Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghans Scared by Talk of Militia Revival
Ismail Khan is a powerful figure from the past who is now talking about reviving the old armed factions. (Photo: US Embassy in Kabul)
A former Afghan warlord has caused consternation by suggesting that militias re-form to fill the gap left when international troops withdraw in 2014.
Mohammad Ismail Khan, formerly governor of Herat and now minister of energy and water, voiced the idea in a speech in the western city in late October.
The mujahedin groups that fought the Soviets in the 1980s and each other in the early 1990s have faded from view under United Nations-backed disarmament initiatives since 2001.
Despite the formation of the Afghan National Army, Ismail Khan says the old militias need to be reconstituted as a bulwark against the insurgents after 2014. He said he had discussed the idea with President Hamid Karzai as well as former mujahedin commanders.
"I have spoken in detail with the president himself, who is a former mujahedin member himself. We are now working on registering names, an agenda and a draft structure for a nationwide jihadi formation."
"I have talked to jihadi leaders from different provinces,” he continued. “We want to establish a general council of the mojahedin of Afghanistan very soon, for the sake of the country’s future and in order to uphold the Islamic system."
Karzai’s press office declined to tell IWPR whether the president had discussed or agreed to Ismail Khan’s proposal.
Creating a new military force with its own governing body would seem to undo 11 years of efforts to build a centralised government and national army. Also, although Ismail Khan argues that the paramilitaries are the only force capable of stabilising Afghanistan, the groups he is talking are mostly from the northern part of the country, and it unlikely they could control the Pashtun south or defeat the insurgents.
As provincial governor and then minister, Ismail Khan has been part of government in the post-2001 dispensation. But he used his speech to attack both the government and its international allies, accusing them of disarming militias like his own.
"They gathered up our artillery and tanks, and piled them up somewhere like trash. In their place, they brought in German girls, French girls, Dutch girls and armed American girls. They brought in white European soldiers and black African soldiers and thought they could ensure security here, but they weren’t able to," he said.
Although the mujahedin factions used to be notorious for fighting among themselves, Ismail Khan’s plan has won some support in some quarters. One of his old allies, Gholam Mohammad Masun, expanded on the proposal.
“Since people are evincing some fear and trepidation about the withdrawal of foreign forces after 2014, Ismail Khan decided to tell them he is standing side by side with them,” Masun said. “As for the mujahedin forces…. who were dismissed in the name of DDR [Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration], it’s been decided to register and mobilise them so that if need be, they can help the national army and police.”
Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, a former militia commander in Herat and now a member of the Afghan parliament, said Ismail Khan’s remarks had been twisted – he had no intention of creating a parallel government or army.
"Ismail Khan's aim is to get the mujahedin involved in the government’s political and military system so as to provide better security once foreign forces withdraw," he said.
Such reassurances will do nothing to calm fears of a resurgence of numerous armed groups answerable to their own leaders rather than central government, and with a past record of bloodshed and plunder.
"I don’t know who Ismail Khan is going to wage jihad against… probably against our oppressed nation," public servant Mohammad Hassan said, expressing worries shared by many. "I have a few requests for Ismail Khan and his jihadi friends. The biggest service they can do us is to refrain from harming us and our country. If they really want to serve the country and people, they should give the government the money they have looted and the lands they have seized over the past 25 years. They should stop trading under the terms Islam and jihad, stop working for Iran and Pakistan, and stop pouring salt on people's wounds."
The upper house of parliament condemned Ismail Khan’s proposal as illegal, and said building up the government’s defence forces was the only way forward.
Afghans who remember the civil war of the early 1990s fear any repetition of those years. As multiple militia factions fought each other, realigned themselves in new alliances, and then started fighting again, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, indiscriminate shell and rocket fire devastated large parts of Kabul, and lawless paramilitaries brutalised the population and looted property. When the Taleban arrived in Kabul in 1996, they were greeted as a much-needed force for stability and order.
Although the armed factions provided the ground forces for the United States-led invasion of late 2001, they subsequently receded from public view thanks to disarmament programmes and the creation of a national army.
"Any other [non-state] military formation is illegitimate and against the national interest," Ajmal Sohail, leader of the Afghan Liberal Party, said. “This move by Ismail Khan will further weaken the people's confidence in the Afghan government and armed forces. In fact, it is doing the enemy a favour.”
Sohail suggested that militia leaders were keen to demonstrate their continued ability to wield force, in the face of accusations of human rights violations and war crimes.
"They are doing this to defend themselves. It is a preemptive response to the [possible] implementation of transitional justice in this country, or trials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” he said.
A major report by Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission on past human rights abuses was quietly shelved last year – reportedly under pressure from individuals named as alleged perpetrators, and still in positions of power. According to Sohail, discussions on publishing the report were revived recently.
“That was a danger signal for those who have been involved in human rights violations of one kind or another,” he said.
Another view is that Ismail Khan is lining up a role for himself in a new, decentralised Afghanistan.
Political analyst Wahid Mozhda said there was now talk of dividing Afghanistan into eight zones, so Ismail Khan was manoeuvring to secure the western territories he used to control.
As Mozhda put it, "Ismail Khan wants to appropriate one of the eight ‘kingdoms’ for himself."
The result, Mozhda said, would be renewed civil war, as regional leaders backed by various foreign powers jostled for position.
Another analyst, Fazel Rahman Oria, agreed that fragmentation was a risk, adding that Karzai was unconcerned about this as long as he could ensure his own political survival beyond the next presidential election, due in 2014.
“The only thing Karzai wants is to make one of his own relatives the next president, so that he can be prime minister, and to ensure that the eight zones are ruled by his friends,” Oria said.
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR editor for Afghanistan.
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