As the deadline approaches for the transition to Afghan control of security in 2014, the Afghan government and its international backers have embraced a high-risk strategy of funding and arming militias in the country's north (a process that was started by the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), in 2009), as well as a village-level force called the "Afghan Local Police" (ALP). But they have done so without providing the necessary oversight mechanisms, thereby creating instability in the very communities these forces are supposed to protect. Human Rights Watch has found that both government-backed militias in northern Kunduz province and someunits of the ALP in Baghlan, Herat, and Uruzgan provinces have been implicated in rape, arbitrary detention, abduction, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids. Those responsible have largely avoided accountability, encouraging future abuses.
The Khanabad district governor in Kunduz province told us that there are over 1,500 militia members in his district alone. And militias in Kunduz have been implicated in beatings, rape, and killings. In most cases no militia members are held accountable for their actions because of their affiliation with a local strongman or government official. For instance, in Khanabad in August 2009, a militia member killed four men in a family dispute. An NDS official confirmed that the police could not arrest anyone involved in the killing because of the militia commander's connection to the provincial chief of police and a local strongman who is closely involved with abusive armed groups. A prosecutor who is also the father of one of the men killed told Human Rights Watch, "No one has helped me, and I work for the government, so what about the other people? Who will listen to them?"
Into this mix, the Afghan Local Police -- a U.S.-backed initiative -- was created in 2010 as a critical element of the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The former head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. David Petraeus, called the ALP "arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself." The use of community defense forces is not surprising given the weakness of Afghanistan's national army and police and the lack of government security forces in some conflict areas. An advisor to U.S. special operations forces explained to us: "Local defense forces can be a bottom-up strategy in rural areas, and if kept small, defensive, and under the control of legitimate elders."
As of August 2011, more than 7,000 men had been inducted into the ALP. The United States is funding the program and is primarily involved in training new members. (The United Kingdom is training the ALP in Helmand province.) Despite the word "police" in its name, the ALP, who receive 21 days of training, have no law enforcement authority. Instead, they operate in a defensive capacity, inspecting checkpoints and reporting on insurgent activities.
Afghan and international proponents of the ALP point to safeguards such as nomination and vetting of ALP members by village shuras (councils) and NDS, reporting to the national police, the fact that the program is under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, and training and mentoring by U.S. special operations forces. But in the areas where the ALP operate, they often outnumber the national police, whose weak command and control structures make for poor supervision of the ALP. Moreover, our research found that ALP forces often have separate, informal channels to powerful government officials and local strongmen who can protect them from official accountability.
Interior Ministry officials conceded to Human Rights Watch that similar safeguards of shura vetting and supervision by the national police had been applied to previous community defense forces, many of which ended in failure. An ISAF official acknowledged the weakness in vetting and told us: "I have no confidence in a local vetting process. Who will dare to say no? That's just not the way things work. Anyone who has experience of working on such projects and is honest about it will say the same. I was around for ANAP [Afghan National Auxiliary Police]. We've seen again and again that this kind of vetting does not work."
Afghan officials admitted that the ANAP, created in 2006, was barely trained, underwent minimal vetting, had poorly defined rules of engagement, and ended up being infiltrated by insurgents. Another previous community defense force, the Afghan Public Protection Force (AP3), created in 2009 in Wardak province, was hijacked by a local strongman, Ghulam Mohammed. Shura elders told Human Rights Watch that vetting for AP3 was minimal because of Mohammed's influence, and shura members were simply told to approve a list of men who were affiliated with Mohammed rather than nominate people from the community for AP3. Residents of Wardak told Human Rights Watch about beatings and intimidation they suffered by men working as AP3.
U.S. military officials told us that the ALP has begun to deliver improvements in security in a number of areas including Gizab and Arghandab, where they had previously established the "Local Defense Initiative," (LDI) a precursor to the ALP. (The LDI was launched in 2009 by the U.S. military and involved U.S. special operations forces embedding in villages and training village forces vouched by shuras to provide security).
Human Rights Watch did not investigate the ALP in Gizab and Arghandab, but in areas we did investigate there is reason for concern regarding oversight of this new force. Although the ALP is just a year old, we found some of its members implicated in forcible land grabs, rape, abduction, and illegal raids. In Uruzgan province in December 2010, an ALP commander forcibly tried to recruit men to the ALP and detained six elders for several days, two of them for one month, after they refused to agree to provide men to the ALP. In Baghlan province, four armed ALP men are suspected of abducting a 13-year-old boy and gang-raping him in April of this year. Although the assailants' identities are well-known, no arrests have taken place. The police refused to investigate allegations implicating the ALP members due to their connections with powerful government officials and with U.S. special operations forces.
Some communities we spoke with acknowledged improvements in security due to the ALP, but other residents raised concerns that the ALP members had not been properly vetted, citing criminal and insurgent elements they said were being absorbed into the police force. Many complained that the ALP, like other irregular armed groups, are not held accountable when implicated in abuses and could turn into just another militia. Such perceptions undermine support for the central government -- perceptions that a group of elders from Shindand district in Herat province told me "will drive us to the Taliban."
The human rights consequences of supporting irregular armed groups must be taken into consideration in executing any military strategy in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency theory recognizes the protection of civilians as an integral pillar of its strategy. Yet both the Afghan government and its international backers are working with militias, hastily training and arming men in remote areas, and calling them "local police," without ensuring that the government has adequate resources to oversee and hold them accountable. The Afghan government is already struggling to oversee and hold accountable its national police and armed forces. Adding ALP forces to the roster without the resources to supervise them and hold them accountable when they commit abuses is a recipe for disaster.
The Afghan government should investigate allegations of abuse by militias and the ALP, cease support of militias, and start taking responsibility for protecting the human rights of its citizens. At the same time, both the U.S. and Afghan governments should avoid the rush to set up ALP units around the country without proper vetting, training, and command-and-control structures. The Afghan government should be assisted in setting up adequate accountability mechanisms, which include dedicated staff to investigate abuses, and in creating an external complaints body to act on reports of abuses by the ALP and other police forces.
Pressures resulting from the drawdown of international troops should not result in solutions that ease transition at the expense of Afghan civilians. Long-term stability in Afghanistan can only come if the Afghan government and its international backers implement sustainable policies that will protect local communities from both insurgents and predatory government-backed forces, no matter which side commits the abuses.
Sahr Muhammedally, a human rights lawyer based in London, co-authored the Human Rights Watch report "'Just Don't Call It a Militia'": Impunity, Militias, and the 'Afghan Local Police.'"