Context & Culture

No Country for Good Policemen?


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At the NATO summit in Chicago, everybody’s attention seems to be focused on the budget for the defence of Afghanistan and how much donors will spend after 2014, in other words on the quantity of security forces that the country will be able to field. But what about their quality? A new, excellent report on the Afghan Local Police (ALP) by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) offered AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini new points of view on the issue.

The future budget for Afghanistan and its National Security Forces (ANSF) is receiving an awful lot of attention (here and here).(1) From the Kabul side, the government’s main expectation from Chicago is for NATO countries to commit themselves to paying 4.1 billion dollars yearly. Even with this sum, a reduction in the overall numbers of the ANSF looks inevitable even before the scheduled ceiling for them is reached (read here).

The prospects for the Afghan state surviving in the long-term depends to a large extent on its capacity to pay for its own security forces. Security institutions will not be prevented from collapsing by a few hundred, or even a few thousand, foreign military advisers, mentors, trainers or even special forces units. Instead, motivation, commitment to a long term project of society and institutions, and sustainable funding would appear to be key to their future.

But if most of the international interest seems to revolve around funding and size – quite reasonably, as it will be foreign countries who will be paying for these security forces – there is a also ‘quality issue’. This is much more the focus of Afghan citizens’ attention – who, after all, are the ones who will have to live with the ANSF. In the last few days, there have been many joint statements, lists of recommendations and series of bullet points on the part of groups of Afghan and international NGOs and Civil Society networks. Most mention their concerns for the future state of the ANSF, and request guarantees that efforts will be made to improve selection and vetting of forces, their accountability and understanding and respect for human and women’s rights (read for example here and here).

In this light, the release Saturday of a report by the AIHRC is not incidental. It draws attention to the Afghan Local Police (ALP – see US military praise for it here and here), a force which does not usually make it into official estimates of the size of the ANSF. The ALP is intended somehow to make up for the still inadequate number of official ANSF. Its current number may be around 12,000, due to rise to 30,000, after the initial ceiling of 10,000 was increased by the Ministry of Interior. According to the latest media reports, there are now ALP units in 66 or 68 (out of more than 400) districts (here).

The report From Arbaki to Local Police comes at a critical stage also in terms of the debate on the ALP, after an apparently harshly critical RAND Corporation study on the force was obtained and reported upon by the Los Angeles Times. This triggered a debate last week in which General Ali Shah Ahmadzai, General Director of the ALP, participated in various TV programs to refute some of the charges. The Pentagon also mobilised officers to defend the ALP (read here).

From the very first page, the AIHRC report strives to paint an impartial portrait of the ALP, but the number of concerns and complaints far outweighs the positive results that this force has managed to bring to security in some of areas. It is important to stress that the ALP, as a program, is not rejected wholesale by intellectuals and civil society. As most of the civil society recommendations for Chicago show, the ALP’s existence is widely accepted; it is a reform that is asked. The point is that, as in other areas of government, reality is far from the theoretical provisions and official statements.

After recognising that, ‘the ALP can be effective in providing security in a number of areas in the short run’ (and mainly in some southern districts where the previous situation was, by all standards, bleak),  the report shows how, in many cases, ‘[the] ALP has not been established and its members have not been recruited in accordance with the principles and standards enshrined in the Procedure on the Regulation and Establishment of the Local Police’.(2) This has meant that recruitment has been ‘hugely influenced by commanders, local authorities and local influential figures.’ The social device imagined to give a sort of tribal legitimacy to the ALP units – local councils – have seldom been involved in the selection of policemen in practice. Even when they were, they often acted under the influence of local strongmen. Thus, says the report, ‘the ALP has given the chance to individuals previously involved in intergroup, interethnic, and intertribal divisions and disputes who are now ALP members to settle scores and perpetrate acts of vengeance’.

This accounts also for the overwhelming presence among the ALP ranks of former members of illegal armed groups – as high as 80 per cent in Herat province, according to a senior government official interviewed in the AIHRC report. And this all tends to favour abuses against the civilian population, as it ensures political cover for the perpetrators. In the Procedure it says that  precedence in recruitment to ALP should be given to educated people, but the report maintains that the illiteracy rate of ALP is at a staggering 90 per cent, and as high as 98 per cent in some regions – in other words, far higher than the national average. And, of course, the two to three weeks’ training that would-be local policemen undergo is not helpful in this respect, at all.

Other negative effects of the failure to follow the established criteria is the  manipulation of recruitment by local commanders – and, surprisingly, such manipulation is not necessarily unwanted by the powers that be. A sizeable percentage of ALP projects recruit former insurgents, both Taleban and Hezb-e Islami. Although this is not prohibited by the procedure, it is subordinated to local councils and communities guaranteeing them. However, some ALP units have been formed led by commanders with terrible criminal records, who are still resented and feared, with very good reason, by the communities among which they are deployed. (3) This phenomenon also raises serious concerns as to the ability of Taleban to infiltrate the ALP (for a recent, dramatic example in Farah, see our previous blog), or, even more troubling, of the possibility of ALP units switching back en masse to the insurgency, if the circumstances become favourable.

The report further criticises the role played by US troops, namely Special Forces, in recruiting, financing and employing ALP units. US troops were not only instrumental in creating ALP units in various districts (in Herat and Kunduz province, for example) according to their own wishes and preferences and sidelining the Ministry of Interior, but they are accused of having employed these units wrongly. Local policemen are supposed to be strictly rooted in one area – technically they are not even allowed to carry their weapons outside the community to which they belong – and in any case, they should limit their movements to one district. Yet, with US Special Forces’ support, some units have been carrying out operations even beyond provincial borders. In a case documented by the AIHRC, an ALP unit from Uruzgan engaged in a clash with the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Daikundi province and even received NATO aerial support.

Of course, these issues all add up, creating suspicion and resentment towards the ALP among various sectors of Afghan society and, more significantly, among many of the very communities where the force is deployed and whom it is their raison d’etre to protect. And this, of course, is a major failure, as the report comments: ‘The ALP should command public consent and support. Otherwise, it cannot play its role well in communities.’

The point is that there is a fundamental clash between the pre-requisites for the ALP to work effectively, or at least to lose its most blatant flaws – that is, real, balanced, community selection of recruits, lack of criminal or politically polarising elements, longer training and a focus on literacy – and the need for a quick implementation of the program, mainly for making Transition or Enteqal in certain areas possible. Moreover, the inclusion of a significant number of insurgents and other armed groups appears to be more than incidental. Actually, both the NATO commands and the jihadi powerbrokers in the government favour this in order, respectively, to entice enemy fighters onto the government side, avoid disbanding their armed retinues and find suitable employment for the foot soldiers.

The loyalty of some of the ALP units and their commitment to the Afghan government, especially in the long-term, is questionable. However, the direction that the ALP will take after 2014 can still be determined by the future effectiveness of other Afghan institutions. This, of course, implies that the government is able to rein in the ALP and integrate it into the regular ANSF at some point (4), and that it does not allow the program to grow so big as to constitute a threat to the existence of the state, as past militias eventually did.

Another problem is the continuing existence of more informal, quasi-legal but still tolerated armed groups, generically called arbaki by the report (and by a majority of Afghans).(5) Most of these groups preceded the formation of the ALP, into which many of them were then integrated. Still, many are left without even had the most basic form of vetting and accountability which the ALP enjoys. Many arbaki often have heavier weapons than either their ALP and ANP counterparts. The arbaki are frequently confused with the ALP by the population, and sometimes even by the authorities. The failure to differentiate arises from different causes, but mainly from the fact that many arbaki and ALP members come from a similar background and share a common, low status in the eyes of the public.

The word arbakai (singular of arbaki) has indeed undergone a radical transformation in Afghan popular culture during the last years: from being a very specific and geographically limited Pashto term denoting a sort of unpaid tribal police to becoming an epithet used to refer to a wide range of more or less legal militias. It is also employed as a term of abuse among youngsters in Kabul and elsewhere.

The situation is not much better when it comes to the perception of even the ANP among the population. The continuing focus of the police forces, not on fighting crime and protecting civilians, but on engaging in war operations as paramilitary units, keeps them apart from society. Any well-to-do or educated family is unlikely to send their son to join the police. However, as expressed by a character in a short movie (Khwastagari, Matchmaking or The Proposal, 2011) screened during an unprecedented Police Film Festival that ended Saturday in Kabul, one point remains unresolved. In the movie, a young shepherd asks his fellow bus travellers, who had been complaining about police abuses: ‘If you and you and you won’t allow your sons to join the police, then why do you wonder that the policemen are all bad guys?’

(1) As the New York Times reported, there was even a shopping list: ‘The Americans […] did themselves no favours in the prelude to Chicago by sending around a list in January with the amount they expected every country to give. Canada was assessed for $125 million; Finland for $20 million; France, $200 million; Sweden, $40 million — among others. Only Greece, whose government is in default, was given an exemption. The list made other countries feel they were trapped in a carpet bazaar in which the store owner sets the price above what he knows he will get. (The list was even called “Target Asks.”) […] So far the result is that countries are offering about 60 percent of the amount the Americans asked them for. Britain has already announced it will spend $110 million — barely more than half the $200 million it was asked for.’

(2) The AIHRC report, in fact, offers a very useful analysis of the legal basis for the ALP (p. 13-20), that is what should have been and is not.

(3) The fact that many hostile armed groups are more frequently reconciled directly through NDS efforts than by local peace councils and that their surrender often entais the promise of a rank in the security forces creates unclear situations where armed groups proclaim themselves part of the ALP/arbaki even before undergoing any vetting or training process.

(4) On a theoretical level, the ALP is a temporary project. According to the Procedure, after a period of five years, the ALP will be reintegrated into the ANP or the army.

(5) In February, for example, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeinereported about units of the so-called CIPP (Critical Infrastructure Protection Programme) still existing in Kunduz province. They were established and paid for by the US and positively evaluated by local German military (read here) while the Afghan government, in December, actually decided to dissolve the CIIP, after President Karzai had professed, in an interview, that he had never heard of it.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Rights & Freedoms