Facing a growing insurgency that has left more than 500 people dead over the past month, the Afghan government announced Sunday a controversial plan to rearm tribesmen in volatile southern regions.
Taliban forces have regrouped with greater strength than in previous "spring offensives," the seasonal upticks in fighting that come with melting snows.In response, Kabul plans to bolster security forces with local tribal militiamen who will don police uniforms.
But the effort alarms diplomats and Afghan legislators. They see a turn toward paramilitaries as a setback to government efforts to regain a monopoly on the use of force through disarming warlords, training a new army, and professionalizing the police. Regional leaders, observers fear, will get the message that Kabul cannot provide security and they should fall back on their own private armies.
"It is very dangerous. Re-empowering militias is a double-edged sword," says Hamidullah Tarzi, an analyst who has advised successive Afghan governments since the 1970s.
For Afghans in the south, the plan evokes painful memories of the civil war years when the government recruited militias to fight the mujahideen (holy warriors), and failed. After the Soviet withdrawal, feuding militias brought violence and mayhem to southern Afghanistan, aiding the rise of the Taliban movement that promised to restore order.
"It didn't work [during the civil war] and it won't work now. Rearming the militias will create a group of thieves and looters," says Habibullah Jan, a disarmed militia commander and member of Parliament for southern Kandahar.
Five years after the fall of the Taliban, more than $150 million has been spent on cajoling warlords – particularly in the Afghan north and west – into laying down some of their weapons and allowing their men to join a revamped national army.
The process is still ongoing. Afghanistan made a commitment in January to disarm all illegal militias by the end of next year. Rearming private armies in the south flies in the face of that pledge and would encourage militia commanders to take up their guns again, analysts say.
"Commanders in the north, the northeast, and west are getting very nervous about the mention of rearming militias in the south," says Peter Babbington, head of the United Nations-backed Afghan New Beginnings Program that heads the disarmament drive.
The government, however, argues that the real concern is the current security vacuum in many parts of the south.
"This is not rearming militias. We would like to strengthen the police presence in districts in the south where there has been a rise in terrorism," says Jawed Ludin, the chief of staff for President Hamid Karzai. "It is not so much that terrorists are strong but that we are weak. In some districts bordering Pakistan which are prone to infiltration, we have 40 police to protect 200,000 people."
Mr. Ludin says that the new recruits would be given uniforms and integrated into the command structure of the national police. Their standing in the local tribal structure, Ludin says, would garner them support from their communities that are in need of protection.
Ludin brushed aside concerns that Kabul would be legitimizing militias that under the disarmament road map ought to be disbanded, not enlisted. "In the south there are de facto networks. You cannot just wish that away, it will take time. We haven't yet demilitarized Kabul, so we cannot have hoped to have done that down south."
Yet critics of the plan are particularly nervous about the leaders who may provide militiamen. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada and Jan Mohammed Khan are two tribal militia leaders drumming up forces in the south. Both are former provincial governors who were dismissed last year after months of international pressure to oust them.
"It is a complete scandal. Thugs that we have worked for years to remove from power could come back with a vengeance," says a senior Western official.
For his part, Mr. Akhundzada, is eager to fight the insurgency that is flooding his region with refugees.
"I went to Helmand to look for 500 men and 700 men came forward," says Akhundzada, who was the former governor of southern Helmand Province and commands a militia. "People are ready to help the Afghan National Army because they have suffered enough at the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda."
Afghans have also suffered at the hands of lawless groups – often linked with officials – who continue to loot and torture people, eroding the government's credibility, says Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"People have a very bad memory of militias," he says, adding that Akhundzada had a poor record of respecting central government directives and human rights.
Still in question is how the extra tribal forces, which may number over 2,000 men across the south, will be paid. Western donors are reluctant to bankroll a project that could weaken the already fragile institutions of state, and the Afghan government has few funds of its own.
If no money is forthcoming, the tribal forces might prey on the local population for their wages.
"I think [the plan] will destabilize and irritate the south even further," says Tom Koenigs, the special representative of the secretary-general for the United Nations in Afghanistan. "[Suggesting] that there is a clear difference between legal armed groups and illegal armed groups is, I think, naive – particularly if they involve governors that have been removed for good reason."