(New York) - Leaders attending the NATO Summit meeting in Lisbon should make a public commitment to a security transition plan for Afghanistan that bars engaging with abusive and corrupt commanders, forces, and contractors, Human Rights Watch said today. The meeting opens on November 19, 2010.
The Lisbon summit is meant to start the transition of responsibility for security to the Afghan government. But for this transition to be effective, NATO should fulfill its stated commitment to put governance and rule of law reforms at the heart of its strategy, Human Rights Watch said. This requires severing ties with abusive commanders, unaccountable private security companies, unofficial armed groups working with special operations forces, and rights abusing local defense forces, Human Rights Watch said.
"If abusive power brokers are strengthened rather than marginalized, the US and NATO will only compound Afghanistan's security problems," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "If NATO leaders are serious about making rule of law a central pillar of their counter-insurgency strategy, they should stop hiring or partnering with abusive commanders."
The Counter-Insurgency (COIN) Field Manual, which General David Petraeus co-wrote in December 2006 to establish the principles of counter-insurgency theory, states that, "[T]he primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government."
However, it is not yet apparent that the US and NATO are in practice taking the necessary steps to distance their forces from power brokers who have been accused of serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
US and NATO forces have concentrated significant efforts in 2010 in Kandahar province, and claimed that governance would be central to their strategy. But there is little or no evidence that there has been progress on governance reforms, Human Rights Watch said. Instead, US and NATO forces have continued to rely on the military and on logistical support from a small group of power brokers who have a stranglehold on the local government and economy and who are alleged by many in the area to have committed crimes or abuses with impunity.
Human Rights Watch cited as one example a local police force, headed by a chief who has received numerous public visits from senior political and military leaders, including General Petraeus and the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. The US has contracted with XE, formerly Blackwater, for several years to train this force.
In 2006, the chief was briefly suspended during an Interior Ministry inquiry into allegations of extra-judicial killings by this police force. The results of the inquiry have never been made public.
In 2010, Human Rights Watch has received credible information from a number of sources concerning alleged serious abuses by the members of the police force under his command. According to recent interviews by Human Rights Watch, many civilians fear the chief. One said, "In Afghanistan an ordinary person can't do anything, but a government person can do what he wants - killing, stealing, anything."
Past allegations of human rights abuses are well known to NATO commanders, who have a responsibility to take such information into account when identifying partners. Despite this, senior NATO and US army officers have strengthened their relationship with him, describing him as a "pragmatic solution" to local security challenges and a "folk hero."
"The international community has a long history of ill-conceived thinking that security and justice are contradictory objectives," Reid said. "But partnering with abusive commanders is a self-defeating strategy. Too often these are the very people who are driving communities to the insurgency."
In addition to undermining governance by engaging with abusive commanders, two US congressional reports issued in 2010 have identified US and NATO contracting of both logistics and private security companies as fueling warlordism and corruption.
New guidelines published by General Petraeus in September that seek to reduce negative consequences of US and NATO contracting, and the establishment of Task Force 2010, which is designed to provide some oversight of military contracting, are both helpful, Human Rights Watch said. Fulfilling those obligations though, will require the US and NATO leaders to sever ties with the most notorious power brokers with a background of criminality and human rights abuses.
"The US and NATO impatience for quick results is reducing their resolve to press for governance reform," Reid said. "The tougher - but longer-term solution - is to stop doing deals with abusive or corrupt people, and instead, prosecute them and strengthen the institutions capable of delivering that justice," said Reid.
Another policy that risks entrenching a lack of accountability is US and NATO support for the Afghan government's plan for the Afghan Local Police force, or ALP, to improve the defense of communities where the Afghan security forces are having little impact. The Interior Ministry and NATO have announced that 10,000 ALP members will be appointed in key districts, and there are reports that another 20,000 may follow.
The US, NATO, and the Afghan government have in the past experimented with numerous community guard forces and tribal militia. The use of such poorly trained and monitored forces has in the past raised a range of human rights concerns, including their records of abuses against local communities such as rape, extortion, and theft, as well as the exacerbation of local tribal or ethnic tensions. There have also been operational problems - including weak command and control; ambiguity about rules of engagement; theft or disappearance of weapons; selection problems including infiltration by the Taliban; poor training; corruption; and a high rate of attrition.
The Afghan government, the US, and NATO have sought to address some of these concerns in plans outlined for ALP, including Afghan government demands that these forces be better integrated into Interior Ministry control. While commitments towards greater oversight are welcomed, the Interior Ministry clearly has limited capacity to provide effective oversight of additional forces when it is already struggling to provide adequate command and control of national forces, Human Rights Watch said. The ALP will have less training than regular police, and be operating in areas that are at the limits of Afghan government control, compounding the need for, and the challenge of, providing adequate oversight.
One senior Interior Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that ALP would be "another militia" that would make security worse by strengthening existing warlords' networks. "The people of Afghanistan don't want these militias," he said. "This is what the warlords and the Americans want."
A letter seen by Human Rights Watch from elders in Shindand, Herat province, to the Interior Ministry, refuses to comply with the order to form an ALP unit, stating that, "The presence of armed men under of the name Arbakis [militia] would create more security problems in Shindand district instead of being helpful." The elders requested that more attention should instead be given to strengthening the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. Human Rights Watch has learned that elders in Uruzgan province have also rejected the initiative, out of concerns that ALP units would be targeted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan government, the US, and NATO to ensure that there is adequate training, management, discipline, accountability mechanisms, and vetting provided to these new forces. Prior to expanding the initiative around the country, thorough assessments of the first units are needed.
"The US and NATO are in a hurry to show results, but they should not rush to roll out ‘militia lite' without being sure they and the Afghan government can provide oversight," Reid said. "Abusive commanders, unaccountable militias, and corrupt contractors are not a long-term solution for stabilizing Afghanistan."