As two Afghan farmers tell it, they are part of the "good" militia in their northern province: unofficial armed men who protect schools, families, and farms, and have chased Taliban insurgents away.
They are not part of the "bad" militia, they say, that since 2010 has especially traumatized parts of Kunduz Province by forcibly extracting "taxes" from villagers, and engaging in killings and rape – all in the name of fighting insurgents themselves.
Now these traditional gunmen want the Karzai government to make their local unit an official part of the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces that will take over after US combat forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
But as President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet today in Washington, such militias – both good and bad, and neither of them under government control – present a challenge to the future stability in Afghanistan.
Kunduz represents a blend of unofficial and official security forces in Afghanistan, where well-connected militia chiefs have been reluctant to disarm or cede influence. Here, the legacy of the decade-long fight against the Soviets in the 1980s has persisted, thwarting government efforts to extend its reach throughout the country.
Fighting back against the Taliban is second nature, says Abdul Wasi, a black-bearded, gray-turbaned farmer, though his militia would prefer it if the government trained them, paid them, and officially made them members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a program launched by Gen. David Petraeus and modeled after the Sons of Iraq to mobilize Sunnis in Iraq against Al Qaeda.
"Going 30 years back, we were involved with these guns," says Mr. Wasi. "Our families fought the Soviet Union, so that is our legacy. We can't sleep without guns."
They call themselves arbaki, after the proud and revered local militias that formed more than a century ago to fight the British in Afghanistan. But that is a term that has been used by nominally pro-government militias with both good and bad reputations.
"Yes, we are winning the war, meaning we pushed the insurgents out of our area," says Mohammed Yasir, a young man with a budding beard and a light-brown wool cap from a district near Khanabad.
'Good' v 'bad' militia
"If there was no arbaki, [the Taliban] would kill many people in one night," says Wasi. He joined the militia two years ago, when the Taliban shot at a vehicle he was riding in with a rocket-propelled grenade.
"They kill people with any connection to the government,” says Wasi, who, with half a dozen family members with government connections, has been a target. But, he claims: “The provincial capital is secure because of the arbaki."
These farmers' local militia "might be considered pure" because they operate apart from the much larger territory encompassed by a key commander who fought the Russians, says Gran Hewad, a political researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul who closely follows Kunduz affairs. The commander, Amir Mir Alam, controls a militia with a notorious reputation for violence and abuse of civilians.
Mr. Mir Alam has kept good relations with key people in Kabul and Kunduz, and in the past "disarmed only in name," says Mr. Hewad, interviewed in Kabul. Mir Alam was instrumental in recruiting a militia from 2009 in concert with Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security, to make up for manpower shortages in the province.
"Already there was insecurity; this was a new wave of insecurity in Kunduz," says Hewad about Mir Alam’s militia. "These are the proxy forces undermining the rule of law and national government.... They have fought people, looted, burned houses, abducted, and raped women – whatever crimes are known in Afghanistan are committed by them."
Mir Alam’s militia is "getting bigger, with the normal argument that the Americans are leaving and the Taliban are recruiting," says Hewad. "The government argues that the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] would be better after 2014. If they are not lying, they should disarm these people. If there is a political will, it is possible."
Hewad noted in a November blog post that militia numbers have been increasing in Kunduz and "provincial security forces seem incapable of controlling them."
Mir Alam, who after the Soviet withdrawal eventually became a commander in the Northern Alliance which fought the Taliban, "has been known as the major obstacle for implementation of the disarmament agenda," Hewad wrote.
"These militias have already become a big source of trouble for the local people," concluded Hewad. "If a real disarmament effort does not take place soon, before 2014, they can be considered a major threat to the security of the province after NATO's troop drawdown."
Plagued with problems
Alarm bells have sounded before. A spring 2012 report called "From Arbaki to Local Police," by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and based on extensive field research, lamented that even the government's local police program – meant to absorb some militias – was plagued with problems.
Among them, on top of an illiteracy rate of more than 90 percent, were that a number of ALP had been in "illegal armed groups, arbakis, and the Taliban." According to the report, some local police recruits were "notorious for criminal acts," had "bad war records" and were "even serial killers. This makes people lose their confidence in the ALP and even in the government."
Militias in Kunduz are a step further down the accountability chain, and abuses have been widespread. The result has colored the view of locally-raised militias like that of farmers Mr. Yasir and Wasi. Before they took up guns as volunteers, they say, the principal at their local school was forced by Taliban threats to flee and the primary school – which doubled as a polling station during elections – was burned.
"We gathered up our guns and took them on, so now our presence has lowered insurgent activity," says Yasir. "Many times they were hurting people, so people got angry, many times they burned the school.... Now girls and boys go to school,"
Both men want the "illegal" militias to be disarmed, and "good" ones like theirs to be recognized for their work. They reckon there are 2,000 guns in their area, and 1,200 of those they consider to be arbaki. Officials have stated a figure of armed militiamen in Kunduz anywhere from several to ten thousand. "Every family has one gun," says Yasir.
"If the government trained the [good] militia, they could play a bigger role," says a veteran police trainer in Kunduz who asked not to be named for his safety.
"If they can get trained well, they can be very effective, because they are in all these areas," says the police trainer. He notes that two years ago, some districts were off-limits to government workers, though police and "good" militia deployments have since made them safer.
And yet this police trainer himself was forced to flee his home.
"I knew that one day a person would come and cause me trouble," he recalls. He brought all his family to Kunduz, the largest city in the province. "Sometimes I go back and walk on the land; other farmers are using it. This is common."
"The Mir Alam militia is much more problematic than a mafia – they are smuggling, kidnapping, and killing for more than business issues, but for tribes also," says Hewad of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Yasir and Wasi say those incidents should not be confused with the informal efforts of their arbaki militia.
"Most of us are farmers and live on our farms, nobody pays us," says Wasi. "Commanders with big groups take taxes from farmers; we don't do that. This is the reason they have a bad image, and made a bad reputation for all arbaki."