Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Militia Sightings

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

Some see ‘hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban’ But how spontaneously did the new militias really emerge? Here are some reports on the new militias found in the international media (further contributions welcome).

Miralam Khan is the new hero of Kunduz. […] Many are convinced that the former mujahedin commander has single-handedly liberated a number of villages in this Northern Afghan province from the radical Islamic Taleban‘ writes Frankfurter Allgemeine’s Friederike Boege in her reportage‚Mit den Mudschahedin gegen die Taliban‘ (With the Mujahedin against the Taleban, 5 Nov). She already makes an important point: Many of the ‘new’ militia leaders are old mujahedin commanders who were supposed to be disarmed by the post-2001 DDR program but seem to have been able to keep weapons anyway.

But Miralam Khan says ‚that he has nothing to do with militias. He describes him as a “very normal official of the Ministry of Interior. […] I was the one who lead the decisive offensive. […] These were all my soldiers. […] We handed over [the Taleban caught] to American Special Forces” who had given him “practical support” […] They bombarded an area from the air [he said]’.

This report raises the question whether at least some of these militias are part – or act with the knowledge – of the Afghan Ministry of Interior. It wouldn’t have been the first time that MoI officials used their ‘soldiers’ (as they are still sometimes called in a reminiscence to the time when Afghan conscripts were divided between the army and the police – a practice abolished after 2001 and still criticized by many in the Afghan parliament and the armed forces) for private security companies. Furthermore, it seems to become clear from this report that some militias coordinate their operations with US forces, even receiving air support.

From the same area, Kunduz, Matthias Gebauer for Spiegel online reportsas follows (‘Afghanische Milizen greifen nach der Macht’/ Afghan militias in a grip for power, 11. Nov.): ‚Since a few weeks, [the Turkmen] Gachi is a commander again. With 60 fighters, mainly young people from the area, he patrols day and night in Qalay[-e ]zal district in the north of Kunduz province‘ with ‚a heavily armed and even according to Afghan law illegal militia that had formed before the [presidential] elections of 20 August‘.

The report mentions ‘other militia leaders’ from Khanabad, Aliabad and Imam Saheb, all in Kunduz, meeting the province’s intelligence chief who asks them ‘what they need’. According to ‘officials’, there are 200 to 400 ‚re-armed patrolling groups that openly display their guns around Kunduz’.

An AFP report, also from Kunduz (Gul Rahmi Niazmand, ‘Afghan village armies fight Taliban’, 18 Nov.), tells the story of Abdul Jalil Tawakal, ‘a tribal elder from Qala-i-Zal district’ who together with ‘other local leaders ha[s] formed a militia’.

From this report the question occurs whether some of these militias are successors of the so-called arbaki formed to protect some election sites on 20 August but which were supposed to exist only temporarily. Again, these militias seem to have access to weapons despite the ‘successfully closed’ UN-led DDR program.

The New York Times article already mentioned in an earlier blog (Dexter Filkins, ‘As Afghans Resist Taliban, U.S. Spurs Rise of Militias’) mentions that ‘American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms … including [in] the provinces of Nangarhar and Paktia’ and gives the example of a tribal Shinwari militia in a remote mountain valley in Achin district.

Reports we have gathered add militias in Shindand (Herat province), Baghlan and Helmand (both unspecified districts).

blog shows another form of arbaki, here in the traditional home of this tribal (non-uniformed) volunteer force in the South-Eastern region. Here called a ‘tribal police force’. In a six-part series (‘Interview With a Tribal Chief’ called Chief Zazai; the Zazi – or Dzadzi – are a Pashtun tribe in Paktia), the chief says that he wants to ‘bring the grass-roots communities closer to the U.S. Army’. He had managed to come in to contact with Gen Graeme Lamb who heads ISAF’s reconciliation program, shown on a photo posted on the blog. But there are problems: ‘The TPF guys worked for five months and only received one month’s salary. The Tribal Police are totally under-resourced, no weapons [other than their own] or proper clothing.’

That points to another – and not new – problem. Often, government payment for arbaki or regular police is irregular. Than happens what many Afghans fear: The militias go and raise their income themselves from the civilian population.

The reports quoted above also give examples that this not an unsubstantiated fear but already has become reality.

There are ‚first reports of skirmishes between different village militias that want to settle old scores from the civil war’ writes Boege from Kunduz. Other militias ‘primarily stop Pashtuns, search them and take their mobile phones away’, according to a resident of Imam Sahib district. ‚And they demand food from restaurant owners arguing that they would provide them with security.’

From Baghlan we received reports that Tajik groups (with Jamiat links) got the permission from Kabul to take up arms which raised concern amongst neighboring Pashtuns (with Hezb links) who used their connections in Kabul also to obtain weapons. Here, the risk becomes obvious that militias might deepen existing ethnic tensions and give rise to older inter-factional conflicts again.

Jonathan S. Landay from the McClatchy group of newspapers alreadyshowed in August that militias actually could drive other people to join the insurgency. He quotes a local school director from Baghlan-e Jadid: ‘These arbakai take food from villagers by force and taxes by force. My relatives went several times to complain to the authorities. When the arbakai found out, they beat my relatives. So they joined the Taliban to keep their prestige and honor’ (‘Taliban’s growth in Afghanistan’s north threatens to expand war’, 28 August).

Gebauer warns against another risk. He reports ‘delicate situations’ between militias and ISAF soldiers. One German officer says: ‘From afar, we saw armed men standing there, […] but how should we distinguish them from Taliban and other criminals and how should we know whether they will attack us?’

A BBC report from Paktia (Ian Pannell: ‘Can militias contain the Taleban?’ 21 February 2009) possibly shows how it could work, with real arbaki:

‘A lone gunman comes into view as we drive across the frozen plateau of Ahmadabad district. We are eyed closely. As we move along the road, more gunmen appear, standing guard at junctions, checking cars along the road, keeping watch outside buildings.

We are in the centre of Paktia province, in south-eastern Afghanistan. […] The Taleban and al-Qaeda have a growing presence here and clashes between them and government and foreign forces have escalated. But Ahmadabad district is an exception, thanks to the gunmen of the Arbakai, a tribal militia that has protected this area and its people for centuries, making it something of a safe-haven from the violence all around.

[…] They are a volunteer force of men and boys, armed with old rifles and true grit. They are part of a traditional code of conduct and honour called Pashtunwali.’

But then the key sentences come:

‘Some think the Arbakai provide a role model for stemming the violence elsewhere in the country. A little more than a year ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke about “community defence initiatives” as a way of dismantling the insurgency. It received a cold reception from Washington at the time but since then the US, together with the Afghan government, has been fine-tuning a variation on the theme of putting local people in charge of their own security. They will be called a “Public Protection Force” (PPF) and come under the control of the ministry of the interior. […] The first trial run will [has] start[ed] in Wardak […] The government is adamant they will be different from the Arbakai and emphatically “not a militia”.’

The Taleban already reported attacks on tribal militia from Alisheng district (Laghman province), Farah, Nerkh (Wardak), Bak and Saberi (Khost).


Militia Taleban