KABUL — It has been over 15 years since U.S.-led international troops arrived in Afghanistan. Today, beauty salons fill the streets of Kabul and Indian music plays loudly during traffic jams. Yet the news from the provinces is distressing. Afghan security forces are currently engaged in active battle across at least 26 of the country’s 34 provinces. Occasional attacks interrupt the normal daily routine of the chaotic capital, once the center of the secular Afghan aristocracy, now an architectural landmark of the war business.
Just a few kilometers outside the concrete maze of Kabul, the state has little control. “This is a no-law land: we do what we please, and we ensure that our friends are safe,” says a local regional commander, a former mujahedeen, now head of a militia who ensure his American contractor partners can move safely through the area.
Afghanistan, despite the disarmament program run by the United Nations, is still run and regulated by local commanders, which have given part of their arms to the government, but kept a conspicuous amount for themselves. “A militia commander registered with the government will tell you that they have four weapons with him, but he is actually carrying 200 weapons and he has 200 men,” explains Juma Hamdard, former governor and a senior commander of Hizb-e Islami, and the current security adviser of President Ashraf Ghani.
He himself is largely considered a strongman of Balkh, the northern province which has long been under the control of the powerful provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor, one of the key leaders of the Jamiat-e-Islami party. According to Hamdard, today the militias are the main factor behind the discontentment of the local population, and one of the reason why the Taliban are instead gaining terrain. “The brutality carried by these groups is worse than that of the Soviet Union-supported militia in the past,” he explains. “They do not belong to anybody, just to single individuals pursuing his own self-interest, not the security of the country.”
The militia phenomenon is not new to Afghanistan. For centuries, rulers and occupying powers in the country followed a hybrid military model, using a centralized army as well as the support of the local tribes to defeat external and internal threats and to maintain territorial control. “Afghans know how to fight to protect their villages,” local commanders repeat as a mantra. Whoever attempted to force a more centralized military system, such as King Amanullah Khan in the 1920s, failed and was violently removed by those very same groups. To Afghan ruling forces throughout history, sooner or later these sub-state armies were revealed to be a double-edged sword.
The fall of Kunduz in October 2015 is an example. The looting, raping, and other sorts of violence conducted during the first days of the Taliban siege of the city were also carried by the local pro-governmental militias during their run from the Taliban advances. “Repeatedly I had warned the central government and General Campbell [the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force] about the risk of having 4,000 armed militias fighting on the frontline against the Taliban, with only 3,000 police officers,” explains former Kunduz governor Omar Safi. “Militias can be sold, they can deal their surrender and sell arms directly to the Taliban,” he adds.
However, with the insurgent forces advancing from the south, north and east of Afghanistan, the central government has little choice but to rely on the support of these questionable entities. Training a functional national army requires huge resource and time. Since 2007, when the Taliban began to regain terrain, the Afghan government has needed quick mobilization to respond to these rising hostile forces. It was few years later, with the suggestions and support of the Americans and just a few reluctant voices, that the program to establish local armed forces as a counterinsurgency measure was institutionalized.
The creation of the Afghan Local Police force, active today in 117 districts, according to the Ministry of Interior, is still now a debatable issue in Afghanistan, with many observers arguing that it has brought more instability than security. The Afghan intelligence forces are also in direct contact with other forms of local defense forces, such as the Public Uprising or independent militias. In Achin District, Nangarhar province, the local men loyal to Haji Zahir Qadir, the deputy speaker of parliament and a prominent figure in the region, have fought on the frontlines against the Islamic State. Their military operations have become famous as much for being brutal as effective, but little is know about what their role in the area will be once the Islamic State is no longer a threat.
“Zahir is a man of state, there is nothing to worry about,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, assures.
Yet the longstanding threat to Afghanistan from powerful and independent armed forces seems to draw closer every day. Militia members traditionally had little adherence to long-established norms of conduct in war, and had often been the cause of the state collapse, as during Dr. Najibullah’s time in the 1990s. When a common enemy was present, as during the Soviet invasion, the mujahedeen were united against it. As soon as the Soviets withdrew, the different armed groups and parties rose against each other, subjecting the country to a bloodbath.
“History is gone; we look ahead now,” Sediqqi says with confidence. But with fragile governance, as in the case in Afghanistan under the National Unity Government, sharing the state monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force is cause for skepticism. Indeed, last year the Ministry of Interior implemented a series of new guidelines, aiming to control and regulate the armed groups engaged in battles against the insurgents. However, with many state leaders operating, either officially or unofficially, as leaders of these groups, it is becoming increasingly difficult for observers to define the line between regular and irregular pro-governmental forces.
“Many commanders encourage local uprisings against Taliban. What they are really looking for, however, is to increase personal power,” comments Ramatullah, former leader in the famous Andar district uprising against the Taliban, in Ghazni province. In 2011 he became famous as a Taliban commander who switched sides and stood up against the group.
“Every group that rises up against the government began in one way and ended up in another,” he says, recalling the motivations behind his choice. “The Taliban, as any other groups lost their morality along the way.” He accuses the Taliban of subjecting the civilian population to looting, random arrests, and brutality.
According to him, the Andar uprising was never backed up by the government or by the international forces — a deliberate choice. “I cannot accept the conditions of the government. They want you to wear a uniform and all these other kinds of measures,” Ramatullah explains. “But that is not the solution. We should be like the Taliban, without uniforms. If we have an open relationship with the government, the Taliban can use the fatwa [against us, saying] that the government is not Muslim, just a puppet of the foreign governments. However, they cannot use that against me or the other people of the uprising. We are respected Muslims in our area, and the Taliban cannot use their fatwa against us.”
Whereas in almost every village there are men ready to take up arms against what they consider a threat to their survival, many of them also carry a profound mistrust against the government and their armed forces, such as the Afghan Local Police. Often, the local police officer themselves are considered enemies, accused of fomenting ethnic division and pursuing personal vendettas under the guise of defeating terrorism.
The Ministry of Interior claims to have regular meetings and an open dialogue with all the community forces who share the same interests as the government and have taken up the responsibility of providing protection to civilians. But the accountability and legitimacy of the irregular armed groups remains difficult to monitor. International organizations such as Human Rights Watch have largely denounced and reported on abuses and ethnic violence against civilians conducted by different types of armed groups, including those supported by the government. In many districts and provinces, including Kunduz and Parwan, part of the population has even welcomed the Taliban because they are tired of these kind of abuses.
Many of the remote areas and districts in the country have seen little of the massive investment made by the international community, and Afghanistan still remains a rural and extremely fragile country. The fight for dignity is still left to arms and, often, self defense.
“We cannot repent corruption by approving corruption, or remove brutality by implementing brutality,” comments Hamdard, President Ghani’s security adviser. “If local police are corrupt that does not justify [us] to create militias who simply can not be governed or controlled.”
Although the struggle against forces threatening state legitimacy is real, the question remains whether there is also an internal enemy, currently fighting alongside the governmental forces, that threatens Afghanistan’s stability in a stronger sense. In many parts of the country, such armed groups have been effective in containing the insurgency. But true security, which means the well-being of the population, is still a long way off.
Laura Cesaretti is a freelance reporter currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan.