Lessons from Iraq? US creates local militias to fight Taliban

With echoes of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, the US is arming, training, and paying Afghans to set up village militias.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At first sight, Muhammad Nasim Gul and his men – in drab, olive-colored fatigues and baseball caps to match – look like Cuban guerrillas. They slowly patrol the muddy streets of Wardak Province, weapons drawn in a constant state of alert.

They stand sentry, night and day, on the watch for intruders and other enemies. At times they stop to talk to the townsfolk, to see if anyone has had any trouble recently.

Mr. Gul and his fellow tribesmen are part of an ambitious new American-backed program that started here two weeks ago to train, uniform, and arm locals against the Taliban. Officials turned to the idea following the success of a similar plan in Iraq, known as the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribes were armed to fight Al Qaeda. They hope the program, dubbed the "Afghan Public Protection Force," can help stem the worsening violence here.

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"My tribesmen joined this force to protect our village," says Mr. Gul, a former policeman who is now a commander in the protection force of the Jalrez district of Wardak, a 30-minute drive from Kabul.

Under the plan, members of each district shura (council) in Wardak nominate locals for the force who are then trained for three weeks by Afghans (with the involvement of American advisers). They then return to their home districts, receiving nearly $125 dollars a month in salary – more than the typical police income, which is usually less than $100 a month. If successful in Wardak, officials plan to expand the program to more than 40 other districts across the south and east.

Afghan and American officials stress that the force is not a tribal militia. "The shuras [which nominate the force] are not from one or two tribes, so they will bring people from all the villages," says Barna Karimi, director-general of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, a government body that works with the local shuras.

Pitting one ethnic group against another?

But in practice, the force is shaping up along tribal and ethnic lines. In Jalrez, one of two districts where the program has started, only 38 of the 128 members of the force are Pashtuns. The rest belong to other ethnic minority groups. But the Taliban and its supporters are almost entirely Pashtun, as is the majority of Jalrez district.

"It is not wise to use members of one ethnicity to combat members of another ethnicity," says Waliullah Rahmani, a policy analyst with the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

Of the 38 Pashtuns in the Jalrez force, all belong to a single tribe, the Kharoti. Several locals say that other tribes in the area refused to join. "We are the only tribe that joined this program," says commander Gul. "All of the rest of the tribes are angry at us and think we are helping the infidels."

"Unfortunately, most of the tribes living in these areas are not supportive of the current government," says Mr. Rahmani, "and they are not likely to fight against the insurgents."

Critics of the program contend that arming specific tribes is dangerous in a country with a recent history of civil war.

But government officials defend the composition of the force, saying it can fight the insurgency only with those who are most willing, regardless of ethnicity or tribe.

Recruits don't want to fight Taliban

While in Iraq the Sunni tribes were asked to fight against outsiders – Al Qaeda – in Wardak the majority of insurgents are locals. "People in my district are pessimistic about the effectiveness of these forces," says Roshanak Wardak, a parliamentarian from Saydabad district. "They say that if they joined, they would end up fighting their own brothers, because the Taliban in my district are locals; they are not from Pakistan or Kandahar."

Even those who neither have ties to insurgents nor support them say they fear reprisals if they join. "The Taliban in Wardak are very powerful," says one local from Jaghatu district, who asked not to be named for security reasons. "Even those against the Taliban are scared to join."

Some say that even if they do join, it might not be for the reasons that officials envisaged. "I would like to join and defend my community," says one local from Saydabad district, who also asked not to be identified, "but only against criminals. I don't want to fight against the Taliban."

Fazel Qazizai, from Chak district, says, "Most of us just want money for food and a weapon for security. Just think about it – one Kalashnikov is $600. Where could I ever get that kind of money? But in the protection force, we'll get one for free. And we'll get an ID card so that the police can no longer harass us."

But he adds, "We have no interest in going to war with the Taliban."

Moreover, some critics say the influx of weapons can exacerbate longstanding tribal and political rivalries. In Chak district, for example, residents say the main group promoting the protection force is Ittehad-e-Islami, a pro-government fundamentalist group accused of human rights violations in the 1990s. (No one from the party was available for comment.)

The potential for groups or individuals to take advantage of the protection force worries tribal elders, says Muhammad Hazrat Janaan, a member of the Wardak provincial government. "They are worried that the force can actually decrease security unless it's done very, very carefully."

A history of tribal militias

Although they are controversial, tribal militias and community guards have a long history in Afghanistan. In parts of some eastern provinces, a certain type of tribal militia, the arbakai, acts as a community guard. These arbakai act independently of the government and is formed fully on the initiative of the tribal members. The Afghan Public Protection Force is not an arbakai, since the latter is an indigenous volunteer force under the command of tribal leaders, while the protection force is created, paid for and controlled by the US and the Afghan Ministry of Interior.

In some cases, arbakai have successfully kept insurgents out of their territory. But it might be difficult to replicate such successes. "The arbakai are limited to the southeastern provinces," says Muhammad Osman Tariq, with the London-based Crisis States Research Center, who wrote a recent report on the subject. "The arbakai have existed there for hundreds of years, independent of the government, and will continue to exist for years more."

Conditions in provinces like Wardak, which do not have such a strong tradition of tribal militias, differ greatly from those in the eastern provinces, Mr. Tariq continues. The arbakai in the east are more motivated to defend their tribes, since they are created and organized by the tribes themselves.

Needed: guns, food, motivation

Analysts say that if the Afghan Public Protection Force is to work, officials will have to learn from past failed attempts at locally based security initiatives. For example, a previous NATO-backed initiative to arm locals in the southern provinces, dubbed the Afghan Auxiliary Police Force, ended in failure after Western countries deemed the force to be ineffective. Officials at the time said it was poorly trained and motivated. In some cases, they accused the force of favoring specific tribes or of engaging in criminal activity. In other cases, recruits simply absconded with their weapons, never to be seen again.

Gul, the commander of the Jalrez Public Protection Force, is convinced that the current plan will work – if his forces are well enough equipped. "We need more weapons, more clothes, more food. We lack everything," he says. "We lack everything."

"We are the only tribe that joined the force, so we need to protect ourselves," he adds. "If the other tribes get their hands on me, they will kill me."

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