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Kabul Launches Controversial Plan To Empower Militia Fighters As Police

Afghan and U.S. soldiers patrolling the village of Jellawar in the Arghandab district in early September.
Afghan and U.S. soldiers patrolling the village of Jellawar in the Arghandab district in early September.
Amir Mohammad is among a handful of tribal leaders to remain in Kandahar Province's Arghandab district since the Taliban sent threatening letters to elders during the summer.

The letters -- hand-delivered in late July and carrying the seal of the Taliban -- warned specific tribal elders to leave Afghanistan within five days or be killed. Mohammad says most of the targeted elders fled the central district of Kandahar Province after receiving the notices.

"Our elders have gone to the city [of Kandahar], leaving the district empty," Mohammad says. "So when the villages are left empty the security gets worse. If you stay in the villages then security will come on its own accord, but if [elders] are outside of the district and villages, security deteriorates."

Now, under a new decree from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, local militia fighters in the Arghandab district are being given police uniforms, salaries, guns, and ammunition to fight against the Taliban.

Arghandab is one of eight districts across southern and western Afghanistan where the first phase of Karzai's so-called Local Police Initiative is being implemented. Other districts are in the provinces of Herat, Paktika, Paktia, and Oruzgan. Authorities in Kabul say the plan eventually will be expanded to include parts of eastern and northern Afghanistan.

But Michael Hanna, an expert on Afghanistan at The Century Foundation in New York, warns that the plan could have negative consequences if it isn't implemented with an understanding of local tribes and their historic rivalries.

"You could think of specific areas -- perhaps in Paktia Province or others -- where village defense forces would be a positive initiative, but other areas where you could imagine this would fuel conflict and rapacious activity on the part of warlords," he says.

Hanna also says empowering militias from one Afghan tribe could plant the seeds of future conflict with rival Afghan clans.

"It's a very controversial proposition simply because of the country's history with the militias," Hanna says. "People are concerned that you have people under arms [who are] outside of the control of any governmental authority. That obviously creates serious concern among many."

Potential Risks

For years, experts have warned that arming and paying Pashtun militia fighters in southern Afghanistan would lead powerful ethnic Tajik commanders in northern Afghanistan to take similar steps and empower their own loyal militia fighters.

Since Karzai signed his Local Police Initiative decree, some militia fighters have been deputized by provincial authorities as "village defense forces" in several volatile districts of Balkh Province. Those forces are, in fact, independent militia groups led by their former mujahedin commanders.

An Afghan soldier atop a Humvee at a U.S. combat oupost in the Arghandab Valley in early September
Balkh Province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, an ethnic-Tajik former Northern Alliance commander who has a shaky relationship with Karzai, says he mustered those militia fighters in August to add security ahead of September's parliamentary elections.

In a recent "Time" magazine interview, the Balkh governor admitted he acted independently of Karzai when he empowered militia fighters as "village defense forces." He also insisted that the local commanders were loyal to both Kabul and "the people who have selected them."

Former Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Abdul Hadi Khalid says he thinks empowering militia fighters as police could lead to future conflicts between rival militia. Khalid says the Local Police Initiative also could empower groups that support the interests of foreign countries rather than the central government in Kabul.

"If you arm one side, then the other side will get the opportunity to be armed too," Khalid says. "If [U.S. and NATO] forces decrease their presence in the country, there will be tribal clashes and confrontation."

He continues: "Look at the region. There are Iranian, Pakistani, and Central Asian regimes. The Russians, India, and China all have interests in Afghanistan. There also are certain parties and groups that support the interests of foreign countries. Therefore, in my view, [empowering Afghan militia fighters as local police] will have negative implications that cannot be controlled."

Ensuring Accountability

But Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashari says steps have been taken to ensure that those who receive salaries and weapons under the Local Police Initiative are not Taliban sympathizers or militia fighters whose allegiances lie more with a local warlord than the central government.

"We have taken a number of initiatives in order to prevent the infiltration of saboteurs and enemies in this force," Bashari says. "The young men who will be recruited will be guaranteed by the local elders, and influential and local councils. Also, they will be registered. The intelligence department of the Interior Ministry, along with the National Intelligence Directorate, are part of a special commission that will regularly cooperate with [local] police during both the recruitment process and later, when it will enable them to carry out their tasks in first instance and prevent the infiltration of bad people or those with a past criminal record in the force."

Hanna says the Afghan government made an effort to ensure there are some mechanism of accountability and some level of control to ensure that the Local Police Initiative doesn't create police forces that essentially are independent militia.

"We will see how it works in practice - whether there is, in effect, real accountability and real monitoring, and what sort of responses there will be for abuses," Hanna says.

International human rights groups that have documented abuses by warlords and Afghan militia factions in the past -- like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International -- are closely watching how Afghanistan's Local Police Initiative is implemented.

Those nongovernmental organizations say they will document cases of rights abuses by militia fighters who are given police uniforms, weapons, and salaries by Afghanistan's central government.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report from Kandahar and Kabul

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