The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan


Shortcuts on the Battlefield – Militias by Any Other Name

The time limit on U.S. combat troop deployments and the corollary constraints, borne in part out of the U.S. financial crisis, on the transfer and funding of resources have also complicated the effort to “Afghanize” the war. Afghanization was supposed to proceed by speeding up the building of Afghan institutions, such as the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Throughout much of the post-Taliban decade, the ANP has been highly underperforming, rapacious, and corrupt. Although over the past two years, some efforts to combat corruption have been undertaken, often cloaking schemes to move political allies into key positions within the ANP, the police have continued to be defined as essentially a light version of the military, to be used for counterinsurgency purposes, instead of an entity designed for fighting crime, a key grievance of the Afghan population. Although intensified U.S. training has improved the quality of the police, even their elite unit, Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), has at times fallen short of the hoped-for-results.

Receiving the most intense training focus from ISAF, the ANA has made the greatest strides. Not only has it grown in size, but also its quality has improved. The coming two years before 2014 will show how much capacity the ANA has to tackle the Taliban and other forms of insecurity. But even the ANA represents hardly a clear-cut success. Worrisomely, it appears that it is deeply riven by ethnic factions. Most of its high-level commanders continue to be northerners, and southern Pashtuns exhibit little interest in signing up for even rank-and-file positions. Thus, there is a real danger that the ANA may fracture along ethnic lines and around particular commanders when the foreigners leave.

The difficulties in standing up Afghan security institutions rapidly and in securing even the key eighty high-priority districts have led to yet another short-cut, repeated throughout the effort since 2001—namely, propping up militias under various names. Often however, the militias have proved problematic in effectively prevailing against the Taliban, while undermining the effort to build up a viable and accountable Afghan state.

Inspired by the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, whose Sunni militias, along with the U.S. military surge, were a crucial part of beating down al Qaeda in Iraq and decreasing the intensity of the civil war, the Afghan “militias” are supposed to increase security in areas where ANP, ANA, and ISAF presence has been limited to nonexistent, and to supply intelligence because of their superior knowledge of the local environment. With ISAF denying that the program amounts to a militia effort (calling the units everything else but militias and insisting that it is based on Afghan traditions, such as arbakai), the latest version of the program is called Afghan Local Police (ALP). It is slated to generate at least 30,000, and perhaps as many as 60,000, recruits.

The effort is nothing new: the Soviets in the 1980s resorted to raising tribal militias when they realized that they were not winning in Afghanistan and used the militias as part of an exit strategy. Indeed, Afghans overwhelmingly associate the militia program with the Soviets’ defeat and see it as yet another signal of the U.S. preparing to leave without a stable order in place. Since 2002, various versions of the militia option have existed, such as the Afghan Auxiliary Police, the Afghan Public Protection Program (APPP), Village Stabilization program, and the Community Defense Initiative, also known as Local Defense Initiative groups in some areas. In some of these efforts, the self-defense forces are not supposed to be paid; but many of them insist on some sort of payment, so the non-payment rule is often adjusted.

A great deal of skepticism is warranted about such efforts. Unevenness in the quality of such local forces and their long-term consequences is to be expected. It is doubtful that the militias can reliably accomplish the tactical objective of effectively fighting the Taliban. They are often weak and do not have assured lines of resupply or good in-extremis support if they come under overwhelming Taliban attack. When in Wardak, for example, the APPP forces ran out of ammunition as a result of Ministry of Interior (MoI) lack of support and shed their uniforms to avoid being targeted by the Taliban, all the U.S. military supervisor of the program could offer was to encourage them “to put on a brave face and look like they have ammo.”

Tribal structures in much of Afghanistan have been deeply damaged, and the community often is unable to resist the Taliban physically. Thus, the militias at times hedge their bets by transferring a part of their income – including from ISAF – to the Taliban to reduce its attacks and reach a modus vivendi with the Taliban. Indeed, such hedging is typical of Afghan history, with local warlords, khans, and tribes siding and making peace with those they sense would prevail in a conflict, easily breaking deals if the situation on the battlefield changes. Sometimes, the accommodation between the militias and the Taliban even results in temporary improvements in security in the locale, such as long roads, and the community welcomes it. Logar, where such an initiative is currently under way, presents a good example. But the reduction in violence often exists only at the mercy of the Taliban and the deal collapses when the Taliban chooses to renege on it.

At the same time, the militias greatly complicate state-building efforts and efforts to improve governance in Afghanistan. Overwhelmingly unpopular with Afghans of all ethnic groups, except the powerbrokers who try to sell their militias to ISAF for hefty payoffs, the militias have a long history of turning their force on local populations. The predatory behavior toward local communities in which they have engaged includes the theft of land and goods, extortion, and murder. In Kunduz, for example, after they defeated the Taliban in their villages, they started extorting the communities and demanding taxes for themselves. Not infrequently, they also turn and fight each other, instead of the Taliban. One notorious case of such infighting took place in Uruzgan in 2010.

Although the ALP is supervised by the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI), the Ministry has often proved unable to control the self-defense forces. Under the leadership of Bismullah Mohammadi, the MoI, long one of Afghanistan’s most corrupt and ethnically-rift institutions, has also sought to legitimize and formalize other militias not vetted like the ALP, raising worries about intensification of predatory behavior by the militias. Often none of the vetting checks found necessary for the ANA and ANP, such as government IDs, medical screening (including a drug test), and biometric screening are in place for the ALP and other militias. Although the district police chief is to remain in authority over the ALP units, that post has often been associated with some of the greatest and most consistent corruption in Afghanistan. In the ALP’s case, three village elders are also supposed to vouch for each militiaman. Yet not infrequently a powerbroker controls the village elders, dictating his preferences in a way that escapes international scrutiny. At other times, the village elders have no problem vouching for the militia members as long as they only extort a rival village. The internationals often fail to have a sufficient understanding of the local conditions to effectively control the militias. Nor have they put in place any rollback mechanisms should some militia units go rogue.

The militia program can also easily inflame ethnic tensions: An official of the National Directorate of Security in Baghlan, for example, told me that the militias were a good idea as long as they were Tajiks. He was not sure about arming the Pashtuns, however.

Proposals to extend the role of the community development councils (CDCs — described in detail below) to oversee the local ALP units are also full of pitfalls. Potentially such CDC involvement could be a useful mechanism for exercising local-community oversight and reducing the chance of the ALP abusing the local community. The CDCs have been one of the most effective and accountable mechanisms of community decision-making and involvement in local development. Widely representative of the community and enjoying credibility with the local community, the CDCs thus are prima facie an appealing oversight mechanism as well as a check on the district police chief. Yet encouraging the CDCs to monitor the ALP can backfire and subject the CDCs to untenable political pressures. One of the reasons why the CDCs have escaped the broader political manipulation and corruption that characterizes governance in Afghanistan is that they have been handling very small amounts of money – in the single thousands of dollars for a particular project. In a place flooded with millions of dollars in foreign aid and contracts, the amounts were too small to generate undesirable interest on the part of local powerbrokers in such projects. Even the Taliban has mostly not bothered to skim them. So the CDCs have largely been left free from political interference.

However, if the CDCs are tasked with monitoring the ALP, both the Taliban and local powerbrokers may start taking far greater notice of them and attempt to manipulate or coerce them. If the community’s will expressed through the CDCs prevails, a great achievement for governance and reduction in influence of the powerbrokers will be scored. If not, the ALP oversight role can easily spell the end of the CDCs effectiveness. Moreover, with effective CDC involvement, the oversight function would still extend only within a community – that is, within a village. Only the district police chief is tasked with making sure that the ALP not only stays true to the wishes of the community, but also does not beat up rival communities.

Even when the militias-by-any-other-name occasionally seem to deliver results, without close monitoring and the ability to disarm them and control them, they often go bad quickly. The 2010 experience with militias in Nangarhar illustrates this dynamic. The tribes in Achin and Shinwar regions of Nangarhar province spontaneously raised anti-Taliban militias. Enthusiastically embraced by U.S. military command in Afghanistan and promised financial sponsorship, the tribes were incorporated into the Community Defense Initiative, another version of the local militia approach. But quickly, the militias turned on a rival tribe. Using U.S.-provided weapons and claiming to have U.S. backing, they “reclaimed” land disputed between the two tribes and triggered violence in large portions of the province. Thus even when the program is performing its function of beating down the Taliban in a particular locale, it still leaves behind armed men who can and often do challenge the already weak central government and engage in predation of local communities.


  1. This is an excellent meta survey with good analysis. It is particularly valuable to those considering policy implications in development.

    The anti-corruption prescription from donors is often tinged with bias. For examplem there seems to be an emphasis on enforcement before capacity building and with little understanding of incentives.

    Part of your analysis, though, seems to jump to conclusions. Your statement about off-budget as “not necessarily in a less corrupt manner” is most likely factually incorrect. Off-budget funding is almost certainly more corrupt than on-budget. On-budget execution through the Ministry of Finance uses automated budget & commitment controls to prevent many forms of corruption. Transactions are fully auditable.There is additional oversight through the mult-donor trust fund. Reports from the govrnment system meet international public sector accounting standards. The latest Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) assessment was positive. Capacity building has enabled the Treasury to roll-out software and training to all regions in the country. Unlike off-budget, the on-budget funds avoid the quick transfer to cash. It’s cash that makes aid fungible and easily used for corrupt purposes. Of course, this will not eliminate corruption, but it makes corruption orders of magnitude harder. And, much easier to expose.

  2. On page 4, there is mention of a proposal for CDCs to exercise oversight of ALP. Does anyone know of a reference for that? I have read every assessment of NSP and every research paper mentioning NSP that I have been able to find over the past 2 years. I do not recall ever reading a proposal for CDCs to be used in that capacity. I would like to read about that in greater detail.

    • @TJM The proposal for CDCs to exercise oversight over the ALP came out of private meetings the author had with ISAF and USG officials. Unfortunately, no referencing note is available to follow up with it.

Comments are closed.