Dispatch

With Militias in Herat, ‘We Are Caught Between Bad and Worse’

Killings by militiamen in Herat underscore the risks of relying on armed civilians to fight off the Taliban.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
A militia member rests in Afghanistan.
A member of Afghan warlord Ismail Khan’s militia rests amid a clash with Taliban forces inside Herat, Afghanistan, on Aug. 2. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

HERAT, Afghanistan—Taliban insurgents are fighting to penetrate deeper into this historic city in western Afghanistan after already taking nearly all the districts in the province. For now, they are being held off by 75-year-old warlord Ismail Khan and his 2,000-person militia, which—like other civilian militias across the country—is providing the first real pushback against the insurgents.

As the battle rages, bullets ricochet off the shuttered shops and huge sandbag fortifications around Khan’s compound. Men sit and stand around, chat, drink tea, and stroke their weapons. The uniformed soldiers among them keep their counsel and return fire. 

Khan has long been despised for alleged human rights abuses committed at the height of his power as a soldier and mujahid leader fighting the Soviet occupation and the Taliban’s 1996 to 2001 regime. But he has won newfound admiration for joining his men with Afghan security forces against the insurgents in a last-ditch effort to hold the city.

HERAT, Afghanistan—Taliban insurgents are fighting to penetrate deeper into this historic city in western Afghanistan after already taking nearly all the districts in the province. For now, they are being held off by 75-year-old warlord Ismail Khan and his 2,000-person militia, which—like other civilian militias across the country—is providing the first real pushback against the insurgents.

As the battle rages, bullets ricochet off the shuttered shops and huge sandbag fortifications around Khan’s compound. Men sit and stand around, chat, drink tea, and stroke their weapons. The uniformed soldiers among them keep their counsel and return fire. 

Khan has long been despised for alleged human rights abuses committed at the height of his power as a soldier and mujahid leader fighting the Soviet occupation and the Taliban’s 1996 to 2001 regime. But he has won newfound admiration for joining his men with Afghan security forces against the insurgents in a last-ditch effort to hold the city.

Across the country, ordinary people have taken up arms against the Taliban as much of the U.S.-trained Afghan army has melted away after the hurried withdrawal of U.S. and international military forces. Many militias now receive funding from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, desperate to boost the armed forces’ number of fighters and firepower, which has so far failed to halt the insurgent advance. Citizen militias are also galvanized by reports of Taliban atrocities in districts they control, including abuse of women and girls, summary executions, and revenge killings as well as door-to-door searches for government and military employees. Journalists, human rights advocates, and women’s activists all feel threatened, and many have fled either to Kabul or abroad.

“The local uprising fighting the Taliban invasion against the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces is turning into a national resistance against the Taliban and other international terrorist organizations,” said Enayat Najafizada, founder of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul think tank. 

In Herat on Aug. 2 and in Kabul the next day, residents took to rooftops and marched through the streets, chanting “Allahu akbar” (or “God is great”) in support of Afghan forces and to counter the Taliban’s narrative that they have religious legitimacy. “The widespread public support of the security forces resonates in a changed Afghanistan, and people do not want the return of an Islamic emirate and Taliban dictatorship,” Najafizada said.

But there is a downside to the large-scale resurgence of militias in Afghanistan. Some analysts and activists fear the long-term consequences of arming the citizenry of a country that lacks unified political leadership and is riven with ethnic and tribal divisions. 

The recourse to militias, if “done in an unorganized and chaotic manner, can easily lead to gross violation of human rights,” said Weeda Mehran, an expert on conflict at the University of Exeter.” Recent history of civil wars in Afghanistan contains many examples of gross violations of human rights and victimization of civilians by various nonstate and quasi-state armed groups.”

Militia members of Ismail Khan's forces beat an unseen man who they claim is a Taliban insurgent or sympathizer during a clash inside Herat city on Aug. 2.

Militia members of Khans forces beat an unseen man who they claim is a Taliban insurgent or sympathizer during a clash inside Herat on Aug. 2. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

That’s just what happened at the Ab Borda bridge in Herat on Aug. 2. Armed militia loyal to Khan captured two men they said were Taliban and beat them to death using their fists, their feet, the butts of their Kalashnikov rifles, and grenade launchers. Then they threw the bodies into the road and pumped them full of bullets. When the bloodlust had subsided, with one of the bodies barely recognizable as human, the militiamen shouted “Allahu akbar.” 

Members of the militia said the pair had allowed Taliban gunmen into their home and were left behind when the insurgents retreated. The terror on their faces showed the men knew their fate. Uniformed members of Afghanistan’s security forces tried at first to prevent the killings. A senior member of the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence service, said later, “I could see it would be no use.”

A Herat militiaman from Ismail Khan's forces talks on his phone as government security forces rest during a clash with Taliban forces inside Herat city on Aug. 2.

A Herat militiaman from Khans forces talks on his phone as government security forces rest during a clash with Taliban forces inside Herat on Aug. 2.Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

The incident at Ab Borda reflected the deep hatred of each side for the other. Across the country, activists and officials tell stories of the Taliban mutilating and booby-trapping the corpses of their adversaries, using children as human shields, and entering private homes for cover. The massacre also highlights the impunity that has been a serious issue even in the relatively peaceful years since the Taliban’s fall. And it could become more problematic if militias become the private armies of would-be power brokers.

“There are two sides to this war with two possible results: If the government wins, it will be difficult to disarm the citizen militias. It could take three or four years, and in that time, they can use their arms as they wish,” said a human rights activist in Herat, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal. “If the Taliban win, the people will be armed, and we’re looking at a civil war scenario.”

“And now we have the same thing being done to the Taliban that they do to our side: vengeful violent killing with no responsibility, no justice, where the law is not even a consideration,” the activist continued. “What makes one side any better than the other, when both chant ‘Allahu akbar’ and both are committing atrocities? We are caught between bad and worse—that is not much of a choice.”

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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