Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Police to Hire Ex-Militia Men?

The government says it is merely recruiting policemen from local communities, but there are fears it is legitimising armed militias by the back door.
By Wahidullah Amani
Plans to fill the gaps in Afghanistan’s overstretched police force by hiring local men from southern communities may make sense given the insurgent threat, however some commentators believe the move could given members of illegal armed groups a new lease of life.

The government denies any intention to create a new paramilitary force outside the Afghan National Army, ANA, and Afghan National Police, ANP, but says it needs to recruit local men into the police because it lacks the manpower to cope with rising insurgent violence in the south.

That may be the case. The concern is, though, that the young men drafted into the ANP to serve on their home ground may be past or present members of paramilitary forces led by a local commander, and may retain those loyalties whatever uniform they are wearing.

Afghan politics have been driven by the presence of irregular militias of various stripes over the last 25 years, most famously the various mujahedin groups which went on to fight each other after the communist regime collapsed in 1992. Militarily, the Taleban operated as a militia writ large.

Even closer parallels can be drawn with the “tribal militias” that communist-era president Najibullah set up as a way of combating the mujahedin insurgents on their own terms.

In the face of such comparisons, the authorities have been quick to insist that there is no new organisation, that the recruitment drive will be properly managed and that local policemen will be kept firmly under the control of the interior ministry in Kabul.

The merest hint that the government might consider reversing four years of intensive efforts to disarm and demobilise unofficial armed groups was bound to set alarm bells ringing. The June 11 announcement of a scheme known as “community police” was immediately picked up by local and international media, and President Hamed Karzai was forced to repeatedly reject suggestions that the plan really meant that tribal militias would be re-formed and re-armed under the guise of the police.

"We are against the formation of militia groups, and all efforts will concentrate on strengthening the national police and army," he said.

During a visit to Baghlan province in late June, the president said the aim was to task local men with helping ensure security in areas where the ANP is currently unable to do so. He noted that some district forces had less than half of the 100 policemen they would need to do a proper job.

In early July, President Karzai attended a conference on Afghan disarmament hosted in Tokyo by the Japanese government – the lead players in the current scheme for Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups, DIAG, which began last year as a successor to the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, DDR, programme of 2002-05.

Karzai reiterated his government’s commitment to complete the DIAG process, which targets smaller irregular militias than DDR, but again spoke of the need for better security in the south.

"One of the more important threats to the security of our people is the marked weakness of the police presence… particularly in those areas affected by terrorism and insecurity," he said. “It must therefore be a priority for the government and for our international partners to focus on strengthening the police presence at district level.”

Interior ministry spokesman Mohammad Yousuf Stanizai confirmed that the emphasis was on high-risk areas.

"We are tasking local youth with maintaining security in areas and districts where there’s a need for it. We’re working on this, and at the moment there are a few districts where we need to recruit additional people to support the police. We’ll use this force in insecure areas," he told IWPR.

Stanizai said the recruits would go through a short training course and then become policemen who, like everyone else, must accept all orders issued by the government.

"We are not forming militias - we’re recruiting local youth to strengthen the police, and anyone who joins this process will be approved by the local elders,” he said.

But he went on to describe a relationship that sounds more like affiliation than direct subordination to Kabul. Noting that the men would be under the command of the local police chief, he said, “We can describe it as a force cooperating with the police, within the [overall] police structure."

As the government continued to deny that local militias would be subsumed wholesale into semi-detached police units, media reports appeared that one regional powerbroker, in the troubled province of Helmand, had jumped the gun. Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, sacked as Helmand’s governor last year, reportedly at the insistence of the international community, has said he is recruiting 500 local men for a force that will fight the Taleban.

The whole thrust of the DIAG programme has been to disarm the irregular armed groups that surround local strongmen, and continue to exercise power on the ground through strength of arms. An official at the Japanese embassy, who asked not to be named, told IWPR that Japan as lead nation has pledged over 60 million US dollars to DIAG programme, after giving more than 91 million dollars for its predecessor DDR.

The embassy official noted that there was some confusion about whether the proposed community police would actually be paramilitaries who had gone through these disarmaments schemes, only to be given weapons again.

"Actually, we don't have clear information about the militias. We are also aware that the government is trying to make community police [while] they did not clearly deny the idea of rearming those people who have already been disarmed,” said the official.

“But we are also aware that there are some concerns in some regions in the south and west that the governors are arming some people. Our [Japanese] government actually does not have clear information about what is really going on in the regions.”

The official concluded, “We would like to get more clear information about this, what they call the community police. If they are really community police, they should be budgeted, but we do not know…. we have to check with the interior ministry and the finance ministry how this will be funded, and how long this will continue."

Until that information was forthcoming, the official said, “I cannot say that we and the international community are supporting this idea.”

Ahmad Jan Nawzadi, spokesman for the DIAG programme, said his office had received assurances that all that was involved was recruiting a number of local people to serve within the ANP structure. And he said this would have no impact on the disarmament process.

Afghan political analysts say handing over responsibility for security to men who may have stronger ties to local chieftains than to Kabul would be a big mistake, even if the militias they belong to are not revived in formal terms. They also expressed concern that such informal groups would be susceptible to external influence.

"The government wants to form militias in police uniform, but these will be a great menace to this country,” said Fazul Rahman Orya, a political analyst and editor of the Payam magazine.

“These militias prefer their particular interests over those of the government - and they will be the first to strike at central government when it becomes weak."

The result, warned Orya, will be to create new warlords and drug barons who will be easily manipulated by forces outside Afghanistan, particularly in Pakistan.

Orya also made the point that differentiating between the way various kinds of paramilitary groups are treated will drive a wedge between the south of the country - where militia fighters could be used to fight the Taleban - and the north, where efforts continue to disarm them.

He believes this could undermine the DIAG programme - after all, why would paramilitaries in the north continue handing over their arms if they see others receiving new weapons in the south?

“It will have a very negative impact on the disarmament process in northern Afghanistan," he concluded.

Habibullah Ghamkhor, an Afghan political analyst now based in Sweden, told IWPR, "If the government forms tribal militias again in some areas, it will have many disadvantages rather than advantages."

Gharmkhor said that even as things stand, neither the ANA nor the ANP fully lives up to its claim to be a national, non-partisan force. The police, in particular, continue to have an unsavoury reputation.

"The most pressing issue at the moment is that the army should be national, but currently it isn't. It is a factional army, held together under a national umbrella or tent,” he said.

“The term ‘national police’ is now an embarrassment, since the police rob people rather than keep them secure. People can’t sleep soundly at night for fear of these police."

Ghamkhor spoke of the importance of learning lessons from the past. He recalled how the communist government under Najibullah created militias in the Eighties, only to find that these became a problem for central government because of lingering allegiances to local leaders.

The communist government used tribal militias to supplement the poorly equipped and motivated regular army, and they were strengthened after 1986 when the Soviet leadership announced plans to pull out their military forces.

The best known unit was the largely Uzbek “Jowzjan militia” of Abdul Rashid Dostum, but there were several others, such as the Achakzai tribal militia, a Pashtun force led by Esmatullah Muslim around the southern border town of Spin Boldak.

While such units had the local knowledge and fighting spirit that the regular troops lacked, the downside was their loyalty was not always certain, and their members were prone to indiscipline, wanton violence and plunder.

"I think the consequences of having such a force - under any name - will be the same as in the past. In the end, Pakistan or some other country will pursue its goals by means of this force," said Gharmkhor.

Afghanistan’s interior minister, Zarar Ahmad Muqbel, who is in charge of the ANP, insisted the government would never repeat the sorry experiences of the past.

"It’s pointless to persist with something that has not had a positive outcome. Creating militias won’t benefit this country,” he said. “The policy… is to strengthen the security forces. If we see any security vacuum, we will increase the numbers of our police force."

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.