The Afghan Local Police (ALP) emerged out of an American special forces’ project to establish ‘community defence forces’ in 2009 and 2010. Despite being viewed by many as ‘militias in uniform’, the ALP has survived and grown to become a significant part of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), present in all but three of Afghanistan’s provinces. AAN’s Kate Clark outlines its current shape and strength, before looking at current reforms aimed at making the ALP accountable on pay, personnel and equipment. The United States, sole funder of the ALP, has said future support is conditional on having a ‘reformed ALP’.
This dispatch is part of a joint three-year project of AAN, the Global Public Policy institute (GPPi), and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). The project explores the role and impact of militias, local or regional defence forces or other quasi-state forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, including their foreign assistance to such actors. Funding is provided by the Netherlands Research Organisation.
From idea to establishment
The idea of a community defence force first emerged in 2009, as the Taleban insurgency grew in intensity and the ANSF was found wanting. US military, especially special operations forces (SOF), were vocal proponents of the idea that the people had to be ‘empowered’ to defend themselves. As part of the counterinsurgency strategy, they proposed that these local forces would be built from the ground-up by small SOF teams:
… living among the people in rural villages (surrounded by the insurgents and the populace), building relationships and assisting the populace to stand up against insurgents, while re-empowering their traditional local governance structures within the village through the shura to establish ALP to enable a local “security bubble” around the village.(1)
This ‘bottom up’ approach to security was a particularly strong theme in the dominating counter-insurgency philosophy of those years. In the initial model, SOF were heavily involved in the recruitment, training, and direct mentoring of the small, village-level, defense forces that would become the ALP. Then Minister of Interior (now National Security Advisor) Hanif Atmar supported the idea, but President Hamed Karzai was reluctant to authorise the programme. Like many Afghans, he associated such forces with the pro-government militias of the PDPA era and the factionalised civil war of the mid-1990s. He also wanted to keep centralised government control over the security apparatus. Nevertheless, on 16 August 2010, he agreed to the establishment of community defence forces, to be known as the Afghan Local Police, so long as they came under Ministry of Interior (MoI) and Afghan National Police (ANP) control, authorising them with Decree 3196.
In part due to these concerns, the ALP was initially capped at 10,000 forces. But that number was expanded to 30,000 by 2012, because of higher demands on the ANSF, some legitimate community desire for local forces and a fair amount of interest by powerbrokers keen to co-opt the new force. In 2012, the ALP was regularised, with training standardised – from then on, it took place at provincial or regional training centres. The various rules and responsibilities governing the ALP, the MoI and its US backers were laid out in a document, ALP Establishment, Organization and Activities Procedures. This was revised in 2014 and 2015, but remains the key document governing the ALP.
The role, rules and casualties of the Afghan ‘community’ police
Today, the ALP is a significant part of the ANSF, with about 29,000 local policemen present in 199 districts in 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces (20 new districts were added earlier in 2017, achieved through a redistribution of the tashkil, the authorised force). According to the Procedures, ALP units should only be set up in areas threatened by the insurgency, where ‘the community’ wants to defend itself and the ANP and/or Afghan National Army can support the ALP. The community should be involved in introducing ALP candidates. The candidates should also be vetted by the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, and MoI Intelligence. As it is a defensive force, ALP checkpoints should be no more than one kilometre away from the village and local policemen should not be deployed away except under the express orders of the Provincial Police Chief (this happened during the defence of Kunduz in 2015, and Lashkargah in 2016, for example). Training is a four-week course with instruction in the use of weapons, checkpoint defence, human rights, avoiding civilian casualties, dealing with detainees and hygiene.
The ALP’s backers have always insisted that the force is important in holding back the Taleban, and many communities have reportedly asked for ALP. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) gives a good description of why, if it works, the ALP should work well.
…[the] key strengths of the ALP include its ability to distinguish local residents from insurgents, a higher level of perceived trustworthiness compared to outside forces, and an intimate knowledge of villages’ vulnerable sites and exit routes. Additionally, a MoI Deputy Minister noted that the effectiveness of the ALP is based, in part, on its ability to garner public support since its personnel are from the immediate area.
However, evidence of ALP being imposed on communities, of abusive behaviour and of the capture of units by strongmen and tanzims (the old armed factions) is evident in much of the research, with political connections between ALP and figures in central government often making control of abusive forces impossible. (See fine-grained analysis of ALP at the district level by AAN (for example on Khas Uruzgan here and here, on Dand-e Shahabuddin in Baghlan on Chahrdara on Khanabad and on Kunduz city; and larger-scale research by Jonathan Goodhand and Aziz Hakimi, Deedee Derksen and Human Rights Watch.) Other studies, including by the International Crisis Group and a US expert group which had top-level access to both the ALP and the US military, have found a more mixed picture. The US expert group found ALP units ranged from “highly effective” – enhancing local security, undermining insurgent influence, and facilitating governance and development – to those “causing more harm than good to the counterinsurgency” – ineffective, predatory, or engaged in collusion with the enemy. (2) It reported the US SOF’s assessment at the time, that one third of ALP units were effective, one third counter-productive and one third somewhere in between. (A working paper by AAN and GPPi reviewing the literature on the ALP and similar militias and quasi-state forces in Afghanistan can be read here).
Perhaps the strongest evidence that the ALP can be a stabilising or protecting force comes in more recent reports by the UNAMA human rights monitoring team into the protection of civilians in conflict. For example, its mid-year 2014 report said, “Most communities continued to welcome the stability and enhanced security provided by the ALP,” and “reported improved security following ALP deployment.” At the same time, UNAMA has continued to attribute incidents of abuse and civilian casualties to the ALP. Its 2016 report (see AAN analysis), for example, reported nine incidents of threat, intimidation and harassment, including severe beatings, extortion, theft, threats and two incidents of sexual abuse, including one involving a child. It did say that the number of civilian casualties compared to 2015 had halved, although many of those civilian deaths (15 out of 20) were deliberate killings.
UNAMA said it had observed increased efforts by the MoI’s ALP Directorate to hold individuals within the ALP to account for criminal acts. There were 108 arrests and referrals of local policemen to the Attorney-General’s Office in 2016, and 99 convictions. According to the head of the ALP Staff Directorate, Colonel Ali Shah Ahmadzai, these were for a variety of allegations, including killing, harassment, illegal taxation, threats and rape, as well as other charges that were far less serious. In June 2016, the Directorate also ordered additional training on rules of engagement, the laws of war and human rights law. UNAMA said these increased efforts may have been one factor contributing to the reduction in civilian casualties in 2016; the other possible contributing factor cited by UNAMA was the removal of about 2000 ALP considered to be under the control of strongmen or tanzims (more on this below).(3) UNAMA said there was still more work to be done, however, and said it was still “concerned at the prevailing lack of accountability for violations of human rights committed by Afghan Local Police.” (The ALP is, of course, not alone in having in its ranks men who commit abuses and violate the laws of war, as UNAMA’s reporting on the protection of civilians also makes clear.)
Both Colonel Ahmadzai and Lt. Gen. Mohammed Salem Ehsas, assistant to the Deputy Minister of Interior for Security and in charge of the ALP, said that most ALP were working well, but some units were highly problematic, especially in the northern provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Faryab, Baghlan and Kunduz and in certain districts in Uruzgan, Ghazni and Wardak. Both they and Colonel Charlie Getz, until recently the director of the part of NATO which mentors ALP, the Special Operations Advisory Group, also contended that the ALP was often blamed unfairly for abuses. On further investigation, they all said, many crimes laid at the door of the ALP turned out to have been carried out by other forces, pro-government armed groups, an ‘uprising force’ (government-supported local militias) or even the ANP. The ALP has “a branding problem,” said Getz.
As to their strategic value, it can be said, at a minimum, that the ALP are particularly detested by the Taleban, which suggests that in some places at least, they are a difficult enemy for the insurgents to deal with. As Michael Semple of Queen’s University, Belfast, has written in 2015:
… the Afghan Taliban perceive arbakai (government-backed community militias) as the greatest threat to their influence, which are formed when the Taliban fail to secure consent to their presence. Armed groups know that losing the argument with communities may mean losing the war.
According to AAN colleague Borhan Osman, when the ALP and similar locally-raised forces first emerged, the Taleban took a particularly harsh approach towards them, with campaigns aimed at killing both local policemen and the elders who backed them. (The casualty numbers bear this out, with more ALP killed proportionally than ANA soldiers, at a ratio of 5:7-8, according to an estimate by Ahmadzai. He reported that, each month, 60 to 100 ALP were killed and 400 to 600 wounded.) The Taleban also used propaganda to cast the ALP as wicked, immoral and isolated, hashish smokers (charsi) and the ‘bastard children of Petraeus’. In 2014, according to Osman, the Taleban began to partly change tactics. The propaganda has continued, but they now aim to convince ALP members to leave the force in exchange for ‘amnesties’ or, at least, for no-fight deals. (Osman plans to publish on this subject in the future.)
Lack of accountability and attempts to reform the ALP
The push for greater accountability on issues such as pay, equipment and absentees (‘ghost soldiers’) started about 18 months ago. In October 2015, SIGAR published a scathing report about the force:
The ALP is the first line of defense for many villages across Afghanistan, but supplies ordered for the ALP are often diverted, delayed, of inferior quality, or heavily pilfered. Furthermore, coalition and ALP personnel SIGAR interviewed stated that unreliable logistics and lack of supplies also increase the likelihood of attrition… Additionally, SIGAR found that some ALP personnel have been used inappropriately as bodyguards for Afghan government officials…
SIGAR also found that significant numbers of local policemen were not being paid in full; other people (most likely senior officers in the MoI) were pocketing a proportion of their salaries. The fact that individual ALP were not being paid, armed or supplied properly would obviously affect morale. Moreover, a force where salaries, supplies and equipment can easily go missing is more attractive to anyone wanting to control units in order to make money or steal weapons. SIGAR was critical of the part of the NATO mission which oversees and administers defence funding, the Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan, better known as CSTC-A, and recommended that, “[t]o ensure that the ALP program is responsibly managed and sustained, and oversight of U.S. funds is improved,” various reforms should be carried out.
Even though the ALP is firmly under the command of the ANP and MoI, (4) the US has retained significant influence. Since the transition of responsibility for security to the Afghan government at the end of 2014, the Special Operations Advisory Group, which is part of NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan (NSOCC-A), maintains a close relationship with the ALP. US SOF forces within the Special Operations Advisory Group continue “training, advising, and assisting” the ALP, albeit only at the level of headquarters and zones. The US is also the ALP’s sole funder (other nations have declined to contribute money because they consider the ALP a militia force). This makes for a very different relationship between donor and force than the ANP has with its donors. The ANP is supported through a multi-donor funding mechanism, the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA), which is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Being the only donor has advantages, especially given the relatively small size of the ALP: the US has far more influence over the ALP than the ANP.
Although the impetus behind the accountability reforms came from the US military, the Afghans running the ALP appear to have embraced it. Both the recently retired Colonel Ahmadzai and General Ehsas spoke about “our reforms” and described at length “what we have achieved.” They also described, in practical terms, what they still had to do.
The reforms are set out in the 2016 Bilateral Financial Commitment between CSTC-A and the MoI (seen by AAN) as a set of benchmarks, including on personnel, pay, equipment, training, ghost soldiers and that ALP are not working for “Power Brokers, Government organizations and offices and other similar entities.” Conditions are written into the agreement so that if benchmarks are not met, the US can decide to cut its funding. Most significantly, from 1 January 2017, the US military has only been funding ALP salaries for those who are validated as existing and on the tashkil (who are enrolled on the computerised personnel system, AHRIMS). This led to a drop in US spending to the ALP from 93 million (last quarter of 2016) to 85.4 million US dollars (first quarter of 2017). (Similar conditions were imposed on the ANA by the US and the ANP through LOTFA.)
Getz told AAN that the benchmarks with the most robust conditionality were to do with pay, personnel, equipment and training. Apart from training, he said, these measures are largely to do with “accountability, not performance.” (Other benchmarks to do with ghost soldiers and the co-option of ALP, at this stage, required reporting back information only or for systems of checks to be set up.) That might look to be a mundane place to start, but knowing how many local police there are and making sure they are trained, have weapons and are getting paid is the first step towards having an effective force.
Seventy per cent of the ALP are now enrolled on the computerised personnel system (AHRIMS), which matches each individual to a ‘slot’ in the tashkil (the aim was 95 per cent). Seventy-seven per cent now have biometric IDs (the aim was 100 per cent) and 80 per cent are being paid by electronic bank transfer (the aim was 90 per cent). The shortfalls are all reasonable: some ALP have not been able to get out of their districts to register because it is too dangerous. Indeed, SIGAR reported that 30 were shot and killed while trying to do so last year. Meanwhile, bank transfers rely on having mobile phone coverage and bank branches; this infrastructure does not exist everywhere. In themselves, these three measures have helped to identify whether there were ‘ghost soldiers’ in the system. Once the personnel and payroll systems were tightened, it transpired there had been relatively few ghost police in the ALP.
The push to get all ALP trained is going less well, hovering around the 85 per cent mark. The problem here, said Getz, is attrition, with local policemen killed in action, not re-enlisting or ‘going AWOL’ (absent without leave). This means that recruitment and training are barely exceeding attrition. In some places, for example Uruzgan, it is also difficult to pull ALP out for training because they are needed on the ground.
With accountability for equipment, the aim of 2016 was just to get inventories and put a system of checks in place. Assessments are carried out by provincial police chiefs. This is not ideal, given that the ANP has its own, far bigger problems with corruption, and it appeared that some of the missing ALP equipment had been going to ANP. The situation had got so bad that, in October 2016, CSTC-A ordered a moratorium on procurement. This forced the MoI to go through its own stocks, and it managed to reduce the shortfall in ALP weapons by a half. The moratorium was lifted in April 2017 (new orders will come through in 18-24 months’ time). “Equipment,” said Getz, “will always be a challenge.”
The provincial police chiefs are also charged with reporting back on whether any ALP are working for power holders or government entities. With this benchmark, the conditionality so far is also only about providing information. However, General Ehsas said he had removed about 2,300 local police last year who were working for “strongmen, MPs or tanzims.” The problem was by no means solved, he said. It is important to note that ALP units can be dissolved and have been due to issues with political capture (although this is not a requirement of the benchmarks). Getz gave the example of Khost where the ALP was folded because of political interference and command and control problems. (Jaji Maidan in Khost is, however, one of the new districts selected for ALP.) Ehsas also said Yangi Qala in Takhar had recently lost its tashkil because of problems with ALP involvement in crime and political interference.
(For more detail on the reforms and what has been achieved, see the Annex below).
The US has told the Afghan government that continued funding of the ALP is conditional on reforms being ‘completed’ and that any expansion of the tashkil – and this has been asked for by Kabul – will only be to a ‘reformed ALP’. (5) What has been achieved in the last year on pay, personnel and training is not yet the end of the reform programme, however. The Bilateral Financial Commitment letter for 2017 has not yet been agreed, but more benchmarks are promised. Even so, compared to 2015, there is already a much firmer grasp of who is serving in the ALP and whether they are trained and paid.
The old pressures on the ALP, of powerbrokers trying to control it, have not gone away, though. Describing how decisions were reached earlier in the year over which twenty districts to give new ALP units to, Colonel Getz said pinpointing the greatest security need had been the initial focus of discussion, “but politics quickly kicked in.” The ALP, he noted, is also a “jobs creation programme.” MPs, he said, looking for votes at the next election, are interested in having ALP units in their areas.
In dealing with strongmen and MPs keen to co-opt the force, General Ehsas said that he had backing from President Ghani and that having one committed funder with influence had proved extremely helpful. “US friends put pressure on the government and put pressure on parliamentarians and strongmen. This enables us to lessen the strongman influence on the force. We have very good backing from Resolute Support and Special Operations Forces. So we have had good reforms, and that will continue.” In general, he said the US pressure has been useful for enabling him to tighten accountability. Ehsas believes that, as a result, the force is more disciplined. In terms of morale and the wherewithal to fight, the ALP should now be stronger. The issue of what makes an effective ALP unit will be the subject of future AAN research as we look into what factors lead to units being co-opted and abusive – or defending and protecting the population.
Edited by Erica Gaston, Sari Kouvo and Thomas Ruttig
(1) The quote is from Village Stability Operations and Afghan Local Police: Bottom-up Counterinsurgency, Headquarters, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) 1 April 2011. See also the highly influential paper One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy For Success In Afghanistan, published in 2009 by former SOF major, Jim Gant: “We must work first and forever with the tribes for they are the most important military, political
and cultural unit in that country. The tribes are self-contained fighting units who will fight to the death for their tribal family’s honor and respect. Their intelligence and battlefield assessments are infallible. Their loyalty to family and friends is beyond question.” (Read an AAN guest review of Gant’s paper here).
(2) Mark Moyar, Ronald E Neumann, Vanda Felbab-Brown, William Knarr, Jack Guy, Terry Corner and Carter Malkasian, “The Afghan Local Police Community Self-Defense in Transition,” Center for Special Operations Studies and Research, Joint Special Operations University, August 2013 (copy given to AAN, not available online).
(3) In its mid-year 2016 report, UNAMA said it “welcomes the slight decrease in civilian casualties attributed to ALP during the first half of 2016, noting that such decreases may be attributable to increased accountability for abuses committed by ALP in 2015, continued reduction of the numbers of ALP personnel on the ground in problematic areas, and restructuring efforts of the ALP program that reportedly let to the dismissal of approximately 2,000 ALP linked to power brokers in the first half of 2016. UNAMA reiterates however that the Government must increase accountability for human rights violations committed by ALP throughout Afghanistan.”
(4) The senior ALP officer is the District Team Leader. Under his command are Group Leaders for every 30 men in the tashkil. The ALP District Team leader answers to the ANP District Police Chief. At the MoI, the deputy to the Deputy Minister for Security is in charge of the ALP.
(5) The Special Operations Advisory Group gave AAN a copy of a PowerPoint document, “ALP Orientation Brief”, dated 1 October 2016, which says that “ALP Reform Completion” is “[r]equired for continued… funding” and is a “[c]ondition of COM RS [Commander of Resolute Support] approving uplift”, i.e. an expansion of the tashkil.
Annex: Agreements made in the Bilateral Financial Commitment and achievements so far
Agreements made in the Bilateral Financial Commitment stipulated that, by the end of 2016:
1) 95 per cent of ALP should be enrolled on the Afghan Human Resource Information Management System (AHRIMS) which matches each individual with a ‘slot’ in the tashkil (according to unit, location and duty title) and logs their name, rank, education level and ID number. [AHRIMS contains all the approved positions within the Ministries of Defence and Interior, along with information such as unit, location, and duty title.]
By April 2017, 70 per cent (22,000) had been registered.
This was a sharp rise in registration from October 2016 when only 9000 ALP had been enrolled. The unregistered ALP are mainly living in 32 districts from which it is difficult and dangerous to get out of to register. Indeed, 30 ALP were shot and killed last year, reported SIGAR while trying to get out to enrol in AHRIMS.
From 1 January 2017, the US military has only been paying money to government for salaries for ALP who are on the AHRIMS. This led to US spending on the ALP dropping from $93 million (last quarter of 2016)
to $85.4 million (first quarter of 2017).
2) 100% of ALP should have a biometric ID card
By February 2017, 77 per cent of ALP had been biometrically ID-ed, said SIGAR.
3) 90% of ALP should be paid using electronic bank transfer (with only four ‘trusted
agents’ working in the entire country)
By the end of February 2017, 80 per cent of ALP were getting paid by bank transfer, said SIGAR.
General Ehsas compared this to the end of 2015 when only 4000 ALP were paid by bank transfer. Now, he said, only about 4000 were not getting paid, mainly in Zabul, Ghor and Kandahar. The problem now is with infrastructure – the phone company used, AWCC, does not have a signal everywhere in the country, and Kabul Bank does not have branches everywhere. Ehsas said a team, from AWCC, Kabul Bank, the ANP and the Ministry of Finance were working on finding a solution.
Bank transfers are not immune to corruption, but still far better than the ‘trusted agent’ system where an agent selected by the Provincial Chief of Police is charged with personally delivering cash salary payments to ALP personnel. As Provincial Chiefs of Police also certify time and attendance reports, there is says SIGAR “an opportunity for fraud and corruption.” He said as much as 50 per cent of salaries go missing when trusted agents are used.
4) The ANP chief of police will validate through an assessment that there are no payments to Ghost ALPs, defined as “providing salaries to Tashkil authorizations that are not manned.” Districts should be checked, at random, once a year.
This benchmark is about getting information. However, progress on dealing with ghosts is coming anyway through the first three measures: enrolment on AIHRMS, getting biometric IDs and paying by bank transfer. Ehsas told AAN that, because of these measures, they were now confident that, apart from in some remote areas, the ALP was not generally suffering from ghost police. He had already removed some ghosts, Getz said, including 729 from the tashkil in Helmand.
5) 90% of ALP should be trained.
Training continues to hover at only about 85 per cent of ALP, according to Getz.
The problem here is attrition, with local policemen killed in action, not re-enlisting or going AWOL, so that recruitment and training barely exceed attrition. In some places, for example Uruzgan, it was also difficult to get ALP out for training because they were needed on the ground.
6) 100% of equipment should be inventoried (ie Ranger pickups, motorcycles, AK-47s, PKMs (machine guns), RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), communications equipment, solar chargers, organizational clothing and individual equipment, personal protection equipment, and Counter Improvised Explosive Device) and random checks, according to an agreed schedule, started in October 2016.
As of February 2017, 163 of the 179 old ALP districts had been inventoried and “provincial-level consolidated, manual (non-electronic) inventories” created. A schedule for checks was being created for 1396 (2017/2018).
In SIGAR’s 2015 report, which said described shortages of ALP equipment in the field and supplies being “diverted, delayed, of inferior quality, or heavily pilfered,” gave some concrete examples. In multiple districts in Helmand in August 2014, for example, SIGAR found shortages of weapons, trucks and motorcycles:
…in Marja district, they noted a shortage of 114 AK-47 rifles, and in Nehri-Saraj district, a shortage of 13 ALP Ranger pick-up trucks. These shortages persisted despite an ample amount of such equipment in the supply system. For example, in a July 2014 audit report, we reported that DOD had provided the ANDSF 83,184 more AK-47 rifles than required by current potential and future requirements. DOD noted later that year, however, that although there may be plenty of weapons and ammunition in the supply system, district and provincial requests go unfilled.
Resolute Support ordered a moratorium in October 2016 on giving new vehicles and equipment to the ALP until they could account for what they had already been given. Colonel Getz said that did incentivise the MoI to find suitable weapons from its own stocks for ALP and it had managed to halve the shortfall in ALP weapons. The moratorium on procurement has now been lifted (which means new equipment coming online in 18-24 months’ time). Accountability for equipment relies on the ANP, not the most transparent force for reporting. That raises questions as to the accuracy of the inventories.
7 The ANP will visit each district at random once per year to ensure no ALP are working for “Power Brokers, Government organizations and offices and other similar entities”
At the moment, the conditionality for this benchmark only concerns providing information about co-opted ALP.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020