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Dispatches: Yet Again, Afghanistan Relies on Abusive Strongmen

It’s déjà vu all over again in the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban in Kunduz province as the government seeks to prop up overstretched Afghan National Security Forces with – you guessed it – abusive strongmen and their unofficial militias.

It’s not like this hasn’t been tried before – to disastrous effect.

The fighting is part of the Taliban’s spring offensive, nicknamed Azm or “resolve.” Battles have been particularly fierce in the province’s districts of Chardara, Imam Sahib, Khanabad, and Gul Tepe. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced, and with no end to the fighting in sight, there are fears that much of the spring planting will be lost. The intensity of the recent outbreak in fighting in Kunduz took the Afghan security forces by surprise, seriously rattling Afghan government officials and their international allies. In late April, Taliban forces came close to overrunning the provincial capital, Kunduz city, leading to the call for reinforcements.

Enter the militias. Kunduz is home to a patchwork of unofficial armed groups and estimates of the total number of militia members range from 4,500 to 10,000. Local residents have implicated many of these militias in serious abuses. Relying on such armed groups as a bulwark against the Taliban has a long history in the Afghan conflict as a kind of short-term fix. But this “fix” has actually undermined security in Afghanistan’s north for more than a decade.

One of the strongmen tapped for the job of reversing the Taliban’s gains is Mir Alam, one of Kunduz’s most powerful men with thousands of militia members at his command. Mir Alam’s reputation for fueling insecurity is well-known: when his forces were deployed against the Taliban in 2011, a leaked US embassy cable called the move “a quick fix with dangerous implications: tactical gains at strategic cost.” The predatory behavior of these militias, and abuses that include extrajudicial killings of civilians, beatings, and looting, have left civilians trapped between them and the Taliban and has bolstered some support for the insurgents.

But this lesson has not yet stuck, and the Afghan government is again reactivating militias that threaten the lives of ordinary Afghans. If there is to be any hope of a long-term security in Kunduz – and across Afghanistan – this reliance on abusive militias has to end. 

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