Local men in Nazyan district of Nangrahar mobilised as Uprising Forces to fight the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which had captured large swathes of territory in the province in 2015. By mid-2018, Uprising Forces, supported US and other Afghan forces, had pushed the ISKP out of most of the district. Three different local defence forces are now mobilised in Nazyan, each with a different sponsor: Uprising Forces, under the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghan Local Police, under the Ministry of Interior, and the Afghan National Army Territorial Force, under the Ministry of Defence.
Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2019.
A major new special report, ‘Ghosts of the Past: Lessons from Local Force Mobilisation in Afghanistan and Prospects for the Future’ looks at what is likely to make a local defence force – such as the Afghan Local Police (ALP) or Afghan National Army Territorial Force (ANA-TF) successful. This research sought to understand what makes some local forces highly protective of local people, while others behave so badly they have driven support for the insurgency. The report, co-published by AAN and the German Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), is the result of a three-year research project, and is here introduced by one of its authors, Kate Clark.
The image of local forces such as the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and Uprising Forces is poor. Labelled as ‘militias’ by many, there is substantial documentation of them committing abuses and being partisan, co-opted by factional, ethnic or criminal interests. Yet, sources such as UNAMA Protection of Civilians reports, while documenting abuses, have also reported that many communities value the ALP and say it improves their security. One of the early pieces of research for this project also pointed to the Taleban considering local forces a far more dangerous enemy than regular Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) or even the international military. The Taleban’s particular animosity towards the ALP and Uprising Forces suggested that local forces had definite benefits to offer as counter-insurgency forces. In this report, we look at the reasons behind the success and failure or local forces.
The report first provides some background on how local forces mobilised in the 1980s and 1990s, both as mujahedin and in President Najibullah’s kandak-e qawm (tribal militia) programme. The dynamics and lines of solidarity which developed then still affect local force mobilisation today. The report then looks at the waves of local force mobilisation from 2009 onwards as international forces sought new ‘tools’ to counter the Taleban insurgency. It outlines the initial model of the ALP and describes how its rapid expansion and Afghan institutionalisation led, all too often, to safeguards being by-passed and the wishes of local people ignored. We then present several cases studies illustrating some of the key factors and dynamics which appear to predispose an ALP unit to perform better or worse.
We consider what a best-case ALP looks like and hone in on the ALP in Yahyakhel district of Paktika province. Unusually for Afghanistan, Yahyakhel still has very strong and protective community structures. When local Taleban became abusive, local leaders were able to mobilise a counter-insurgency, shifting popular support from the Taleban to the government and ensuring the ALP which was set up was representative and inclusive. Violence declined because widespread backing meant the Taleban had trouble operating. By contrast, another local counter-insurgency in 2012 in Andar, ended up with highly abusive local forces, which ultimately failed to retain territory initially captured from the Taleban.
In Andar, Afghan political interests and massive external funding eroded any potential community influence over the new force. In Andar, as in several other districts in Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar provinces, mobilising local men to fight other local men led to greater violence and threats to civilian life. It also engendered a nasty, intimate form of violence, with breaches in what are considered the norms of warfare in Afghanistan, such as banning the religious burial of the dead and attacks on weddings and funerals.
A different sort of failing ALP can be seen in another case study, the ALP of Takhar province, where the force is be barely distinguishable from unofficial pro-government militias, in terms of its engagement in criminality and abuse. Here, early capture by local strongmen with factional ties to the centre, no attempt to consult local people, and a provincial economy where drug smuggling favoured the existence of armed groups made the formation of genuine community defence forces almost impossible.
Our final case study is of Afghanistan’s newest local force, the ANA-TF. We wanted to explore whether the lessons of the ALP, which were very much in the minds of the ANA-TF planners, could be addressed by better safeguards in the model or improved implementation. A separate AAN paper looking at the ANA-TF in detail is also forthcoming.
Our research suggests that, while a local defence force can bring benefits, the model will not work in all areas of Afghanistan, and indeed, possibly not in many. The continual cycles of conflict and mobilisation over the last few decades
have contributed to a greater prevalence of community divisions, erosion of community-protective structures and continuing dominance of predatory commanders and factional networks that spoil local defence models.
The case studies suggest that community willingness not only to support but to lead such initiatives is crucial, but that this cannot be instigated or manufactured from the outside. Where the ALP has been mobilised in environments not suited to it or where it was mismanaged, local communities have suffered lasting damage. Even when local forces fight well, if their mobilisation entails some members of a community fighting other members (ie, local pro-government forces versus local insurgents), then the result can be particularly bloody for civilians and combatants alike.
The planners at the Ministry of Defence and NATO’s Resolute Support who set up the ANA-TF have taken care to design a model of local force mobilisation that is more accountable, sustainable and effective than the ALP. However, even if the ANA-TF overcomes some of the missteps of the ALP, it will struggle to overcome the overall patterns of militia mobilisation that have recurred, ad nauseam, since the 1980s.
This article was last updated on 26 Aug 2020