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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."