Features | Security | Central Asia

Return of the Warlords

As villages in Afghanistan turn to private militias for security, Sanjay Kumar asks if such outfits mark a return to warlordism.

It’s eight in the morning and Nabi Gaichi, or Commander Nabi as he’s known in the Qalaizal district of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, is cleaning his Kalashnikov rifle as he discusses plans for the day’s patrolling duties with fellow ‘commanders.’

Gaichi’s 8-year-old daughter, Ashma, brings us cups of tea and thick Afghani naan bread served with lamb meat as the group spends the next half hour discussing ways to expand patrols in the district.

Gaichi, 35, is the head of a 145-member strong private militia in Qalaizal—a sleepy town of mud houses interspersed with a few concrete buildings whose inhabitants, until recently, lived in fear of the Taliban.

In the absence of an Afghan Police Force presence in the area (the case in many parts of Afghanistan) Taliban fighters were levying taxes at will and forcing villagers to grow poppies for opium production in their fields. But six months ago, a village doctor dared to defy the Taliban and was killed for his ‘impertinence’. The killing may well have been the final straw for the villagers and prompted its elders to turn to the militia for help.

‘I was working in Hairatan (on the border with Uzbekistan) before I joined this militia,’ Gaichi says. ‘I got the invitation to lead a militia from some village elders who were being harassed by the Taliban. I was reluctant at first, but felt compelled by the situation.’

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Located almost 400 kilometres north of Kabul, Qalaizal is home to a mix of ethnic groups. Its population of about 100,000 is about 80 percent Turkman, around 18 percent Pashthu and also has a Tajik presence.

Today’s team of 20 men have started their patrol on Chinese-made motorcycles—2 men per vehicle—and respond quickly when one of the group receives a call on his cell phone informing him of suspicious activity in a nearby village.

The rough and bumpy road hardly seems suitable for motorized vehicles, but the bikers ride quickly and reach the location the call was placed from. They dismount their bikes and begin searching for the militants suspected of hiding in the area, but after an hour of searching decide the information was inaccurate and set off to follow up on another call.

Northern Afghanistan, particularly Khunduz Province, was at one time considered relatively safe and out of reach of the Taliban, and was one of the reasons why Germany chose the area for its reconstruction activities.

‘(But) the passivity of the Germans when fighting the Taliban here turned this safe area into a safe haven for the insurgents,’ complains Haroon Mir, co-director of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul.

As I travel with Gaichi and his team to different parts of the district, I note how enthusiastically they are welcomed. At one point the militia stops off in the village of Qaila, where a group of elderly residents sit by the road talking among themselves.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, the villagers thank Gaichi for providing security to locals.

‘We’re very grateful to Nabi-jaan and his team for providing us security,’ one of the residents, Masood Ahmad, tells me. ‘But we want help from the government—it isn’t giving us any support.’

Another elderly man, Nabi Ahmad, is quick to join in with the criticism of the central government. ‘We voted for (President Hamid) Karzai hoping things would change, hoping our lives would be secure,’ he says. ‘But where is the security? If we hadn’t called them (the militia), our lives would have been hell by now.’

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Of course, one of the key questions is—who finances these militias? Meanwhile, their often sophisticated arms and ammunition have left some wondering if the groups enjoy the patronage of the government itself.

In 2003, the fledgling Afghan government started a disarmament programme called the Afghan New Beginnings Programme—a  three-year project aimed at collecting  weapons from an estimated 100,000 fighters to help pave the way for their reintegration into civilian life. The idea was to instead put the defence of the country in the hands of a new, centralized, ethnically balanced national army.

Yet, seven years later, areas like Qalaizal are seeing the emergence of a new kind of militia. These groups are not based on ethnic lines, but are amalgamations of different ethnic groups established to protect specific villages or districts.

‘The interior ministry doesn’t have any militias under its control and we don’t have any information about the establishment of specific militia groups because we haven’t had good experiences with them,’ says Afghanistan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary. ‘The Afghan people don’t welcome the creation of militias.’

Gaichi, a former Mujahedeen who fought with the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, agrees that the Afghan government hasn’t really played much of a supporting role—up to a point.

‘Our main support comes from the people of Qalaizal, and it’s through their help we get weapons,’ he says, adding that the Afghan government has provided his group with ‘only’ 17 guns. ‘But there’s other support too…The Germans know about us and they’re also supporting us by giving us blankets and such. [And] we have assurances of more support from the Afghan government.’

Asked about this support, Interior Ministry spokesman Bashary admits that the government has been taking steps to shore up local support for the police and army’s broader efforts to repel insurgents.

‘In some parts of the country, people in villages are trying to stop the infiltration of insurgents in their village,’ he says. ‘This is a way of the people supporting the central government and security forces.’

Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith Militia, Director of Communications for the International Security Assistance Force and United States Forces in Afghanistan, is more forthright in admitting the existence of private militias, though he avoids actually using the word ‘militia.’

‘There’s always been a culture here for protecting one’s own village or compound and using that natural source of culture, the local community initiatives, they are partnering with the government to secure that area of the village,’ he says. ‘That’s a positive step to give a wider sense of security across the country, because there aren’t many forces to protect the people.’

But the case of Qalaizal begs the question as to why a once peaceful area now requires a militia to provide protection.

Zalamai Masood, a clergyman and teacher in a local Islamic school, says he has been disturbed by the gradual but steady infiltration of Taliban in his district. He blames the ‘prevalence of poverty and lack of opportunities’ for young people in the area picking up guns and joining the Taliban’s ranks to engage in extortion.

‘Tell me how much you can earn cultivating fields? Joining the Taliban gives them a chance to earn and support their family,’ he says. ‘But this is also very dangerous and the government presence is really negligible here.’

Gaichi says poverty was also the reason he picked up a gun again. He says that forming a private militia means he now has a ‘steady income and the satisfaction of protecting my people from the barbarity of the Taliban.’ His story chimes with others I spoke with while travelling in the area, including Khaleefa Naseer, another militia leader. Thirty seven-year-old Naseer told me he has eight children and elderly parents to support and that the income from his small farm just isn’t enough to support a large family.

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So, is the rise of these militias in parts of Afghanistan any different from the earlier warlords who used to operate in the same areas?

Mir sees the emergence of such militias as ‘a failure of the Afghan government to provide security to its own people…this absence of the Afghan police force from large parts of the country is a potent reason for the growing clout and spread of Taliban in the country.’

Meanwhile, the residents of Qalaizal seem happy with their new protectors. Schools are functioning normally and people can go out to work freely. They don’t think—or at least try not to think—about the broader implications of relying on a private militia.

But while Afghans are living in the present, will the Afghan government and international forces be able to stop the country sliding back into its past?