It is one of the few ‘truths’ of the Afghan insurgency that the Taleban hate arbaki– their term for locally-recruited defence forces, primarily the Afghan Local Police and uprising groups.These forces have always been a mixed bag, with some abusing the local population or captured by ethnic, factional or criminal interests. However, especially where they have local legitimacy, they have posed a serious threat to the insurgency. Borhan Osman* and Kate Clark identify three phases of Taleban reaction to such forces – denial, all-out war and then ‘counter counter-insurgency’ – and discuss what this says about the model of mobilising local, pro-government forces.
This dispatch is published as part of a joint three-year project by AAN, the Global Public Policy institute (GPPi), and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. The project explores the role and impact of militias, local or regional defence forces and other quasi-state forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, including mechanisms for foreign assistance to such actors. Funding is provided by the Netherlands Research Organisation.
Afghanistan has seen a range of militia forces established since 2001, but from 2009 onwards, the international military increasingly organised them according to a specific model, the community defense force (also called local or village defence force). The American military, in particular, came to believe that the defeat of the Taleban lay in winning over ‘the tribes’ and ‘local communities’; local defence forces, they thought, were in a better position to do so than the national forces of the corrupt Afghan state. (1) Local militias were set up under a variety of names, but in 2010, most coalesced into a new national force, the ‘Afghan Local Police’ (ALP). Since 2012, it has became increasingly institutionalised within the Ministry of Interior and officially numbers 29,000 today.
Another type of local force also emerged from 2012 onwards. So-called ‘uprising forces’ (patsunian in Pashto and khezesh in Persian) were supposedly spontaneously rebellions organised by locals against the insurgency, although they usually turned out to have been prompted by or were soon supported/co-opted by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and/or Independent Directorate of Local Government (IDLG). (For detail on all the various militias, see this background paper.)
Locally-recruited forces – both ALP and uprising groups – have posed a serious enough threat to the Taleban for them to take extreme measures against them – vilification and attempts at annihilation and, more recently, co-option. The Taleban’s extreme response raises an interesting question: does the model of community defence force work?
Despite a plethora of research and analysis on the ALP, in particular, and their continued renewal for eight years and counting, there has been little conclusive evidence that the community force model delivers on its security promises – to protect the population and help the government hold territory. (2) It is an important question because this is a model that the international military and, albeit less frequently, the Afghan government has kept returning to, especially when looking at what can be done to maintain government forces’ control of territory in the face of inadequate conventional state forces. Most recently, we have seen the start of pilot projects for a new community defence force, the Afghan National Army Territorial Force (ANATF), to be organised under Ministry of Defence command. (3) Understanding why the Taleban have viewed community defence forces as a particular threat offers at least a partial verdict on their effectiveness. It also says a lot about the dynamics of community mobilisation in Afghanistan.
Four district case studies
In trying to assess Taleban attitudes and conduct towards the ALP and uprising forces, the authors looked at four districts in the Taleban’s heartland: Andar and Muqur in Ghazni province, Arghandab in Kandahar and Shajoy in Zabul, with Panjwayi’s ALP in Kandahar also referred to, but to a lesser extent.
- Ghazni’s Andar and Muqur districts both saw the emergence of uprising groups in 2012. Both largely transitioned to ALP later that same year, although some uprisers remained as ‘remnant’ independent uprising forces. (For an analysis of Andar, see “Uprising, ALP and Taleban in Andar: The arc of government failure” by Fazal Muzhary and Kate Clark, 22 May 2018, which also quotes earlier extensive reporting by AAN)
- Zabul’s Shajoy district saw an ALP unit established in 2011. (For detail, see AAN reporting in “How to Replace a Bad ALP Commander: In Shajoy, success and now calamity” by Fazal Muzhary, 21 September 2016)
- Arghandab was the site of one of the early, experimental community defence forces known as ‘Local Defence Initiatives’ (LDI). It was established in the district in 2009 and transitioned to ALP in 2010. (4)
Our observations are drawn from regular field research and investigations into Taleban and security force developments since 2010. One of the authors, Borhan Osman, conducted 13 trips to Ghazni and Kandahar between 2010 and 2017 and many of the insights in this dispatch derive from observations and conversations during those trips. He also conducted interviews in Kabul with locals from the studied areas. In total, he held more than 70 conversations and interviews with Taleban fighters and officials, members and ALP commanders and uprising groups and civilians in the studied districts.
The authors wanted to see if the trends in violence observed by us and reported by both civilians and combatants locally, could be borne out statistically. We therefore consulted a western security expert who has maintained a database of security incidents in Afghanistan since 2012 and compared our conclusions with his statistical evidence. The expert in question asked to remain anonymous and for AAN not to publish actual numbers.
There is no clear, spelled-out, top-down Taleban policy on arbaki – the Taleban refer to both the ALP and uprising groups with this term used in its contemporary sense as an undisciplined and abusive, pro-government militia. (5) Also, as always in Afghanistan, local dynamics vary. Nevertheless, when looking at what happened in the studied districts, similarities in Taleban attitudes and behaviour become very evident. We argue that there were three phases in the insurgents’ approach to community defence forces: initially, the Taleban dismissed them, then used extreme violence and vilification to try to annihilate their new enemy and finally, embarking on a ‘softly-softly’ approach of counter counter-insurgency trying to co-opt and defuse the ALP and uprising groups by winning over individual police and fighters and their communities. These three phases are looked at in detail below.
Phase 1 (2009-2011): Denial
The ALP and uprising forces sought to draw on a constituency which the Taleban considered their own – rural communities, especially in the south and east of Afghanistan. Such communities had long served as the Taleban’s bedrock, supplying the insurgency with almost all its needs, from fighters to food and shelter. It is this support which has enabled Taleban fighters to use populated areas for their military bases and hideouts. The Talebanhad always taken the support – or at least consent – of local communities in their heartland for granted. They assumed the ‘Islamic Emirate’, as they call their organisation, and the ‘mujahedin’ as they call themselves, were rooted so firmly in their communities that nobody could pose a serious challenge. The emergence of a community force opposed to the Taleban, then, was simply unimaginable for members of the movement, both fighters and commanders.
At first, as ALP (and various precursor forces in areas like Arghandab) appeared in increasing numbers across the south, the Taleban disregarded them. Rumours, circulating in 2011 that the ALP programme was going to be expanded dramatically into a nation-wide counter-insurgent force, were dismissed by higher-level Taleban interviewed by Osman during field trips. (6) They described the rumoured plans as an American ploy doomed to fail. Conversations with Taleban fighters in the studied southern districts from 2011 through early 2012 typically ran along the lines of: the Islamic Emirate is the most authentic popular force – how can the nation turn against the mujahedin? Nevertheless, when the rumours came to pass and the number of ALP expanded dramatically from 2012 onwards, the Taleban understood the threat they were facing. Taleban commanders described finally realising that the ALP programme amounted to more than just isolated instances of externally-supported opposition forces. The Afghan Local Police became the Taleban’smost dangerous enemy, worse even than the American and other foreign forces which, thus far, had been their primary adversary.
Phase 2 (2012 – 2014): Extreme violence and vilification
As the ALP became institutionalised, it increased in numbers and absorbed most other community defence forces. The threat posed by the new force became evident. They were as close to the community as the Taleban. Local policemen and uprisers and local Taleban knew each other by name. They knew each others’ families, clan networks and sympathisers. Members of the new forces knew the insurgents’ places of shelter, their usual ambush points and exit and supply routes – normally unknown to outside forces. Some were former Taleban members. (7) Even when the new forces were not universally popular with the communities in which they operated – for example, in Andar – they were still able to pose a threat because of the support of their particular clan and family networks.
An equally significant characteristic of the new local forces was that, unlike members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who could always retreat when under attack, the ALP tended to stand their ground. Local fighters had nowhere else to go. Once mobilised, community defence forces, whether ALP or uprising groups, were defending their home area. It was an existential fight for them as much as it was for the local Taleban – and both sides fought the harder because of this.
As the Taleban realised the new threat in their midst, all the more shocking because it came from those they had long considered their own, they responded by unleashing brutal campaigns aimed at compelling the new forces to submit. This was in contrast to their approach to the ANSF. Facing the Afghan National Police (ANP) or Afghan National Army (ANA), the Taleban deployed a range of tactics – fiercely attacking the ANSF, trying to broker non-aggression deals, and when facing attack themselves, standing and defending ground, or tactically retreating. With the ALP and uprising groups, the Taleban were only aggressive. The Taleban wanted to destroy their local foe. In this, they used three tactics: all-out war against the forces themselves; violence against their civilian supporters and; propaganda.
First, since Taleban fighters were bent on eliminating the new community defence forces, not just putting pressure on them, they sought to maximise fatalities. For example, when attacking an ALP check-post, Taleban fighters typically laid siege to it from all sides and made sure all routes for reinforcements were blocked. They wanted to leave no means of escape for the local policemen and gave no quarter. Local residents who witnessed these attacks described them as far tenser and more brutal then attacks on ANSF units. For example, in Andar in Ghazni province, where an uprisingforce emerged in 2012, Taleban fighters in the summer of that year mobilised a disproportionally huge force to encircle an uprising stronghold, a qala (fort) in Qadamkhel village, with the aim of eliminating their enemy within. The siege failed, but only because it was broken by ANSF and US forces.
Interviewees described another pattern emerging at this time, the Taleban’s concerted use of attacks by ‘insiders’, men planted inside an ALP unit or ALP members who had been persuaded to go over to the insurgency and betray their comrades. Examples of such attacks, not exclusively from the studied districts, include: nine ALP killed as they slept in Yahyakhel, Paktika, in March 2012; five ALP killed by their commander as they slept in Jawzjan (no district given), reported along with four sleeping Afghan National Police (ANP) killed in Uruzgan in December 2012 and; a unit of newly-trained 17 ALP “wiped out” (drugged and killed) in Andar, Ghazni, reported along with an ALP commander and several of his men drugged and killed in Panjwayi, Kandahar, in January 2012.
Observations by authors and interviewees concluded that ALP units were hit more frequently and more severely by insider attacks than regular ANSF forces deployed to the same area, and that this trend was particularly marked in Andar and Shajoy. Media reports from the time also suggest the threat to the ALP from insider attacks was greater. The New York Times, for example, reported in February 2017 that the ALP programme was “contentious” in many parts of Afghanistan partly “because of insider attacks.” The paper quoted Afghan military analyst, retired general Atiqullah Amarkhel as saying the ALP were suffering particular losses: “‘This type of attack is so deadly and disastrous,” he said, “both in terms of loss of human life and in critically undermining trust and confidence among the Afghan national security forces and in particular the A.L.P.’.”
Of course, the high number of attacks against the ALP may not only have been because the Taleban were concertedly targeting them. The new force was also more vulnerable to attack. In the communities which ALP members were drawn from, everyone knows everyone, so the Taleban could more easily find ways to communicate and persuade or threaten individual local policemen to betray their comrades than when they were looking for ‘fifth columnists’ inside the regular ANSF. Also, the recruitment and vetting of ALP recruits was reported as having been particularly poor, especially because of the haste to get ‘boots on the ground’ (see for example, this article which describes a halt in ALP training by US special forces, in this case, because of the threat ALP recruits were posing to their trainers and the section on recruitment in this dispatch about the Andar ALP which describes US officers on the ground overlooking ‘local concerns’ (such as abuses and accountability) because of pressure from above to recruit rapidly.
In contrast with the Taleban’s ‘maximum lethality approach’ to the ALP, the authors observed that, unless an ANSF unit or its commander was a particularly sought-after enemy, the Taleban would more often use military pressure to try to demoralise police and army units, to persuade them to escape or surrender, rather than trying to wipe them out. This changed in 2017, when Taleban attacks against ANSF did become more lethal and were aimed at causing mass casualties, (8) but the trend, and contrast with ALP, before that point is notable.
The harsher treatment of ALP is also supported by the difference in Taleban attitudes towards detention, depending on who was being captured: while the insurgents frequently detained members of the ANSF, rather than killing them, they took a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to the ALP. By contrast, when ANSF posts have been overrun, the Taleban have captured soldiers or police by the dozens. In most cases, when soldiers or regular police surrender or are captured alive, they have been kept as prisoners in mobile prisons for the purpose of exchange, or sent home after promising not to go back to the ANSF. Taleban videos often document captured ANSF members being allowed to go home – see occasional reports here, here and here and Taleban videos here and here. Yet, in research over many years, the authors have not come across a single example of Taleban trying to capture ALP alive. When attacking the ALP, the Taleban gave no quarter. In all the studied districts, especially in Shajoy in Zabul through 2012-13 and Muqur in Ghazni in 2013-14, the Taleban also raided houses of off-duty ALP and uprising members or grabbed them from, for example, wedding ceremonies, killing them on the spot.
The authors of this dispatch wanted to see if what we had observed on the ground and been told by local people, both civilians and combatants – that the Taleban were more violent towards the ALP than the conventional ANSF – could be borne out statistically. To this end, the international security expert we consulted created two data sets; the sets compared assassinations of ALP and ANP and ‘killing after abduction’, again for ALP and ANP. There has been variability in the force strength of both ALP and ANP over the years, but generally, the ANP has been five to six times the size of the ALP. Despite the fact that the ALP is dwarfed by the regular police force, the number of ALP killed after abduction compared to ANP was far higher in all the years from 2012 to 2017. Only tiny numbers of ANP were killed in this way.
When it comes to assassinations, about half the number of ALP were assassinated as ANP in 2013, four-fifths in 2014, half in 2015 and a third in 2016 and 2017. Given the relative sizes of the two forces, the statistics are starkly clear: an individual member of the ALP has been far more likely to be assassinated than a member of the ANP and to be killed by the Taleban if captured.
Again, there might be several factors combining to lead to the relatively high number of ALP assassinations. ALP are easier to kill because they are more lightly armed and live ‘in the community’ and, unlike ANP, there is nowhere for ALP to run to unless they are willing to give up their homes. Nevertheless, the view of local people asked about this in Argandab and Muqur was that the high assassination rate was also a result of the Taleban assiduously targeting the ALP. This was the view too of the western security expert: “It took some time [for the Taleban] to get going, but [they] were definitely targeting the ALP vigorously in 2013-14.”
Violence against civilian supporters of the ALP and uprising groups
A second tactic, and one that marked out the Taleban versus ALP conflict from more general patterns of violence seen in the insurgency, was the level of violence meted out by the Taleban against civilians connected to the ALP. This sometimes amounted to collective punishment. For example, in a few cases, the Taleban in Andar killed almost all adult male members of families involved in an uprising or ALP unit, including in one case during this period, an old man who was clearly a non-combatant. One of the leaders of the Andar uprising, former Taleb Mullah Rahmatullah lost at least five members of his family, including his father and a brother, between 2013 and 2014. It should be stressed that in places like Andar, the violence went both ways, with the ALP and uprising groups also targeting civilians whom they believed were sympathetic to the Taleban; there were some killings and beatings – some severe – but more commonly, illegal detention and extortion of money or goods (for more details, see here). The very local nature of the two parties to the conflict appears to have fostered an especially nasty, intimate form of violence. ALP and Taleban, who could trace individual fighters on the other side to families and sympathisers, would use these familial and kinship ties for leverage and to cause particular hurt to the enemy.
The insurgents conveyed a message of zero tolerance by coming down hard on anyone they suspected of supporting the new ALP and uprising forces. They launched assassination campaigns targeting tribal elders who supported such initiatives. More than a dozen influential community elders were killed by the Taleban from spring 2012 to the end of 2013 in Andar, Muqur and Shajoy districts, most of them, locals believed, because of their (alleged or actual) support for the ALP. Such assassinations rarely made it into media reports. Additionally, in some instances, the Taleban resorted to what amounted to the collective punishment of an entire community which actively supported the militias, treating all its members as ‘legitimate targets’. For example, in Arghandab, one of the districts where the ALP was established in the earliest period, a bomber blew himself up at the wedding party of an ALP commander in 2010, killing 40 guests, only some of whom were ALP members. Similarly, a roadside bomb hit a convoy of the wedding guests of an ALP member in Andar district in 2013, killing at least 19 people, mainly women.
Another noteworthy ‘collective punishment’ type of attack happened in Yahyakhel district of Paktika, on 23 November 2014, when the Taleban targeted ALP commanders attending a volleyball match; ten ALP members were killed, including two commanders, but also 53 civilians, including 21 children (a further 85 civilians were injured, including 26 children – figures from UNAMA. The Taleban officially condemned the Yahyakehl attack in a statement and promised to hold those responsible to account; yet, a pro-Taleban website provided an apologist account and detailed justification for the attack. In all these cases (the two weddings and the volleyball match), the attacks took place in villages that were known as ALP hubs and against family members, guests or friends of an ALP member.
Such high-casualty attacks with the prospect of many civilian casualties have been comparatively rare in rural locations during the insurgency. They are more usually reserved for high-value urban and/or difficult-to-reach targets, especially in Kabul, where spectacular attacks can be expected to make headlines. Interviewees in the districts understood the attacks against ‘ALP plus civilians’ as the Taleban sending a specific message to the local population not to support the ALP. The message was particularly strong, interviewees said, because the attacks breached taboos in terms of the norms of Afghan warfare. As AAN reported in a piece looking at the conflict in Andar in 2013, “the belief that the ‘other side’ would want to kill female wedding guests (and it is hard to think of a killing with a stronger taboo) stems from the mounting aggressiveness and hatred perpetuated by both sides involved in this conflict…”
Another red line crossed was disrespect for the dead. Both sides in Andar banned the Islamic burial of their enemies; in 2012, six mullahs were killed for breaking this ban, two pro-Taleban, two pro-ALP and two whose ‘alignment’, if any, we could not determine. “Even the most divided Afghan communities are bound together by events of mourning and marriage,” AAN reported. “However, the strife in Andar is threatening even these most basic of bonds.”
The aim of the Taleban’s aggressive anti-arbaki campaign was to spread anxiety among the communities in which the ALP or uprisers were based by appealing to their most cherished values and concerns about personal security and honour. Stories of militiamen’s perceived or real immorality were magnified and exaggerated. The Taleban have characterised elopement, bacha bazi and rape as examples of ‘arbaki practices’. They have even coined new conceptual terms from the arbaki root, such as arbakism (a linguistically interesting use of a Pashto term with a Latin, through English, suffix, on the model of ‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘Marxism’). They have applied this term to any thinking or behaviour that departs from socially-accepted norms, including criticism of mullahs by independent political activists. Vocal anti-Taleban activists on social media have also been classified as arbakis, for example, not only for their support of the local defence forces, but also their ‘liberal’ thinking. One such social media activist, in response to such characterisation, has dubbed himself as an arbaki fi sabilillah (arbakiin the cause of Allah) as versus mujahed fi sabilillah (a mujahed in the cause of Allah). Here the pun was aimed at the Taleban (and wasnotpoking fun at religion). This anti-arbaki narrative can be seen promoted on Taleban and pro-Taleban websites, for example, here, here and here.
The Taleban have been helped in their propaganda campaign by the actual conduct of some ALP and uprising groups, which have indeed been guilty of abusive, immoral and criminal behaviour, although such abuse is not limited to militia commanders. ANP commanders are more commonly accused of bacha bazi, for example, (see media investigations into the practice here and here and this special report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction). Even so, actual bad behaviour from some militias, together with Taleban propaganda have together transformed the term arbaki,traditionally such a positive brand, into an insult.
Phase 3 (2014 – present): Counter-counter-insurgency
After a few years of intense confrontation with the local community forces, the Taleban strategy changed. This was motivated partly by a tacit acceptance that the ALP could not be removed and a recognition that they could be made strategically irrelevant. In effect, the Taleban learned to counter the counter-insurgents. This shift began about 2014 in most areas, but was earlier in the case of Arghandab, from 2013 onwards, and later in Shajoy, from 2015.
In contrast to the peak of violence during phase 2, the Taleban’s levels of violence and their particular targeting of the ALP decreased during this third phase. The insurgents’ military campaign did continue, but the ALP as an enemy was de-prioritised. The Taleban realised their local enemy could not be eliminated. To keep fighting it aggressively was exhausting their own energy and resources, and in most areas, the gains were not worth the effort.
In Andar, Muqur and Shajoy, the ALP’s main strength – its community support – had been broken, largely due to the ALP/uprisers’ predatory behaviour. In Andar and Muqur, the Taleban onslaught had also now broken the momentum of the local defence forces. The ALP/uprisers had proved to be a locally limited force that was not worth pursuing over other more significant campaigns. In Arghandab, the ALP was relatively resilient and had popular support and could not be completely defeated. Continuing to focus on it was weakening the Taleban locally. After 2013, the Taleban gave up directly contesting or trying to eliminate the ALP in Arghandab and used their energy and local resources instead to advance into other strategic areas. (9)
Attacks by the Taleban on ALP units did continue during this phase but without the previous intensity of violence. Significantly, the Taleban also undertook other types of effort to marginalise or mitigate the ALP threat. In all the studied cases except Arghandab, where the ALP remained relatively strong, the Taleban succeeded in de-escalating the conflict with the ALP locally, even venturing into peace-making with local units. They looked for pragmatic strategies, of co-option and persuasion, to weaken their enemy.
ALP men in Andar, for example, were subject to a systematic campaign by the Taleban to encourage them to ‘come in from the cold’. According to Taleban commanders in Ghazni who were interviewed at multiple points from 2014 to 2017, the insurgents of Andar, on orders from their superiors in the Taleban Leadership Council, made efforts from 2014 onwards to win over the local ALP and uprising forces directly, or through their families. The Taleban gave assurances that ALP men would not be hounded after they quit the ALP and even held public celebrations for those defecting. As the Taleban recaptured almost all the villages in the district they had lost to uprising forces and ALP in 2012, they have not undertaken acts of reprisal against residents. This pragmatic approach has extended even to former ALP members and their families who sought amnesties and chose to stay in their home areas. Examples illustrating this change in Taleban tactics given by interviewees include: in 2017, two former ALP men in Andar who were detained by the Taleban were released unharmed after a few days, and; in 2016, the Taleban’s handed over the body of an ALP man whom they had killed after forcing him from his car on the Kabul-Kandahar highway for his family to bury. Previously, the Taleban would have killed the mullah who gave such a man an Islamic funeral.
Many ALP have been persuaded by such incentives to defect, especially if they have grown tired of struggling on in communities where the fight appears to be a losing battle. That the former members of the local community forces can now trust Taleban assurancesis a far cry from a few years ago, when the only response they could imagine from the insurgents was to be butchered.
Although the patterns of violence and attempts at co-option varied somewhat in the studied districts, an overall trend towards less violence and, in three of the districts, more talking appeared evident. Looking at the statistics of violence provided by the international security expert, they also show a trend of violence towards the ALP nationally peaking in what we have called phase 2 (2012-14) and then falling away considerably in phase three (2014 onwards). Data sets for the targeted killings of ordinary ALP and of ALP commanders, and the killings of ALP after abduction all peaked in 2013 and 2014. (10) The other type of attack for which the security expert had data on – the number of ALP killed in ‘green on green’ attacks, ie by their comrades – was steadier across the five years from 2012 to 2017.
Again, a word of caution is needed when assessing these statistics as the trends could just be mirroring trends in the wider war. Levels of violence increased overall in 2013 and 2014. However, the international security expert said his understanding was that the Taleban were targeting the ALP particularly assiduously in the early years and that the violence did fall away:
My sense at the time and looking at the stats is that [there was a] deliberate determination [by the Taleban] to challenge a force that had been set up to deny them physical access to much of the rural hinterland. The way in which they were dealt with, much more brutally than other parts of ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] suggest that this was not just an increase in line with increasing general levels of violence after the relative lull of 2012.
Conclusion: a potentially effective, but risky model
The Taleban’s reaction to community defence forces – observed locally and borne out by available statistics – suggests that the framers of the ALP did get at least one thing right – community-supported, pro-government forces can present a significant threat to the Taleban. There is a reason, then, why the US military, in particular, has kept coming back to this particular model of local force. This is even despite the risks – detailed extensively elsewhere – that such forces are vulnerable to co-option by factional or criminal interests and to becoming abusive and therefore counter-productive in the fight against the Taleban. Community defence forces can pose a real threat to the Taleban. They can be highly effective at holding territory and they tend to fight tenaciously.
However, what can make a community defence force such a strong counter-insurgent tool – its intimate knowledge of the enemy and preparedness to stand and defend territory – also brings dangers and risks to local people. The violence directed by the Taleban towards the ALP and uprising groups was both intense and intimate, far worse than the violence directed towards non-local forces. It spilled out to hurt family members and other ALP-aligned civilians and broke taboos of Afghan warfare. Mobilising such forces fundamentally changed the nature of the conflict locally because fighting those you know is different from either fighting foreign soldiers or Afghans from outside your area. So while community defence forces may be a highly effective tool for those planning a counter-insurgency and wanting to capture or hold territory, the potential harm to those on the ground makes this a risky venture. Recruiting local pro-government forces to fight locally-recruited insurgents can poison tribal and community relations. The risk of setting up enduring cycles of violence is obvious, although this prospect, at least for now, appears to have been reduced because of Taleban pragmatism.
The success of the ALP in some areas in mobilising community support also revealed weaknesses in the Taleban’s outlook and tactics. As with any group that has enjoyed solid power, it developed a dogma that assumed the unquestioning support of the communities in which it operated. In official rhetoric and in fighters’ narratives about themselves, the Taleban projected themselves as the true, even sole, representative of ‘the nation’. They were therefore unable to recognise the threat posed by the emerging ALP and uprising groups. Their assumption that they had local support meant they failed to identify signs of popular discontent with the movement in some of their heartland constituencies. The emergence of local community forces taught the Taleban a huge lesson: there is no absolute support in Afghanistan in any part of society for any party to the conflict, including the Taleban. The insurgents also cannot assume that consent by a community is a guarantee that support will be ongoing. Community support – or acquiescence – can be won or lost and this is pertinent both for the Taleban and the government.
* Borhan Osman’s research and initial drafts for this dispatch took place while he was a researcher with AAN. He has since joined the International Crisis Group.
(1) The need to ‘win over the tribes’ became received wisdom among US military planners after the publication of an influential 2009 paper by Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: a strategy for success in Afghanistan,” United States Army Special Forces, 2009 and reviewed for AAN here. For an analysis of the community defence forces of that era, see Mathieu Lefèvre, “Local Defence in Afghanistan: A Review of Government Backed Initiatives, AAN Thematic Report”, (Afghanistan Analysts Network, 2010).
(2) For a discussion of the competing evidence on their security effectiveness, see “Backgrounder: Literature Review of Local, Community or Sub-State Forces in Afghanistan” by Erica Gaston and Kate Clark at pages 5-9. This publication also gives a lot of detail on the various militias set up – or re-cycled – since 2001, including the predecessors to the ALP.
(3) AAN wrote about this possible new community defence force when news of it leaked in September 2017 (see here and here). Since then, as a Ministry of Defence official and Resolute Support officers explained to AAN in April 2018, eight locations have been chosen for pilot projects for the new force and recruitment and training has commenced. The new force is under the command of the Afghan National Army and Ministry of Defence and will have ANA officers from outside the province commanding local soldiers.
(4) The Panjwayi ALP was established in 2012 (there was a misreporting of ALP recruitment as an ‘uprising’ in 2013 – as we reported in “The Making of Another ‘Uprising’: The ALP in Panjwayi” in April 2013.
(5) Historically, arbaki are a Loya Paktian institution, a force that is local, tribal, unpaid, voluntary, non-state and temporary. It is chosen by a special procedure and established to help implement the decisions of a jirga, secure the territory of the tribe or community and maintain law and order (see Osman Tariq’s paper “Tribal Security System.” Since locally recruited defence forces were raised outside Loya Paktia, the term has generally become an insult, now generally used by Afghans to refer to undisciplined, abusive, pro-government militias. The Taleban use the term arbaki to refer to ALP, uprising forces and unauthorised pro-government militias. They do not use it for militias which come under or work extremely closely with US forces, such as the Khost Protection Force and Kandahar Strike Force. For these militias, the Taleban have adopted the US military’s term, ‘campaign (forces)’.
(6) The initial tashkil of 10,000, planned to be reached in March 2010, was indeed expanded to 30,000 in 2012.
(7) There are ample instances of former Taleban recruited into the ALP, despite the Ministry of Interior saying this would not be allowed, AAN documented it happening in 2011 in the north and ISAF commanders speaking about it as policy compare Derksen page 35 on Kunduz and Baghlan. International Crisis Group also reported in 2015 that former Taleban were recruited into the ALP in Kandahar.
(8) What appears to be a new tactic of launching massive attacks against the ANSF began in April 2017 with the assault on the 209th Shahin Corps in Balkh which killed at least 140 ANA soldiers. The authors counted more than a dozen attacks on the ANSF which inflicted more than 20 fatalities in 2017. In 2018, the trend has continued, especially since the start of the al-Khandaq offensive.
(9) The Taleban also retreated in Panjwayi where the ALP had proved to be a formidable force, helped by their close relationship with Afghan state forces in Kandahar. The ALP in Panjwayi are drawn from the Achakzai tribe, as is the most powerful man in Kandahar, Provincial Police Chief General Abdul Razeq. Only in 2017, did the Taleban start to make a comeback in Panjwayi.
(10) In terms of actual numbers, the peak for these type of attacks was 2014. However, if the force strength of the ALP is taken into account – it reached its full strength in 2014 – relatively speaking, 2013 was as deadly for the ALP as 2014.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020