accountable for their actions because of their affiliation with alocal strongman or government official. For instance, in Khanabad in August 2009, a militia member killedfour men in a family dispute. An NDS official confirmed that the police couldnot arrest anyone involved in the killing because of the militia commander’sconnection to the provincial chief of police and a local strongman who isclosely involved with abusive armed groups. A prosecutor who is also the fatherof one of the men killed told Human Rights Watch, "No one has helped me, and Iwork for the government, so what about the other people? Who will listen tothem?"

Into this mix, the Afghan Local Police — a U.S.-backed initiative — wascreated in 2010 as a critical element of the current U.S. strategy inAfghanistan. The formerhead of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. David Petraeus, called the ALP "arguably the most critical element in our effort tohelp Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself." The use of communitydefense forces is not surprising given the weakness ofAfghanistan’s national army and police and the lack of government securityforces in some conflict areas. An advisor to U.S. special operations forces explainedto us: "Local defense forces can be a bottom-up strategy in rural areas, and ifkept small, defensive, and under the control of legitimate elders."

As of August 2011, more than 7,000 men had been inducted into the ALP. TheUnited States is funding the program and is primarily involved in training newmembers. (The United Kingdom is training the ALP in Helmand province.) Despitethe word "police" in its name, the ALP, who receive 21 days of training, haveno law enforcement authority. Instead, they operate in a defensive capacity,inspecting checkpoints and reporting on insurgent activities.

Afghan and international proponents of the ALP point to safeguards suchas nomination and vetting of ALP members by village shuras (councils) and NDS, reporting to the national police, thefact that the program is under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, andtraining and mentoring by U.S. special operations forces. But in the areaswhere the ALP operate, they often outnumber the national police, whose weakcommand and control structures make for poor supervision of the ALP. Moreover,our research found that ALP forces often have separate, informal channels topowerful government officials and local strongmen who can protect them fromofficial accountability.

Interior Ministry officials conceded to Human Rights Watch that similarsafeguards of shura vetting and supervision by the national police had beenapplied to previous community defense forces, many of which ended in failure. An ISAF official acknowledged the weakness in vettingand told us: "I have no confidence in a local vetting process. Who will dare tosay no? That’s just not the way things work.Anyone who has experience of working on such projects and is honest about itwill say the same. I was around for ANAP [Afghan National Auxiliary Police]. We’ve seen again and again that this kind ofvetting does not work."

Afghan officials admitted that the ANAP, created in 2006, was barelytrained, underwent minimal vetting, had poorly defined rules of engagement, andended up being infiltrated by insurgents. Another previouscommunity defense force, the Afghan Public Protection Force (AP3), created in2009 in Wardak province, was hijacked by a local strongman, Ghulam Mohammed. Shuraelders told Human Rights Watch that vetting for AP3 was minimal because ofMohammed’s influence, and shura members were simply told to approve a list ofmen who were affiliated with Mohammed rather than nominate people from thecommunity for AP3. Residents of Wardak told Human Rights Watch about beatingsand intimidation they suffered by men working as AP3.

U.S. militaryofficials told us that the ALP has begun todeliver improvements in security in a number of areas including Gizab andArghandab, where they had previously established the "LocalDefense Initiative," (LDI) a precursor to the ALP. (The LDIwas launched in 2009 by the U.S. military and involved U.S. special operations forcesembedding in villages and training village forces vouched by shuras to providesecurity).

Human Rights Watch did not investigatethe ALP in Gizab and Arghandab, but in areas we did investigate there is reasonfor concern regarding oversight of this new force. Although the ALP is just a year old, wefound some of its members implicated in forcible land grabs, rape, abduction, andillegal raids. In Uruzgan province in December 2010, anALP commander forcibly tried to recruit men to the ALP and detained six elders forseveral days, two of them for one month, after they refused to agree to providemen to the ALP. In Baghlanprovince, four armed ALP men are suspected of abducting a 13-year-old boy andgang-raping him in April of this year. Although the assailants’ identities arewell-known, no arrests have taken place. The police refused to investigateallegations implicating the ALP members due to their connections with powerfulgovernment officials and with U.S. special operations forces.

Some communities we spoke with acknowledged improvements in security dueto the ALP, but other residents raised concerns that the ALP members had notbeen properly vetted, citing criminal and insurgent elements they said werebeing absorbed into the police force. Many complained that the ALP, like otherirregular armed groups, are not held accountable when implicated in abuses andcould turn into just another militia. Such perceptions undermine support forthe central government — perceptions that a group of elders from Shindand district in Herat provincetold me "will drive us to the Taliban."

The human rights consequences of supporting irregular armed groups mustbe taken into consideration in executing any military strategy in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgencytheory recognizes the protection of civilians as an integral pillar of itsstrategy. Yet both the Afghan government and its international backers areworking with militias, hastily training and arming men in remote areas, andcalling them "local police," without ensuring that the government has adequateresources to oversee and hold them accountable. The Afghan government isalready struggling to oversee and hold accountable its national police and armedforces. Adding ALP forces to the roster without the resources to supervise themand hold them accountable when they commit abuses is a recipe for disaster.

The Afghan government should investigate allegations of abuse by militiasand the ALP, cease support of militias, and start taking responsibility forprotecting the human rights of its citizens. At the same time, both the U.S.and Afghan governments should avoid the rush to set up ALP units around thecountry without proper vetting, training, and command-and-control structures.The Afghan government should be assisted in setting up adequate accountabilitymechanisms, which include dedicated staff to investigate abuses, and increating an external complaints body to act on reports of abuses by the ALP andother police forces.

Pressures resulting from the drawdown of international troops should not resultin solutions that ease transition at the expense of Afghan civilians. Long-term stability in Afghanistan canonly come if the Afghan government and its international backers implementsustainable policies that will protect local communities from both insurgentsand predatory government-backed forces, no matter which side commits theabuses.

Sahr Muhammedally, a human rightslawyer based in London, co-authored the Human Rights Watch report "‘JustDon’t Call It a Militia’": Impunity, Militias, and the ‘Afghan Local Police.’"

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