Could Afghanistan’s Local Police Forces Fuel Feudalism?

Our guest blogger is Farha Faisal, a national security intern at the Center for American Progress.

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to implement coalition commander General David Petraeus’ new plan to develop local police forces as a “temporary solution” for securing remote areas against the Taliban. However, this poses serious concerns for long-term stability, peace, and reconciliation in Afghanistan. While the idea of “partnering with tribes” to protect neighborhoods (as advocated by Maj. Jim Gant) seems enticing given the slow-paced training efforts of the formal Afghan security forces, we must not forget recent history. Training local militias has been tried in the past in Afghanistan — and failed.

In the 1980s, Afghanistan’s communist government spent thousands of dollars on Russian-recruited local militias, since its own security forces were unable to suppress an Afghan uprising beginning in 1979. After the Soviet withdrawal, these militias grew into powerful private armies controlled by brutal warlords, who terrorized the population as they fought each other in a devastating civil war in the 1990s, until the Taliban seized power in 1996.

Our current efforts could produce a similar outcome. By multiplying arms in local communities, coalition forces may well promote, rather than quell, the conflict. U.S. military officials and the Karzai administration retain hopes that the incorporation of these forces under the Interior Ministry, as “government formed, government paid, and government uniformed” units, will prevent such disaster. Their hope is founded on Petraeus’ earlier success in implementing such militias in Iraq in 2006 by hiring large numbers of Sunnis as local protection fighters against the insurgency. This rosy picture of local security, however, has fundamental problems.


First, the use of such local police units has been tested in the past year in Afghanistan with the creation of the Afghan Public Protection Program (2008) and the Local Defense Initiative groups (2009), but they have not yielded promising results. The efforts stumbled upon several obstacles, including units demanding bribes and imposing taxes, as well as major vulnerability in the face of insurgent attacks. NATO even disbanded their local police programs due to legitimate concerns about sedition, which still remains a worry amongst Afghan officials and even Ambassador Eikenberry. They fear individuals who will change their allegiance to the Taliban.

Second, the ethnic and political make-up in Afghanistan is vastly different from that of Iraq — the “tribal” understandings of Afghanistan do not accurately depict the social landscape, in which there are numerous forms of social organization. Yet, such tribal assumptions could actually heighten ethnic cleavages, and possibly lead to civil war. This seems even more plausible with Karzai’s current reintegration efforts. By moving the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun, back into the political process, this could easily anger other minorities -– the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras — who could then mobilize their local police forces on ethnic lines.

The creation of these local police forces could present a serious issue for the central government over the long term. Such units could participate in the corruption and bribery that plagues the government structure. And the attention and resources directed at these units will inevitably undermine the training efforts of the Afghan National Security Forces, which is more integral to securing our long term security objectives in the country, particularly if we hold to Obama’s July 2011 call for initial withdrawal of combat forces. Afghans themselves have expressed concern over the use of local militia in recent polls. A BBC poll from December 2009 found that 68 percent were either “not very” or “not at all” confident in the ability of local militias to provide security in their neighborhoods, and a survey by the 2004 Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium found that 88 percent wanted to reduce the power of former warlords.

Regardless of the name, arming local groups in Afghanistan for short-term security is a risky bet. History illustrates the potential for powerbrokers to attract the unpredictable loyalty of local armed units. With the region’s stability and long-term U.S. security objectives at stake, failure could be costly.