The International Crisis Group's latest report on Afghanistan's security forces, "The Future of the Afghan Local Police," is an important and illuminating read. The report focuses on the controversial US program to organize local villagers into units of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in an effort to help Afghans defend against Taliban incursions in remote areas, but the program has in many cases ended up empowering or creating local militias who are not accountable to the Afghan government. In fact, the report says, the ALP program hasn't led to a drop in violence, and, in many areas, has worsened the local security situation rather than improved it.
Although the ALP program was supposed to be a short-term fix to the problem of recruiting and fielding Afghan security forces and the lack of Pashtun volunteers for those forces, the current high level of violence in Afghanistan, combined with the withdrawal of most of the US-led military force (leaving less than 10,000 troops to train and advise the Afghans) at the end of 2014 has spurred the government to consider expanding the program from an estimated 29,000 paid militiamen to 45,000. The ICG report says that without key changes, the ALP may further destabilize the country, increase corruption, and serve as a non-transparent, unaccountable legacy of the US-led intervention.
"It's getting harder to fight the war in Afghanistan as the Afghan forces shoulder the burden of the mess left behind by the international forces," said Graeme Smith, ICG's Senior Analyst in Afghanistan and the author of the report. "There's a strong temptation amongst the Afghan leadership and some of the foreign donors to reach for a quick and dirty solution, which is to expand the militias."
"There's a strong temptation amongst the Afghan leadership and some of the foreign donors to reach for a quick and dirty solution, which is to expand the militias."
Some of the most startling findings of the report come when it highlights abuses by the ALP.
"A survey of US Special Operations Forces (SOF) teams mentoring ALP units in 2011 found that 20 percent reported ALP colleagues were guilty of undefined "physical abuse/violence," the report said.
A further 12 percent of the SOF teams reported that ALP units took bribes. Between 15 and 20 percent reported that the ALP indulged in salary fraud and theft. A smaller number witnessed rape, drug trafficking, drug abuse and the selling or renting of ALP weapons and vehicles.
"Complaints of extortion and illegal taxation are commonplace," the report continues. "Some reports have even described ALP commanders selling the lives of their men: one allegedly accepted bribes equal to $500 per head to murder subordinates and killed six before capture. ALP in Faryab province were accused of raping, looting and keeping a torture chamber with snakes at the bottom of a dry well."
The report quotes an Afghan who fears that this kind of behavior will only increase as US oversight disappears.
"The ALP are like snakes in winter," the report quotes one tribal elder as saying about the ALP now that their US military mentors had gone. "Spring is coming, and they are waking up."
"There used to be thousands of US Special Operations Forces fanned out across the country, literally looking over their (the ALP's) shoulders," said Smith, who is a former journalist and author of the book The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan. "Now that supervision is gone."
Perhaps the ICG report's most startling point is that despite their many faults, there are still places in Afghanistan where the ALP are the only force standing between the Taliban and the local population, despite the US withdrawal supposedly being based on the Afghan National Security Forces having the ability to secure their country alone. The report quotes an Afghan official:
"I know that people in Kabul are talking about cancelling the ALP, but you don't understand," said a provincial governor, gesturing at the barbed wire along his compound's perimeter. "Without those guys, the Taliban will climb over that wall and cut my head off."
Smith described the war in Afghanistan as "a patchwork of these short-term solutions that simply hasn't added up to a coherent whole."
"It shows the desperation of the decision makers when they know that militias are a mixed blessing and a profound danger for the future, but they're still making phone calls to militia leaders when they see the Taliban coming over the hills because it's the only thing they know how to do as the security situation deteriorates," he said.
I witnessed some of the first ALP units being signed up by US Marines in Marjah, back in 2010. They were essentially the local tough guys, and all their friends, who happened to be anti-Taliban, and armed. They had to agree that they were old enough to fight (some of them clearly weren't, and many looked far too old) and in good health, that was the entire vetting process. The Marines paid them a salary of $90 a week.
When I returned to Marjah recently, the situation with the ALP hadn't changed significantly, except for the fact that the US Marines who once supported them were gone. Government forces were also largely absent, and the Taliban controlled much of the countryside. The only force stopping the Taliban from taking the town is an ALP unit consisting of one extended family, with every able-bodied person working as a fighter.
The commander is a 53-year-old grandmother, and three of her grandsons, aged just 10, 12, and 14-years-old, had just fought off a Taliban attack.
"If I lay down the weapon," one of them told me, "They will not spare us. They will come after us and kill us."
The Afghan government has always had a hard time attracting Pashtuns to join the Afghan national security forces, which have looked a lot like the old Northern Alliance, which fought Pashtun warlords during the country's civil war, and then resisted the Pashtun-dominated (and Kandahar-born) Taliban. To the majority Pashtun regions in southern and eastern Afghanistan's provinces, like Kandahar, Helmand or Paktika, the national security forces have looked more like an occupying force bent on revenge, not their government's forces sent to protect and serve the local population.
"Some southern Pashtuns consider themselves the only genuine Afghans, and the other ethnicities of Afghanistan to be outsiders," Smith said. "When those outsiders put on uniforms and come south with guns, the villagers resist, because here are people wearing unfamiliar uniforms, carrying strange equipment and speaking a language they don't understand." (Most of the Afghan National Army speak Dari, while most residents of southern Afghanistan speak Pashto.)
The US-led NATO force and the Afghan government have wanted Pashtuns to make up at least 4 percent of the Afghan army, which reveals just how low the bar has been set.
"They had to redefine what a southern Pashtun is in order to drag it up to 4 percent," Smith said. "They had to cook the books. They were calling people who were Kabuli for several generations but had some ancestor in southern Afghanistan."
The number is still in the low single digits; the aspiration of 4 percent has still not been reached.
That's part of the reason why the ALP can't be disbanded anytime soon, even though many of its men are clearly exacerbating an already bad situation. The report agrees with estimates that just one third of the ALP "function correctly," and concludes: "rather than being village defence forces, the ALP in some areas turned into armed gangs acting on behalf of warlords and criminals, some of whom are also significant politicians."
In addition to all this, the government's need for men to fight on its side is only increasing, given that insurgent attacks "in the first quarter of 2015 surpassed all records for the same period since 2001," the report quotes Western security analysts as saying. The Taliban is now threatening major Afghan cities, and, at the same time, funding for the security forces (they are still paid for with foreign aid and there is no sign the Afghan government will be able to pay the budget anytime soon) including the ALP, is being drastically cut.
"In 2012 the overall budget for the Afghan national Security Forces was $12.3 billion," said Smith, "and that went down to $6.3 billion in 2014 — it was cut in half. And then it was $5.3 billion in 2015. You can't keep changing the money you throw in dramatically, because that destabilizes the situation."
Budget cuts also makes the ALP look more attractive to the Afghan government. One militia member costs one quarter the price of an Afghan National Army soldier, and with Afghan National Security Forces casualties at an all time high, the ALP can share some of that burden too.
"In the first three quarters of 2014-15, the force suffered 1,015 fatalities, more than double the number for the previous year, the report says. "ALP officials say their casualty rate is six times greater than the ANSF's. Their U.S. mentors put the number closer to three."
The report warns that continued reliance on the ALP might help ward off disaster for now, but could lead to a security vacuum in the future.
"Strong pressures are building within the government for short-term security fixes, but raising more irregular or semi-regular forces would aggravate factionalism and worsen security in the medium and long term," the report warns, before quoting a RAND study that says Afghan politicians and leaders may be tempted to "shore up" ALP militia in their respective ethnic and tribal areas in the event of "heightened violence or incipient or outright civil war."
In order to avoid this scenario, ICG recommends that the ALP program "be slowly managed down in size, with careful selection of troublesome units that should be disbanded."
"The remaining forces will need stronger support and oversight, with additional checks and balances at district level," the report continues. "It is easier to raise than to dismantle militias or transform them into responsible security forces. The most difficult work on the ALP program lies ahead."
You can read the full ICG report here.
And see Ben Anderson's recent film for VICE on HBO, "Afghanistan After Us," which includes footage of an ALP unit, here.
Follow Ben Anderson on Twitter: @benjohnanderson
Watch the VICE News documentary, "The Afghan Interpreters."