The Irregulars

Arming vigilantes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to work alongside struggling police forces isn't a solution -- it's a time bomb.


Last year, in Kabul, a group of concerned citizens created a fund to subsidize police pay. The police salaries, when they were paid at all, weren’t enough to make ends meet for the officers, leaving them ripe targets for corruption, and leaving the people of Kabul to address much of the insecurity on their own. This ground-up effort is understandable — the underpaid police had little capacity to provide a fair and responsive service. But such initiatives are also highly problematic for many reasons, allowing the corrupt actors to continue to contribute to an ineffective and inefficient police institution and creating a cover for mismanagement and weak government services to continue. Most of all, this type of problem solving approach threatens police reform activities by shifting police services from the public to the private spheres.

Public security is difficult to achieve in any context. In many settings, a weak or fragile government is often the root cause of the precarious security situation, police misconduct, and lack of responsiveness. The response to this diagnosis is too often for international and local actors to simply take the government out of the solution, working around it instead. But any meaningful reform efforts, especially in the security sector, cannot take root without government ownership. External funding and capacity building efforts deliver only when locals are engaged and invested and this includes government officials and institutions. Otherwise, foreign aid leads to inefficiency and corruption and worst of all, a lack of sustainability which can quickly return a context into conflict. As President Obama aptly argued last summer in an interview with the New York Times, “We can help them and partner with them every step of the way. But we can’t do it for them.”

The biggest danger in supporting shortcuts in security solutions is that parallel policing structures can quickly spiral out of control, gain power, and often lead to more violence as their tactics are fighting violence with violence. There are many examples of these dangerous outcomes. The vigilantes in Northern Ireland who refuse to lend legitimacy to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) invite community members to report drug trafficking/dealing activities to them and promise to inflict punishment on the offenders. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram acted as vigilantes between 2001 and 2008. When clashes with Nigerian police became too brutal, the violence became heightened to what it is today — the protection of communities has now become the preying on of communities.

International efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have both put a premium on arming and training local militias to help police villages, and help them to protect themselves from the insurgencies, criminal activity, and violent extremism. In Pakistan, military-sponsored tribal lashkars (militias) have been groomed to tackle Taliban and other militants in Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt so as to regain space and hit at the local support base of militants. On July 30, armed men rode in the village of Aliza in Afghanistan on motorcycles. They were looking for the Taliban and were dressed in Afghan Local Police uniforms — a force funded and created by the United States. They rounded up three men and a 14-year-old boy and shot them on the side of the road more than 100 times.

Despite the apparent promise of plans to cut out corrupt, ineffectual governments, and secure and empower local populations, these programs are really courting disaster, contributing to violence rather than addressing security threats. In all these cases and in so many others, the non-statutory “police” are no more than a gang fighting for allegiance of the community. Empowering them through material and non-material support (guns and authority even if non-statutory) undercuts the long-term goal of stability for a number of reasons. First, such measures threaten the legitimacy of the actual police, undermining the public’s confidence in policing and further weakening the state and the perceived legitimacy of the government. Second, and more immediately problematic, they threaten to undermine the ability to serve their communities by enforcing the rule of law.

In Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has transformed itself from top to bottom in terms of policing strategies and practices as they continue to reform according to the 1999 Patten Commission Report, which contained 175 symbolic and practical recommendations for creating the new Police Service of Northern Ireland on the heels of the Good Friday Agreement. But the biggest threat to their legitimacy comes from the vigilantes who have decided to reject the peace process and who “keep order” through punishment killings and brutal penalties for drug dealers and others denounced by the community. In countries such as Pakistan, and to a limited extent in India, some political parties either groom their own or build relations with available armed groups for securing their constituents. Karachi, the hub of Pakistan’s industry and economic activity is proving to be a terrible victim of this trend. Gang warfare and targeted killing of opponents is a daily routine now.

Supporters of these parallel security structures often pitch militia style ‘community policing’ as a temporary and cost effective solution that acts as a building block for reconstructing statehood for fragile and failing states, especially in contexts ridden with corruption and the sheer lack of police visibility and response

There has been an onslaught of community-centric programs in recent years funded and implemented by NGOs and governments in countries facing insurgency, organized crime, and terrorism, and local political groups jump in this fray to get money, weapons, and, most importantly, to expand their political space. Urgency to make things work often drives such initiatives. For a long time, in Afghanistan, influential political players (some of whom started their careers as warlords) were allowed to maintain private militias to ensure their security and protect their interests In Mexico, private gangs were sponsored to fight the drug business.

The case for international assistance projects buying into the tradeoffs of supporting these groups in lieu of building national police forces, however, is inescapably shortsighted: Armed non-state actors often delay organic state building processes and damage peace building measures — at times irreparably. Establishing rule of law is neither an easy nor a quickly attainable objective. Institutions need time to mature and be productive. Programs aim to have the community chose who will provide security, how they will do it must be reevaluated and infused with police capacity building components. This tendency may be due to the importance given to the principle of local ownership in capacity-building practices. But it may violate other equally important principles to “do no harm” and foster sustainable solutions. It is easy to be taken in by the immediate needs of communities, but international assistance programs must rise above a “clientelism” of community members. Programs that aim to bypass governments in favor of community assistance fail to integrate a few very well established principles. The first is the principle of “Do not harm.” Supporting alternate means of providing security is too risky. It is quite likely to lead to the formation of gangs or the strengthening of then, even helping them transform from thugs to well organized insurgents. In the long run, such development will make law enforcement eventually that much more challenging and will perpetuate the cycle of violence. In addition, the government response to giving a disproportionate role to the public could be to politicize the police more and render it more repressive and violent.

Secondly, the principle of local ownership can be misunderstood or mismanaged. Indeed, engaging a community in identification of solutions is not only a good idea but central to capacity building for peace. It is undeniable that communities have a role to play in policing and should be collaborative partners in their own security. But this is one, albeit a crucial, factor in the development of realistic security in any context. The statutory police will be in the space no matter what the community wants and no matter how many peripheral parallel programs of security can exist. The result of creating alternate means of policing to fill the gaps left by the police will inevitably lead to more violence. And the police will not change their behavior and maybe become even more predatory and repressive as a result of increased competition and/or violence.

Thirdly, sustainability, or the quest for long-term impacts must be incorporated. Programs that seek to solicit feedback on how communities want to be policed or will accept to be policed must incorporate mechanisms to mitigate the risk of building a cycle of dependency of communities on international assistance to cooperate and communicate with their police. The focus of programs should be on building the capacity of the police to engage the communities they police and who have to accept to be policed by them. Public security arises when police and communities have the capacity (individual) and the systems (institutional) to directly cooperate with each other, the public reporting threats or crimes and the police responding according to democratic policing principles. While this becomes an ever-longer project when police capacity to provide service and protection to the public when the police are used as a tool of repression of political dissent by the government, the answer still lies somewhere in reforming the police, rather than creating parallel security structures.

The international community has to be very careful to understand that community policing, a concept so widely defined that it has largely lost its meaning, is about reforming the police so they may develop the capacity, both individual and institutional, to collaborate with the communities they police, not the other way around. In its intended form, community policing requires a significant amount of police structure, management, discipline, practices, and processes that clearly guide both police conduct and community expectations. While the police is a security force, it must be developed as a service in which individual officers have enough training, education, and practices to be able to exercise the discretion which is inherent in policing. The police service can only function when sensitive to social ills, root causes of crime. Police officers have a lot of discretion when they respond to calls for help or to address a threat. Discretion is power and institutions have to guide the exercise of that power. The community can and should define security needs and cooperate with the police to address those — or to develop the capacity to do so but their role is different than that of the police. Victimization surveys show that if the police are not perceived as efficient, protective, and service-oriented, the public will not come to them. When that happens, communities will continue to resort to vigilantism for protection. And the cycle of violence continues as does the insecurity.

If there are people in the community who want to serve by providing security, they could join the ranks, train and deploy as official police or they can serve as community leaders who liaise/partner with the police to ensure policing takes place while ensuring continued collaboration that is so crucial to secure environments. This is a core principle of community policing. These community-minded individuals are the cornerstone of a peaceful society. Being vigilant is important for any community. This will help establish ethos that will strengthen police capacity to deal with crime and violence in a sustainable way. Informal enforcement mechanisms in the name of local culture only entrench tribalism and adhocism. Customary governance mechanisms can be creatively coopted where necessary but making police subservient to such norms can hardly bring change to societies.

Investment in police reform and broader criminal justice system is a viable as well as the most constructive approach, albeit the most difficult path to take. All in all, police reform efforts must address the police culture of violence and corruption as well as the institutional failure more than image building and assuming roles that are not core policing responsibilities. Incidentally, the most critical aspects of standard police reform are features that are considered least relevant for militias: following merit in recruitment, professional training, strict adherence to law, and forensic support in investigations and prosecution. These are exactly the areas where international funding efforts must focus.


Hassan Abbas is professor and department chair of regional and analytical studies at National Defense University's College of International Security Affairs. He is also author of The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier.
Nadia Gerspacher is the Director of Security Sector Education programs at the USIP Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. She works on police reform programs with police institutions from post-conflict and transitioning countries to assist in their adoption of a service-oriented approach.