War & Peace

For a Handful of Dollars: Taleban allowed to join ALP


shahabuddin-2

It’s official: reintegrated Taleban will be able to join the Afghan Local Police (ALP) – referred to more commonly by civilians as militias or arbaki. This is according to the head of ISAF’s Regional Command North (who also said such Taleban might become teachers). In flat contradiction, the MoI told AAN today that Taleban will not be able to join the ALP. Facts on the ground, however, suggest ISAF is correct. The recruitment of former Taleban into the arbaki is just one concern for local civilians, says AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, who has been assessing how the ALP programme in northern Afghanistan is officially encouraging the legitimisation of armed groups.

The German head of RC North, Major General Hans-Werner Fritz, set a relentlessly upbeat context for his welcome of reintegrating Taleban into the Afghan Local Police (ALP), in a video press conference to reporters in the Pentagon on 4 January(*):

‘I think the influence of the Taliban is diminishing, definitely. … They are leaving the area [northern Afghanistan]. If they don’t leave, they are killed. They are handing themselves over to us… by the reintegration program… They are simply giving up.’

His American deputy, Colonel Sean Mulholland, said the military was using special operations forces in ‘shaping operations’(**) before conventional troops entered the area. At that point, they were having ‘great success winning the hearts and minds of civilians,’ and had two programmes to offer: the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). ‘The reconciliation program allows [surrendering Taleban], after they’ve been forgiven [by their communities] and enrolled in the program, the opportunity for vocational training. While they’re going to training, they receive a stipend of $88 a month to keep food on the table.’ Once they have been vetted, the programme ‘allows them to learn one of several vocations, such as teaching or joining the Afghan Local Police. The ALP is actually a job. It’s a program they can stay enrolled in for two to five years.’

The Afghan local police are supposed to provide security for villages who want to resist the Taleban. Fears that the programme would become conflated with the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme, which encourages Taleban stop fighting and reintegrate into normal life, have been repeatedly voiced, including from withinISAF. The Swede in charge of NATO’s reintegration programs for the north, Major Mats Afzelius, for example, told the newspaper Stars and Stripes in September 2010 that:

‘The APRP is not about weapons or providing a security force… It’s about breaking the cycle of violence and giving people a chance to have something else to do, [other] than fighting.’

The context of Afzelius’s words is important because it demonstrates just how badly the ALP can go wrong, especially when reintegration is added into the mix – and also how amnesic or duplicitous ISAF RC North is now being. Afzelius was speaking after a group of supposedly reconciling Hezb-e Islami fighters had been set up as ALP in the Shahabuddin area of Baghlan province in August. The Stars and Stripes article described how the group had previously

‘roamed and robbed and raided…collected “taxes” for protection and kidnapped for ransom… occasionally… picking up the banner of insurgency and attacking Western troops or the Afghan police or army…’

Then, it said, the group had found, ‘themselves part of an ambitious plan to bring wavering insurgents into the fold while establishing village defence forces…’

Baghlan’s police commander recognised the risk of the strategy, as did one US officer quoted in the article who compared it to hiring gangsters. However, the article also quoted a key aide to General Petraeus who said his boss viewed the setting up of such groups as a ‘potential game changer’ in the war.

As an earlier AAN blog detailed, despite any misgivings, US Special Forces arranged for the Hezb fighters to get their weapons back from DIAG and introduced them to the locally deployed German contingent of ISAF. The episode ended in bloodshed and farce: a concerted attack by the Taleban, an airstrike called in by the German army to protect the Hezb ALP contingent mistakenly wiping them out and finally a suicide bomber targeting the German base, killing one and injuring fourteen German soldiers. However, in a magnificent example of chutzpah, General Fritz in his recent press conference referred (surely) to this needless and stupid loss of life as an example of heroism among the foreign armies of the north:

‘A suicider [sic] attacked a German position — these were paratroopers from my division in Germany,’ he said. The suicide attacker killed one German soldier and wounded many more. The troops called for medical evacuation, and two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from Fort Campbell, Ky., answered the call.

‘As we say in German, there was a lot of iron in the air.’

The helicopters recovered the wounded and took off, he said, than the crews realized a dead German soldier had remained on the ground. And, as Fritz continued:

‘They came back under fire, they recovered the soldier and they said, “We are taking home a fallen hero.” And I can promise you, the German paratroopers, the German “Fallschirmjäger,” will never forget that. This is the quality of cooperation we are talking about.’

Fritz’ glorification of the Shahabuddin fiasco matches his romantic version of bands of Taleban foot soldiers, often more than a dozen at a time, returning to their villages and seeking reintegration. Mulholland told the Pentagon reporters that 540 fighters had been formally reintegrated in the north, but admitted he could not begin to take a guess how many had found a new home in the ALP:

‘Some of our vetting processes have ensured that some of the people who are trying to get in that are Taliban, that they are not allowed. … So I would say the percentage is very, very low due to the stringent vetting process.’

Reassurances have also come from the Afghan government. Following President Karzai’s decree permitting the setting up of ALP in August, Deputy Minister Munir Mangal said there would be 10,000 ‘slots’ for local policemen paid for and strictly controlled by the MoI. It would be responsible for ensuring that the ALP were ‘protecting the local citizens and operating under the law.’ A MoI spokesman told AAN today that Taleban would not be allowed to join the new force.

However, in the north, at least, AAN has found a very different picture. The official endorsement by both the Afghan government and foreign military of the programme seems to have opened the flood-gates to all and sundry.

We are seeing ALP being set up by US Special Forces, the MoI and the NDS as well as freelance groups who call themselves ALP and then, post facto, seek official approval. (This was also a pattern in the auxiliary police programme of 2006-8). In Takhar, for example, there are ALP groups being set up by commanders from IttihadHezb and especially Jamiat as well as supposed Taleban coming in from the cold. Vetting and official recognition, as one district police commander admitted to AAN, comes later. Even if the ALP are good at fighting Taleban, there are already accusations of looting, forced taxation (of ushr) and worsened security since the groups were set up. In Kunduz, in Aliabad, the new year began with a fight between two pro-government militias, allegedly over a personal dispute, with one ambushing the other; the commander and two of his fighters were injured and two of the assailants were killed. The fact that groups are prepared to set themselves up before getting salaries demonstrates now nicely ALP is being adapted by pre-existing armed groups to get legal cover.

General Petraeus’ ‘game changers’ – as he called his ALP – are already looking very much like the militias of old which Afghan civilians fear. Yet a curious ahistoricism surrounds the foreign military’s discussions of the ALP in general. If they refer to history at all, it is usually to Iraq and the ‘Sons of Iraq’ programme where Sunni tribes were armed to fight al-Qaida and Iraqi insurgents. Yet Afghanistan, and especially northern Afghanistan, has a long and locally complex history of armed groups – both mujahedin and Taleban – which is the result of war, migration, land disputes, the championing and repression of different groups depending on who was in power locally and in Kabul and the successful leveraging by armed groups themselves against their local rivals.

Creating what Afghans usually refer to as militias, or more recently asarbaki, to fight on behalf of the state has resulted in short-term military gains and horrible long-term consequences for stability and the welfare of civilians. For anyone not aware of the abuses committed by militias armed by the Najib government to fight insurgents in the late 1980s, see the Afghanistan Justice Project (pp. 48-56); for the abuses committed in the north post-2001 by factions armed by the US, see this document by Human Rights Watch, and for the success of those groups to exploit their police and army uniforms to abuse the population, see another one from HRW.

But ISAF’s amnesia extends to even more recent history. There have been repeated failures in setting up local police since 2001. In an earlier AAN report, Mathieu Lefèvre delineates the history of promises of vetting and of proper command and control never materialising and of existing armed groups co-opting the local police – as they also have the police and private security companies – to get legal cover. All too often, their loyalties remain, not to the state or the local population, but to their tanzims. Crime, corruption and an exacerbation of local enmities, whether ethnic or factional, can easily ensue and for the current Afghan state and for NATO, there may well be the dilemma of who to arm: if you arm one commander, do you arm his civil war (pre-Taleban) rival to get balance? Jombeshagainst Jamiat against Hezb, tribe against tribe?

While not excluding the possibility that in some places, local police may be wanted by local communities to defend themselves in the absence of a strong and effective state from unwanted Taleban presence, the opaqueness surrounding the ALP gives no confidence: fears rise from the repeated shifting of names and acronyms (ANAP, AP3, LDI, ALP) and the different, often off-the-record, assurances given on responsibilities and rights of the new force which leaves many questions unanswered: Will the ALP be able to detain? To attack? Who controls them? And who, eventually will stand them down and how? ISAF, for example, has said the ALP is a strictly limited, two year programme, but this is contradicted by the head of RC North, who says local policemen may be serving for up to five years.

General Fritz, in his 4 January press conference, said his regional command had momentum against the Taleban and aimed to keep it:

‘If we can, we will fight the winter through to make sure that all the foxholes are closed when one or the other of the Taliban might come back in, in spring.’

By then, of course, to keep with Fritz’ rather appalling imagery, a whole new slew of predators may well have come out of hibernation.

(*) Reporting of the conference and quotes are taken from the American Forces Press Service (part of the Department of Defence) and the official, but much more independent, Stars and Stripes. This newspaper has photos from the Baghlan fiasco, see them here, including some pretty young looking militia’men’.

(**) ‘Shaping’ had been once explained to me as follows: US Special Forces use locals (elders or so) to find out who are the leading Taleban in a certain area. Then they ‘decapitate’ this group (i.e. arrest or kill their leader/s), look who is filling in the vacant position, arrest and kill again, and then the Taleban will be ready to ‘reconcile’ [the editor].

It’s official: reintegrated Taleban will be able to join the Afghan Local Police (ALP) – referred to more commonly by civilians as militias or arbaki. This is according to the head of ISAF’s Regional Command North (who also said such Taleban might become teachers). In flat contradiction, the MoI told AAN today that Taleban will not be able to join the ALP. Facts on the ground, however, suggest ISAF is correct. The recruitment of former Taleban into the arbaki is just one concern for local civilians, says AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, who has been assessing how the ALP programme in northern Afghanistan is officially encouraging the legitimisation of armed groups.

The German head of RC North, Major General Hans-Werner Fritz, set a relentlessly upbeat context for his welcome of reintegrating Taleban into the Afghan Local Police (ALP), in a video press conference to reporters in the Pentagon on 4 January(*):

‘I think the influence of the Taliban is diminishing, definitely. … They are leaving the area [northern Afghanistan]. If they don’t leave, they are killed. They are handing themselves over to us… by the reintegration program… They are simply giving up.’

His American deputy, Colonel Sean Mulholland, said the military was using special operations forces in ‘shaping operations’(**) before conventional troops entered the area. At that point, they were having ‘great success winning the hearts and minds of civilians,’ and had two programmes to offer: the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). ‘The reconciliation program allows [surrendering Taleban], after they’ve been forgiven [by their communities] and enrolled in the program, the opportunity for vocational training. While they’re going to training, they receive a stipend of $88 a month to keep food on the table.’ Once they have been vetted, the programme ‘allows them to learn one of several vocations, such as teaching or joining the Afghan Local Police. The ALP is actually a job. It’s a program they can stay enrolled in for two to five years.’

The Afghan local police are supposed to provide security for villages who want to resist the Taleban. Fears that the programme would become conflated with the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme, which encourages Taleban stop fighting and reintegrate into normal life, have been repeatedly voiced, including from withinISAF. The Swede in charge of NATO’s reintegration programs for the north, Major Mats Afzelius, for example, told the newspaper Stars and Stripes in September 2010 that:

‘The APRP is not about weapons or providing a security force… It’s about breaking the cycle of violence and giving people a chance to have something else to do, [other] than fighting.’

The context of Afzelius’s words is important because it demonstrates just how badly the ALP can go wrong, especially when reintegration is added into the mix – and also how amnesic or duplicitous ISAF RC North is now being. Afzelius was speaking after a group of supposedly reconciling Hezb-e Islami fighters had been set up as ALP in the Shahabuddin area of Baghlan province in August. The Stars and Stripes article described how the group had previously

‘roamed and robbed and raided…collected “taxes” for protection and kidnapped for ransom… occasionally… picking up the banner of insurgency and attacking Western troops or the Afghan police or army…’

Then, it said, the group had found, ‘themselves part of an ambitious plan to bring wavering insurgents into the fold while establishing village defence forces…’

Baghlan’s police commander recognised the risk of the strategy, as did one US officer quoted in the article who compared it to hiring gangsters. However, the article also quoted a key aide to General Petraeus who said his boss viewed the setting up of such groups as a ‘potential game changer’ in the war.

As an earlier AAN blog detailed, despite any misgivings, US Special Forces arranged for the Hezb fighters to get their weapons back from DIAG and introduced them to the locally deployed German contingent of ISAF. The episode ended in bloodshed and farce: a concerted attack by the Taleban, an airstrike called in by the German army to protect the Hezb ALP contingent mistakenly wiping them out and finally a suicide bomber targeting the German base, killing one and injuring fourteen German soldiers. However, in a magnificent example of chutzpah, General Fritz in his recent press conference referred (surely) to this needless and stupid loss of life as an example of heroism among the foreign armies of the north:

‘A suicider [sic] attacked a German position — these were paratroopers from my division in Germany,’ he said. The suicide attacker killed one German soldier and wounded many more. The troops called for medical evacuation, and two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from Fort Campbell, Ky., answered the call.

‘As we say in German, there was a lot of iron in the air.’

The helicopters recovered the wounded and took off, he said, than the crews realized a dead German soldier had remained on the ground. And, as Fritz continued:

‘They came back under fire, they recovered the soldier and they said, “We are taking home a fallen hero.” And I can promise you, the German paratroopers, the German “Fallschirmjäger,” will never forget that. This is the quality of cooperation we are talking about.’

Fritz’ glorification of the Shahabuddin fiasco matches his romantic version of bands of Taleban foot soldiers, often more than a dozen at a time, returning to their villages and seeking reintegration. Mulholland told the Pentagon reporters that 540 fighters had been formally reintegrated in the north, but admitted he could not begin to take a guess how many had found a new home in the ALP:

‘Some of our vetting processes have ensured that some of the people who are trying to get in that are Taliban, that they are not allowed. … So I would say the percentage is very, very low due to the stringent vetting process.’

Reassurances have also come from the Afghan government. Following President Karzai’s decree permitting the setting up of ALP in August, Deputy Minister Munir Mangal said there would be 10,000 ‘slots’ for local policemen paid for and strictly controlled by the MoI. It would be responsible for ensuring that the ALP were ‘protecting the local citizens and operating under the law.’ A MoI spokesman told AAN today that Taleban would not be allowed to join the new force.

However, in the north, at least, AAN has found a very different picture. The official endorsement by both the Afghan government and foreign military of the programme seems to have opened the flood-gates to all and sundry.

We are seeing ALP being set up by US Special Forces, the MoI and the NDS as well as freelance groups who call themselves ALP and then, post facto, seek official approval. (This was also a pattern in the auxiliary police programme of 2006-8). In Takhar, for example, there are ALP groups being set up by commanders from IttihadHezb and especially Jamiat as well as supposed Taleban coming in from the cold. Vetting and official recognition, as one district police commander admitted to AAN, comes later. Even if the ALP are good at fighting Taleban, there are already accusations of looting, forced taxation (of ushr) and worsened security since the groups were set up. In Kunduz, in Aliabad, the new year began with a fight between two pro-government militias, allegedly over a personal dispute, with one ambushing the other; the commander and two of his fighters were injured and two of the assailants were killed. The fact that groups are prepared to set themselves up before getting salaries demonstrates now nicely ALP is being adapted by pre-existing armed groups to get legal cover.

General Petraeus’ ‘game changers’ – as he called his ALP – are already looking very much like the militias of old which Afghan civilians fear. Yet a curious ahistoricism surrounds the foreign military’s discussions of the ALP in general. If they refer to history at all, it is usually to Iraq and the ‘Sons of Iraq’ programme where Sunni tribes were armed to fight al-Qaida and Iraqi insurgents. Yet Afghanistan, and especially northern Afghanistan, has a long and locally complex history of armed groups – both mujahedin and Taleban – which is the result of war, migration, land disputes, the championing and repression of different groups depending on who was in power locally and in Kabul and the successful leveraging by armed groups themselves against their local rivals.

Creating what Afghans usually refer to as militias, or more recently asarbaki, to fight on behalf of the state has resulted in short-term military gains and horrible long-term consequences for stability and the welfare of civilians. For anyone not aware of the abuses committed by militias armed by the Najib government to fight insurgents in the late 1980s, see the Afghanistan Justice Project (pp. 48-56); for the abuses committed in the north post-2001 by factions armed by the US, see this document by Human Rights Watch, and for the success of those groups to exploit their police and army uniforms to abuse the population, see another one from HRW.

But ISAF’s amnesia extends to even more recent history. There have been repeated failures in setting up local police since 2001. In an earlier AAN report, Mathieu Lefèvre delineates the history of promises of vetting and of proper command and control never materialising and of existing armed groups co-opting the local police – as they also have the police and private security companies – to get legal cover. All too often, their loyalties remain, not to the state or the local population, but to their tanzims. Crime, corruption and an exacerbation of local enmities, whether ethnic or factional, can easily ensue and for the current Afghan state and for NATO, there may well be the dilemma of who to arm: if you arm one commander, do you arm his civil war (pre-Taleban) rival to get balance? Jombeshagainst Jamiat against Hezb, tribe against tribe?

While not excluding the possibility that in some places, local police may be wanted by local communities to defend themselves in the absence of a strong and effective state from unwanted Taleban presence, the opaqueness surrounding the ALP gives no confidence: fears rise from the repeated shifting of names and acronyms (ANAP, AP3, LDI, ALP) and the different, often off-the-record, assurances given on responsibilities and rights of the new force which leaves many questions unanswered: Will the ALP be able to detain? To attack? Who controls them? And who, eventually will stand them down and how? ISAF, for example, has said the ALP is a strictly limited, two year programme, but this is contradicted by the head of RC North, who says local policemen may be serving for up to five years.

General Fritz, in his 4 January press conference, said his regional command had momentum against the Taleban and aimed to keep it:

‘If we can, we will fight the winter through to make sure that all the foxholes are closed when one or the other of the Taliban might come back in, in spring.’

By then, of course, to keep with Fritz’ rather appalling imagery, a whole new slew of predators may well have come out of hibernation.

(*) Reporting of the conference and quotes are taken from the American Forces Press Service (part of the Department of Defence) and the official, but much more independent, Stars and Stripes. This newspaper has photos from the Baghlan fiasco, see them here, including some pretty young looking militia’men’.

(**) ‘Shaping’ had been once explained to me as follows: US Special Forces use locals (elders or so) to find out who are the leading Taleban in a certain area. Then they ‘decapitate’ this group (i.e. arrest or kill their leader/s), look who is filling in the vacant position, arrest and kill again, and then the Taleban will be ready to ‘reconcile’ [the editor].

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Thematic Category: War & Peace