Today, AAN publishes a special report looking at Afghanistan’s newest local defence force, the Afghan National Army Territorial Force (ANA-TF). Set up by presidential decree in February 2018 and funded and supported by NATO’s United States-led Resolute Support mission, it was intended to be a lightly-armed, low-cost, local arm of the ANA which could hold territory in the face of the insurgency. There are potential benefits of local counter-insurgency forces: people know their own territory better than outsiders, and can be highly motivated to defend it. There are also risks, of co-option by power-brokers and the effective creation of uniformed militias who predate on, rather than protect local people. Those setting up the ANA-TF considered the experiences of earlier forces, including the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and tried, as one official described it, to turn “all the mistakes of the ALP” into ANA-TF “safeguards.” The author of the report, Kate Clark, has been looking at how well they succeeded.Kabul province ANA-TF recruits graduating, 3 April 2019. Photo: Kate Clark
Local defence forces have potential advantages over regular forces, in terms of better knowledge, motivation and intelligence. The Taleban consider them more dangerous than regular Afghan or international forces, indicating their potential as counter-insurgency forces. However, when senior officials at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) heard about proposals for a new local defence force that would be placed within the ANA, they were concerned about the risks, that the ANA would end up with a collection of unruly, unaccountable militias destroying its discipline. They looked back at earlier forces – the ALP, set up ten years ago, and President Najibullah’s kandak-ye qawmi (usually referred to in the literature as ‘tribal militia’) programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s and concluded that, as one official described it, money and arms had transformed “small snakes” into “dragons.”
When the order to set up the new force came, said one of the MoD officials behind the conceptualisation of the ANA-TF, they responded by turning “[all] the mistakes of the ALP” into “safeguards.” They also anticipated the ANA-TF would be subject to the same pressures that had so undermined the ALP – pro-government actors lobbying for companies in their areas and the military wanting to rush additional forces to the field, even where they would be at risk of being overrun. The safeguards built into the model by those at the MoD and the US-led Resolute Support mission were intended to protect the new force from these pressures.
AAN’s report looks at the design of the ANA-TF and whether the safeguards built into it have actually been implemented. To do this, we spoke to a range of people, military and civilian, Afghan and international, who were involved in setting up and running the force, and to ANA-TF commanders. We also spoke to military and civilian officials, commanders, soldiers and civilians in two locations selected as case studies: Paktika province and Shakar Dara district of Kabul.
The first safeguard built into the ANA-TF design was to make it an integral part of the ANA and under the MoD. Both are seen as having better command and control than the Ministry of Interior and Afghan National Police, which control the ALP. In a bid to block co-option, ANA-TF companies are established at the district, not the village level, as ALP units are. Only soldiers from that district can join the company. At the same time, to prevent the possibility of pre-existing local armed groups ‘re-hatting’ as ANA-TF companies, officers must be serving or retired ANA officers from outside the district. To encourage institutionalisation into the ANA, recruits have the same training as regular soldiers, wear uniforms, do not live at home (as ALP members do) and are subject to military law. The other source of accountability lies in the local community. It must be consulted and agree to having a company in its district. This was also in the ALP guidelines, but was frequently ignored. Finally, the selection of sites was based on criteria, again to try to prevent political heavyweights being ‘given’ companies for their areas, even if the area was not suitable. These criteria mean that a company should only be established where (a) it was needed (there is an insurgent threat), but (b) it was not in danger of being overrun, (c) there was regular ANA support nearby; and (d) it could not exacerbate existing local conflicts or be at risk of co-option by strongmen, politicians and/or criminals.
The report first traces the roll-out of the ANA-TF, including the political and military pressure on it and why those in charge pushed on to expand it, without evaluation, both at the end of the pilot (early summer 2018) and again after the end of the first phase (early summer 2019). It also looks at the roles of the various players – the government ministries and agencies and RS – in setting up the ANA-TF. The report then considers three safeguards in turn: the role of the ANA, the role of the community and the selection of sites.
The research found ANA-TF’s institutionalisation within the ANA looking reasonably secure. This was even though companies are often not properly supported – a problem facing ANA soldiers in the field more generally – and may struggle to gain full acceptance from the regular ANA. The ANA command often did not appreciate or seek to utilise the local expertise of companies; rather, many were set to guard ANA facilities. Even so, the impression is of a branch of the army neglected, rather than of companies having gone rogue, as was the case with so many ALP units that did not answer to formal chains of command through the ANP. We found soldiers were almost always local men, but, of concern, we found some commanders serving in their home districts. The ban on this is in the law and is one of the most basic protections in the design of the force against local co-option.
By contrast, community influence on the ANA-TF was very variable and the mechanisms to ensure it vague. Communities were supposed to be at the heart of this project, but they were not always consulted and companies are not always representative of the districts they are serving. The one community-related measure which was generally abided by was that recruits are guaranteed by elders. In the two case studies, we found very different experiences. Communities in Paktika were generally consulted and had organised who was recruited with regard to ensuring different tribes in the district were represented in the new force. By contrast, in Shakar Dara district of Kabul, it was AAN that brought the news to most interviewees that a new local force had been established in their district. Referring to Shakar Dara’s pre-2001 history of factional violence, one interviewee said people there would have welcomed the deployment of national forces, but were wary of a local force: “People here have differences, enmities, so they don’t want such a force trying to get revenge.”
Despite the MoD’s initial unhappiness at having to host the ANA-TF, it proved to be the main power behind the programme. During the autumn of 2018, at RS’s suggestion, the Independent Directorate of Local Government (IDLG) was brought in to provide a civilian counterweight, but proved to be far less influential than RS hoped. Given the oversized role of the MoD in the force’s creation, it is perhaps not surprising that the role of local civilians in setting up companies has been comparatively weak. Yet one key finding of a recent, three-year study by AAN and the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) on local force mobilisation in Afghanistan (1) was that popular backing for a local defence force appears to be fundamental to its success. The flip side is that a local force is most likely to be harmful when it is set up in opposition to, or ignoring, the needs and wants of the local community. That proper consultation was not built into the ANA-TF programme using a specific mechanism may prove to be a serious failing. It is also a repeat of a key flaw in the ALP programme.
The ANA-TF has benefitted from having site criteria, even though these were not always followed, especially after the initial pilot phase. AAN found examples of districts where the criteria appeared to have been breached and ANA-TF companies established in places where they were at risk of co-option or of being partisan, or where a local defence force was not needed or where it was actually too dangerous to deploy a lightly-armed force. Some unsuitable districts were vetoed, including by RS, which also stopped a general move to set up companies hastily and without proper training in summer 2019; two companies that were deployed in this way resulted in very high casualty numbers – dozens of untrained ANA-TF soldiers killed in the first few weeks of deployment in Belcheragh in Faryab province and in an insider attack in Qarabagh in Ghazni. These disasters also played a part in halting such extreme shortcutting of procedures, one official said, because “when we go against the policy, things go badly.” Several Afghan officials, concerned about what they saw as some problematic site selection driven by senior power brokers, said they wished RS, which funds the force and has considerable influence, had protected the ANA-TF more from such pressure.
In districts with organised community consultation and recruitment, ANA-TF companies do look like the original model, a community defence force embedded in a national institution. Elsewhere, the force more closely resembles a local recruitment arm of the ANA. This allows the army to have companies that are locally recruited, locally deployed and more locally rooted, but are still ANA companies in other respects. This may be a good thing in its own right and if army discipline, command and control and institutionalisation prove effective, then the lack of community input may not be too problematic. However, if ANA command and control fails – and the risk of that happening is greater where the commanders are local men – then one can foresee problems. This would especially be the case in places already vulnerable to the sort of ethnic or factional tensions or criminal enterprise which meant they should not be hosting ANA-TF companies in the first place.
It seems inevitable that pressure to find new ‘tools’ with which to face the insurgency, as well as pressure from pro-government actors for ANA-TF companies, would pull the ANA-TF towards districts and situations where it is inappropriate. These demands did prove too great for even the best-intentioned Afghan or international military planner to design against entirely. Even so, although the ANA-TF has not always followed its own regulations, the thoughtful design and efforts to implement it have avoided some of the worst pitfalls of local force mobilisation. Also significant in the roll-out is that the ANA-TF was not subject to the same extreme pressure to expand as quickly as possible as the ALP was put under, when the US military, the Ministry of Interior and Afghan heavyweights were all pushing for rapid expansion.
The commander of Resolute Support and the US military forces in Afghanistan, General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller has vetoed further expansion of the ANA-TF until problems with supplies, integration and its utilisation by the wider ANA are resolved. Meanwhile, the ANA-TF is due to get a third of the members of the ALP when that force is dissolved in September. The US Department of Defence has also proposed the ANA-TF as a potential “reintegration vehicle” for Taleban should there be a peace deal. There may be opposition to either course of action: “The ANA is very intent on [maintaining] its code of conduct, uniform and integrity,” one former official told AAN.
All previous disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes in Afghanistan have been failures, marked by extremely high levels of corruption, the marginalisation of civilian interests and little real demobilisation. Moreover, using the ANA-TF to deal with Taleban integration would ignore the lessons learned from the ALP, which became so fundamental to the design of the ANA-TF, that a successful local defence force must be wanted by a community and be institutionalised within an effective command and control structure. Using the ANA-TF to reintegrate Taleban would mean a wholesale abandonment of this model, prioritising political considerations rather than the needs and wants of local people.
(1) Kate Clark, Erica Gaston, Fazl Muzhary and Borhan Osman, ‘Ghosts of the Past: Lessons from Local Force Mobilisation in Afghanistan and Prospects for the Future’, 1 July 2020, AAN.
This article was last updated on 16 Feb 2021