Kabul recently signalled that it wants to keep a tight rein on the multitude of armed groups that run amok across much of the country — some backed by Afghanistan and the US — who want to impose their own version of local governance.
Afghanistan has been debating how to deal with the crucial countrywide issue — the local militias that have become notorious for all sorts of human rights violations.
One possible option discussed by the National Security Council is to put them under a central command. Some militias in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Local Police — already operate under the interior ministry and are supported by the US to fight the Taliban.
In its latest campaign against militias, Kabul has attempted to arrest several leaders accused of human rights abuses. But the central government’s efforts have largely appeared to fail in the face of protests against the arrests in different provinces.
“The National Security Council has not made a decision whether to legalise militias or not. It's actually not finalised. There is an ongoing debate on this issue among the security sectors,” Obaid Ali, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said.
“It’s very difficult to put them under a solid structure,” Ali told TRT World.
For years, Kabul has attempted in vain to rein in local militias. These armed groups — tribal or populated with local guns-for-hire — have their own allegiances and local political agendas which don’t often fall in line with those of the central government.
Multiple ethnicities and religious affiliations in the country mean militias also find local support along tribal, sectarian and ethnic structures.
But more than anything else, local militias defend their politically autonomous position fixed by a paramilitary nature as a counter measurement against Taliban and other religiously-inspired armed groups. The Taliban in particular recently increased its control over large swathes of the country’s rural areas.
Taliban ran Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until the American intervention in 2001, following the September 11 attacks.
“The Afghan government needs reinforcement and extra forces, increasing the numbers of its fighters [against the Taliban],” Ali said.
But local militias are mostly “irregular and irresponsible” forces without having any “chain of command” according to Ali.
“They are operating independently across much of the country,” he explained.
When Kabul arrested Commander Naveed, a local militia leader, in late November in the Takhar province of northeast Afghanistan, his supporters protested the arrest in Kunduz. Naveed is originally from the Khanabad district of Kunduz.
In October, there were more protests in Ghor province after President Ashraf Ghani launched a crackdown against militia commanders and warlords, including Ali Pur, who belongs to the Shia Hazara minority.
However, Afghan forces failed to detain him during a security operation which left four police officers and eight civilians dead. Later, Ali Pur also known as “Commander Sword” showed up in a protest in Wardak province west of the capital, thanking his supporters.
“You rescued me and as long as I have your support, no government can touch me. I stand beside you and will defend your rights to my last day,” he said, publically defying Kabul.
What does Kabul want?
Ali believes that if the central government is able to put these unruly militias officially under either the ministry of internal affairs or the ministry of defence, then it will be understood that Kabul’s security apparatus is taking the issue seriously.
Local militias are currently operating under public uprising units, which are not directly tied to either the ministry of defence or interior — even though many are funded and armed by Kabul or foreign backers of the government such as the US.
“There are many issues and challenges with these militias. It’s a very difficult task for the Afghan government to cut the [local militias’] ties with local authorities [and warlords],” Ali observed.
But as the April presidential elections loom on the horizon, Kabul has little option but to go after the local militias that stand accused of many acts of lawlessness, ranging from brutality and harassment to illegal taxation and forced recruitment.
After using private armed groups with approval from the US against the Taliban for years, the Afghan government is faced with an emboldened militia and is being forced to ask itself what to do about these commanders, Ali Latifi, an Afghan freelance journalist based in Kabul, told TRT World. It really is about “cleaning their own mess,” Latifi said.
However, Latifi is still optimistic about the government effort to rein in militias. It would depend on how Kabul conducts those operations and their ability to convince people of the necessity of these actions, he explained.
Referring to the widespread pro-militia protests, Latifi also pointed out two crucial aspects of controlling militias across the country.
First, when you charge someone with serious crimes, people will ask: “Can you prove what they have done?”, followed by: “Can you stand up against them?”, referring to whether you can bring them to justice.
In the end, the government needs to be “very exact and very committed” to the task of ruling over local militias, Latifi said.
Filling the gap from Soviets to Taliban
Local militias have a long history in a country where tribal and local political allegiances often have more importance than national unity.
There have been several contributing factors behind the rise of private militias, from the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s to jihadist fervour in reaction to the post-2001 process following the collapse of the Taliban government, Ali said.
“Local militias have taken part in the US-led war against Taliban, collaborating with Americans,” he explained.
It is no secret that the Americans supported local militias. And before them the Soviets.
Referring to Kunduz province, where recent protests against the Kabul initiative have been strong, Toon Dirkx, a Swiss academic, wrote in January: “A wide range of militias have received money, weapons, training and political support through several US-funded militia programmes.”
Dirkx observed: “While labelled as ‘local self-defence forces’, the observable behaviour of these militias ranges from providing local governance services in the areas they control to preying upon the people they are supposed to guard.
“While the militia support yielded short-term counterinsurgency gains, in the mid to long term, it has unintentionally undermined both the security needs of local populations in Kunduz and US strategic interests.”