Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
International Forces Deny Funding Afghan Militia
Villages such as this in Herat province have increasingly been infiltrated by the Taleban. (Photo: Marius Arnesen)
The international forces in Afghanistan have rebutted allegations that they have funded new militias in the western district of Shindand. Instead, they say they provided initial training to volunteer defence units, and reject claims by Afghan officials that they were not consulted beforehand.
United States Special Forces last year rolled out the Village Stability Programme, a scheme which aims to train rural residents to provide their own security.
But officials in Herat province complain that they were not involved in the decision to set up an armed group in Shindand district’s Zerkoh valley.
Lal Mohammad Omarzai, the local government chief in Shindand district, said foreign forces did not consult him when they went ahead with establishing the village defence forces, which he said included men of suspect loyalties.
“Some of those who are active in this group previously fought on the Taleban side against Afghan and foreign forces,” he said, adding that the force was unreliable, lacked leadership and was widely disliked by local people.
Nur Khan Nekzad, spokesman for the Afghan security command centre for Herat province, said the armed groups had been deployed without coordination with local police.
“Herat security command has no militias or tribal units within its structure,” he said, adding that the formation of armed groups had never been good for Afghanistan.
In a telephone interview, Afghan interior ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari said he was unaware of the existence of the village force in Shindand, and declined to comment further.
Amir Mohammad, 60, says he played an active part in setting up the Zerkoh force, which he said received a month’s training in military tactics and search techniques from US Special Forces.
He said the force had been operating in a number of villages in the Zerkoh area for several months and now numbered around 100 young men. They patrol in civilian clothing, distinguished only by three red stripes on their shoulders, and are paid 160 US dollars a month.
Bob Coble, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, denied that members of the Shindand force were being armed and paid by international troops.
“There is a Village Stability effort there, and coalition special operations forces work with the volunteers who have formed the self-defence organisation,” he said. “We do not supply weapons to the group; they use their own in defence of their village, and that effort is voluntary. We do not pay them to defend their homes.”
Coble insisted that the creation of the militias had been done with full coordination with the regional government and that
“Local officials are aware of all programmes we are involved with in Shindand,” he said. “Special operations forces personnel are in regular, even routine, contact with local officials.”
The spokesman said dedicated funds were being provided for rural development projects in Shindand as part of the same village stability initiative.
He pointed to one recent incident in which an insurgent weapons cache was discovered following a tip-off from residents in a village called Assis Abad, saying this was a sign of the success of the project and the growing local trust in the international forces.
Some residents of the Zerkoh valley have hailed the scheme as a great success.
“Ever since the group started operating, security has been ensured in the area, the armed opposition fighters have left the area, and the robberies and abductions which had made people’s lives difficult have been eliminated,” Amir Mohammad said.
Ismail, a resident of the village of Bakhtabad, said that security had improved because of the defence units.
“Before the group was set up, there were robberies and abductions, and people were worried about Americans operations and bombardments,” said. “Now they don’t worry when they hear the sound of foreign jets or bombing, because the foreign forces are cooperating with armed units in the area.”
Others fear that the emergence of any new armed force can only spell trouble, given Afghanistan’s bitter history of conflict among rival militias.
The early Nineties saw the mujahedin groups that had fought the Soviets turn on one another in a civil war for control of the country. Units formerly loyal to the communist government, principally those commanded by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, also entered the fray. Kabul in particular suffered intense bombardment and atrocities.
Leaders of these factions still hold positions of power, and are accused of retaining links to the old militias despite efforts to disarm these units since 2001.
Shindand resident Solaiman, 40, said he had been unhappy to hear of the creation of militias, a move that reminded him of the years of internal conflict.
“Do you think someone who isn’t part of the government framework, does not obey any laws, carries arms and is confident that he can do anything he wants, is going to work to ensure the people’s safety, or to further his own interests?” he asked.
“Our government isn’t aware of what the foreigners are up to; they don’t recognise this government and they do whatever they want. Can we say we are a free country?”
Political analyst Ahmad Sayedi agreed that history had shown that militias had no interest in peace.
“These groups know that when there is no war, bloodshed and uncertainty in the country, there will be no need for them to exist,” he said. “Therefore, they try to create crises in order to make money, because they receive salaries and privileges through war, not by ensuring security.”
Like many Afghans, Sayedi suspects international forces actually want instability to persist as a way of controlling Afghanistan.
The Taleban have warned that they will target anyone cooperating with foreign troops, and the village defence force in Shindand has already suffered casualties.
A number of its members were killed in May when they took on Taleban forces which were about to attack a US checkpoint.
Hajji Amir, a commander of the defence force, said six of its men and ten insurgents died in the clash.
A Taleban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, told IWPR by phone that the insurgents would fight to the death with anyone who opposed them or who collaborated with international forces.
“To us, those who cooperate with the foreigners are no different from the foreigners themselves,” he said. “People who fight against us alongside foreign forces lose twice over, first because they get killed, and secondly because they lose out on entering the next world, as they count as infidels.”
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly voiced objections to the Village Stability Programme. When he met incoming ISAF commander General David Petraeus in early July, he raised the same concerns. An unnamed Afghan official quoted by The Washington Post said Karzai was worried by the prospect of “a force that will be viewed as a private militia”.
However, by mid-July a deal had been struck under which the village defence units will be subsumed into a new Local Police Force, which will still consist of grassroots units but will be controlled by the Afghan interior ministry.
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