War & Peace

Legal, illegal: Militia recruitment and (failed) disarmament in Kunduz


Kunduz has a long and troubled history of militia presence. In addition to militia units developed by the Ministry of Interior (MoI), the provincial National Directorate for Security (NDS) also recruited some, starting in late 2008. Then, starting last year, the provincial security officials attempted to disarm some militias again, in response to complaints by local people about harassment. These attempts have largely proved ineffective. Gran Hewad (with input by Thomas Ruttig) looks back at how these militias were formed, who they are linked to in the political landscape of Kunduz, and why it is so difficult to disarm them now.

In a joint gathering of the Afghan security forces in Kunduz last August, in which ISAF commanders for the province were also present, Afghan leaders declared that they would disarm the four thousand illegal militiamen creating insecurity in the province (read a Hasht-e Sobhreport here). Massacres carried out by such militias, like the one in early September in Loy Kanam village, have made it into the international media while others, like the one in Kobayi remained unknown until recently reported by AAN.
Mohammad Zaman Waziri, commander of the second brigade of the 209th ‘Shahin’ corps said in the gathering that ‘irresponsible gun lords have created lots of problems, extracting ushr and religious taxes from the population, harassing people and damaging other people’s properties in their internal conflicts, it is difficult for people to bear them anymore. We will first ask the gun lords to surrender their weapons peacefully, and if they did not cooperate with the disarmament program, ANSF will take more serious steps’.

After one year, this August, Major Amir Mohammad from the Shahin corps in Kunduz said that ‘in three days operation in Khanabad we have collected 6 pieces of 85mm artillery, one piece of 82mm ordnance, one mortar, one machine gun, one AGS [automatic grenade launcher] and three Kalashnikovs’. According to the above report, the security forces have collected 12 weapons only in the three days of their operation, from the thousands of existing militia fighters. This example shows how insignificant the number of weapons collected from local militias are and that a ‘disarmament’ of such a scope will not affect or decrease their real strength. Apart from that, they are not using heavy artillery when intimidating local people but mostly small arms which are easy to carry.

The general trend is that the numbers of militias in Kunduz have been increasing, and the provincial security forces seem incapable of controlling them. Also, their exact number seems unknown (this in itself a sign of the lack of control), as diverging accounts from government officials and parliamentarians indicate. For example, Assadullah Omarkhel, chairman of the provincial High Peace Council, has said on a couple of occasions that there are around 4,500 ‘irresponsible’ militiamen in the province, i.e. those who are not under the Ministry of Interior (MoI) as are the Afghan Local Police or similar groups. In contrast, Abdul Rahman Aqtash, the deputy provincial police commander, announced last summer that there are three thousand militiamen in Khanabad district alone. And two MPs from the province, Eng. Kamal Safi and Shayesta Baz Naseri, told AAN recently that there are around ten thousand illegal militia fighters in the province.

To understand how such a big number of militias sprung up in Kunduz, we should take a look back at the recent history of the province. This will also help explain the political backing that these militias enjoy.

After having been occupied by the Taleban in 1997, Kunduz remained their last stronghold in the north in late 2001, during the US/Northern Alliance campaign to remove the Taleban from power (see AAN’s report on Kunduz here). The city was then controlled mainly by Jamiati strongmen, the foremost being Amir Mir Alam, the commander of the 54th division, part of the 6th military corps of the army of the Northern-Alliance-led Islamic State of Afghanistan. Later on, it came under the process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), a programme designed to disband the civil war militias, which ran from 2003 to 2006. Although the 54th division was officially disarmed, the process was rather nominal. Local commanders like Mir Alam were protected by senior Jehadi leaders and power holders in the central government and were able to keep many of their loyalists armed.

As part of the Taleban resurgence across the country, small groups were also revived in Kunduz in 2007/08 (see an AAN report here). They first appeared in Chardara district, then gradually extended their operations to other parts of the province. The Taleban revival put pressure on the local militias, which had been gradually demobilising, to re-unify again to defend their communities and power bases. Moreover, there was the incentive of recruitment by the Afghan security agencies, opening the possibility of state patronage and economic support.

The MoI has developed militia forces all over Afghanistan’s provinces (see AAN’s report on militias here). In Kunduz, even before the MoI efforts at recruitment, a huge capacity for these sorts of units could be found in the post-Taleban armed illegal groups present in the province that never were touched by the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) programme (the successor of DDR that started in 2006). Muhammad Rauf Qazizada, the head of the DIAG(1) unit for the northeastern region, that includes Kunduz, told AAN that ‘from June 2005 [sic] to April 2010 DIAG has collected around 2,600 weapons and disarmed 450 to 500 illegal armed groups (IAGs). Mir Alam delivered 900 weapons; as he had armed people around the province so he delivered the biggest number.’ (Qazizada did not give figures for Kunduz specifically and was unable to provide some for the time after 2010 when the DIAG secretariat was merged with the new APRP ‘reconciliation’ programme.)

Qazizada added that ‘in the DIAG process there were lots of obstacles to disarmament. Government officials were backing the armed militias, even the then governor and the police commander. Therefore, the DIAG regional office was reporting their abuses to the central secretariat in Kabul, to pressure them to give up. In a couple of cases the abuser officials have been discharged.’

Qazizada’s figures for northeastern Afghanistan are telling. If they are correct, on average, a disbanded illegal armed group would have possessed only five weapons. This means that either DIAG has continued its early days’ strategy of collecting the ‘low hanging fruit’(2), i.e., those groups that are easy to tackle (practically, this gets rid of some small fry while the big fish are left in the pond). Or, as the 2009 ANBP/DIAG report confirms, ‘many IAGs turned in old and unserviceable weapons’. DIAG/ANBP reports do not specify whether collected weapons were functional or not.

The last ANBP/DIAG report (for 2010) shows that not a single illegal armed group has been disbanded in the northeastern region, including Kunduz, in the reporting period.(3) It mentions Kunduz only once, but with enlightening information: Qala-ye Zal was one of the six ‘districts that had been declared DIAG compliant [earlier and] have relapsed into insurgency [our emphasis] during 2010’. The report fails to mention, though, that non-Taleban IAGs (i.e., militias) also reappeared – if they ever were gone (read media reports about new militias emerging in Qala-ye Zal district here and here). All these figures indicate that the DIAG process can only have been extremely shallow, so that strong local commanders like Mir Alam were able to hold back many weapons.

Consequently, many of the recently formed militias originated from these armed groups, and have been long connected to their former ‘DDR-ed’ commander Mir Alam. The latter allegedly even exploited a curious Taleban connection to support his militiamen.

When the Taleban came under US airstrikes in 2001, a majority of their commanders and many fighters left the north via Kunduz airport towards Kabul. However, a group of 25 to 30 Taleban led by Mawlawi Nasir, mainly from Helmand, who had remained stuck in the city, asked for asylum from Haji Wali Jan, a Pashtun tribal leader in Kanam village in the last days before the Taleban’s defeat. Wali Jan gave them asylum according to Pashtunwali codes, however, and communicated their presence to Amir Mir Alam to secure their life. Mir Alam, a Tajik with a background as a commander in the Northern Alliance resistance, had the credibility to guarantee their security in Kanam. Before spring 2002 these Taleban were transferred to Kabul, but by then Mawlawi Nasir had become a friend of Mir Alam. Although Mawlawi Nasir eventually returned to Helmand and joined the Taleban, their friendship apparently continued, and according to Abdul Karim, member of a tribal council in Kunduz, ‘Sometimes, when Mir Alam’s militias were committing murders or creating insecurity, the Taleban would claim the responsibility for these incidents. In fact, it was Mawlawi Nasir who was able to have the claim made on the Taleban side, on one hand for the sake of his friendship with Mir Alam, who would therefore be safe from government enquiries, on the other to further Taleban propaganda in the northern province.’ He added that, ‘when in 2008 commander Abdul Mohammad, who is one of Mir Alam’s commanders, ambushed his rival, a highway police commander in Achin area and killed him, the Taleban claimed the responsibility.’

Parallel to the Taleban’s intensive resurgence in the province from 2008 onwards, NDS started recruiting militias while Majid, formerly a junior commander of Amir Mir Alam, was head of provincial NDS. He was obviously taking care of Mir Alam’s recommendations during the recruitment. Later on, when, First Vice President Qasem Fahim’s election campaign convoy came under an insurgents’ attack in July 2009 militia recruitment accelerated.

Majid was replaced as head of provincial NDS by Mohammad Daud known as Rais Daud, an enthusiast of militia recruitment, shortly after the attack on the Fahim convoy. Stemming from Panjshir, Daud is a brother-in-law of Mir Alam. Mir Alam’s relationship with Daud and his already strong network of armed commanders – who had gone through a disarmament process during 2003–06 by name only – were the assets that helped him to run a proxy power structure in the province. ‘His brother-in-law [Rais Daud] recruited anyone introduced by Amir Mir Alam. He introduced mainly those who had fought under him during the Jehad and the resistance. These militias have been long taking orders from him, and they are fully under his control now,’ a member of the tribal council told AAN.

Amir Mir Alam has placed himself at the heart of the province’s political networks and nowadays plays a central role in the militias’ command; thanks to his Jamiati background he has also strong links with the provincial police commander, General Samiullah Qatra, and prominent powerbrokers in Kabul. Other militia commanders in the province, for example Nabi Gechi in Qala-ye Zal, Mohammad Omar Pakhsaparan(4) in Aqtash valley of Khanabad, and the local extension of the Ebrahimi family (that of the current parliament speaker) in Imam Saheb, are operating on their own and on a lower profile than Amir Mir Alam. Though provincial security officials are reporting the disarmament of the militias, Mir Alam has been known as the major obstacle for implementation of the disarmament agenda. ‘Mir Alam’s using his deep connections with provincial security officials and the central power dealers to support his militias and undermine the disarmament process,’ Ma’alim Akbar, a tribal elder from the province, told AAN.

These militias have already become a big source of trouble for the local people. If a real disarmament effort does not take place soon, before 2014, they can be considered a major threat to the security of the province after NATO’s troop drawdown.

(1) DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups) was the successor programme to DDR, run from 2006 to 2011. Unlike DDR, DIAG was to be a fully Afghan owned and managed process, managed by the internationally supported Joint Secretariat and the Afghan-owned Disarmament & Reintegration Committee, headed by Second Vice President Muhammad Karim Khalili. In 2011, it was integrated into the ‘reconciliation’ programme, APRP. In her paper ‘Disarming the Militias – DDR and DIAG and Their Impact on Peace-Building’, presented at a Swedish Committee for Afghanistan conference in Stockholm in 2008 (not online, hard copy with AAN), Barbara Stapleton summarised that much of the shallowness of both programmes had to do with a lack of political will in the international community to implement them: ‘The international community’s failure to demonstrate sufficient intent with regard to reaching DDR and DIAG objectives rendered DIAG a self-fulfilling prophecy in regard to its limited and weak outcomes to date.’

(2) See the term ‘low-hanging fruit’ used, for example, in this UNDP report about DIAG. On an official list of IAGs to be disbanded in Kunduz in 2006 seen by AAN, there were groups registered as ‘number of weapons: 0’.

(3) This report only gives regional data, not for provinces or districts, while earlier ones even gave very brief and cumulative country-wide figures only. When DIAG officially ended as an independent programme in March 2011 , ANBP’s final annual report, covering 2010 and the first months of 2011, said that, with 71 illegal armed groups (IAGs) disbanded in this reporting period, the total number disbanded since the beginning of DIAG went up to 759, i.e., a bit over 50 per cent. The first annual report of ANBP had stated that 1,496 IAGs ‘are currently engaged in the DIAG process’. Although DIAG was made mandatory by law by the Afghan government, it is possible that there were IAGs that simply rejected being ‘engaged’ in DIAG, so that the total number of IAGs could even have been higher than 1,496. On the other hand, IAGs could have disbanded (fully or temporarily) on their own, without any DIAG/ANBP involvement.

(4) Mohammad Omar is known as ‘Pakhsaparan’, meaning the ‘wall breaker’, because of the countless buildings he has destroyed during his fighting career.

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