One band of Afghan gunmen tied up a captive in an open field, picked up rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and used the victim for target practice. Another group rounded up men and boys and confined them in a mosque, before going house-to-house to steal valuables and rape women. Elsewhere, a bunch of gunmen took the most respected elder of a village — a white-bearded gentleman who dared to complain about their behavior — and dragged him behind their pickup truck until he was dead.
Fighters like these collect salaries from the United States as part of a $120 million program to support the Afghan Local Police (ALP). They are called “police” but could be more accurately described as pro-government militias, often serving in the most dangerous rural parts of Afghanistan with only a modicum of control from their masters in the central government.
The anecdotes provided in this article were gathered from interviews in eight provinces of Afghanistan, from 2013 to 2015. We agreed to protect the anonymity of those quoted here because of the very real threat of reprisals. The full International Crisis Group report is available here.
U.S. Special Operations Forces started recruiting ALP in 2010, giving them three weeks of training, assault rifles and one machine gun per six men. They were scattered across districts in small groups, usually of 10 or 20, and authorized to patrol only their home villages — although they often roamed farther away.
Some of these groups are so terrifying that their intimidation tactics have turned entire villages into ghost towns as residents flee their predations. That fearsome reputation can serve a purpose: the ALP is credited with holding the Taliban at bay in parts of Afghanistan. They are well positioned to fight an intensely local war in which most anti-government forces are battling near their own homes.
Any shield against the rising insurgency is desperately needed by the Kabul government, especially right now. The Taliban’s summer offensive is inflicting unprecedented damage on the Afghan security forces and the civilian population, starting to threaten major cities for the first time in almost a decade.
That creates policy dilemmas for U.S. and Afghan security officials. With ALP funding scheduled to expire in 2018, a plan is required for the 29,000 men enrolled in the program. More urgently, the ALP stands in the middle of a debate about whether the Kabul government can best defend itself with loosely regulated units outside of the ranks of regular police and soldiers.
So far, the pro-government militias are winning favor in Kabul. The National Directorate for Security (NDS), the main intelligence agency in Afghanistan, which operates with American mentorship, appears to be moving ahead with plans to raise 5,000 militiamen in at least seven provinces. The Afghan government’s formal plan for the ALP includes bulking up the force with an extra 15,000 men, before supposedly dissolving it by 2018. Currently, the ALP are absorbing pre-existing militias now deemed illegal as the government scrambles to replace security units lost in the increasingly tough fight against insurgents.
However, the experience so far with the ALP program suggests that expanding pro-government militias would be a tragic mistake.
An unpublished study for the Joint Special Operations University marked “For Official Use Only,” (A full definition of what that means can be found here) reported that U.S. officers who visited most of the ALP sites in the country concluded that only a minority were helping with security. “Roughly one third of ALP units are enhancing local security, undermining insurgent influence, and facilitating better governance,” the study said. “Another one third are not producing such outcomes and may, in certain respects, be engaged in collusion with the enemy or in abusive behavior that abets the enemy. The last third falls somewhere in between the first two groups.”
The assessment that one-third of the ALP function correctly is a crude estimate, but it’s consistent with the general patterns observed by the International Crisis Group in field visits to eight provinces of Afghanistan. The ALP improve security where local factors allow recruitment of members from the same villages they are assigned to patrol, and where they respect their own communities, but such ideal conditions do not exist in many districts. The U.S. Special Operations Forces were often confronted with a lack of volunteers for the ALP, which meant that militiamen were imported from other villages and sometimes turned into marauders.
A schoolteacher in the northern province of Kunduz, who claimed that ALP killed his brother and 12-year-old son, made an impassioned argument for cancelling the ALP program. Like many villagers exposed to global information via mobile phones, he noted that few other countries are patrolled by such poorly trained men. “Do you have militias in your country?” he asked a Crisis Group analyst. “No, of course not.”
At the same time, the war in Afghanistan has developed its own self-perpetuating logic. The ALP is a pillar of the security apparatus, deployed in 29 of 34 provinces.
Tens of thousands of ALP cannot be removed from battlefields without leaving a security vacuum, and abruptly halting their pay would not improve their behavior. Many ALP members know their salaries are not guaranteed in the coming years and are already considering options for survival as bandits or insurgents.
The disputes fueling the insurgency have become personal vendettas, rather than matters of ideology in many places, forcing locals to continue fighting the Taliban with or without government backing. ALP members who accepted U.S. money and stood against the Taliban would face increased risks if disarmed. Government officials who accepted dangerous assignments in remote parts of the country might reconsider their job options with fewer men to protect them.
“I know that people in Kabul are talking about cancelling the ALP, but you don’t understand,” a provincial governor told a Crisis Group analyst on condition of anonymity, gesturing at the barbed wire along his compound’s perimeter. “Without those guys, the Taliban will climb over that wall and cut my head off.”
As Taliban attacks increase, pressure grows on the government to raise additional forces. Still, it would be a grave error to increase the size of the ALP program or fill security gaps with other pro-government militias. ALP units that create insecurity must be disbanded in a careful program of slow demilitarization. The remaining ALP need better oversight and a reformed system of complaints. It’s easier to raise militias than to disband them, or transform them into responsible security forces. The most difficult work on the ALP program lies ahead.
Graeme Smith, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul, is the author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan.