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U.S. Weighs Working With Local Powers In Afghanistan, But It Can Be Risky Business

Programs to arm local militias in Afghanistan have so far proved more problematic than in Iraq.
Programs to arm local militias in Afghanistan have so far proved more problematic than in Iraq.
As the fight with the Taliban toughens, there is a growing sense in both Afghanistan and Washington that the government in Kabul is too weak to secure the country anytime soon.

One sign of that feeling in Afghanistan is the spontaneous rise of local militias in previously quiet districts like northern Konduz Province. Until just a few months ago, residents of the region had relied upon the national police and army for security.

A sign of the same sentiment in Washington is U.S. President Barack Obama's request last week for senior U.S. officials to take a province-by-province look at Afghanistan's local power structures. Officials say privately the goal is to weigh the possibility of partnering with benign local forces, or trying to co-opt hostile ones, against the slow progress of establishing wider central government control.

The idea has particular appeal now as the Kabul government is beset by legitimacy problems. Voting fraud forced the country into a runoff presidential vote, and although it has now been called off, raises concerns that the next administration could be weaker, not stronger, than its predecessor.

But if reaching out to local powers offers an alternative, many Afghans say it should be approached with caution.

"Gorbachev came up with the idea of the 'Afghanization' of the Afghan war, and in the interest of Afghanizing the war [the Soviets] created militias, the warlords, the strongmen like General Dostum, General Atta, General 'This' and General 'That,' and those are the people that the United States is indirectly grappling with," says Daud Sultanzoy, a member of the Afghan parliament from restive Ghazni Province.

"I think that we will be running the same risk of doing something similar. There are so many eerie similarities."

He adds that, after three decades of war, it is difficult to find local leaders who are, in fact, truly local and who will not misuse any funds provided them. "When the Soviets came, they dismantled the tribal echelon by removing tribal leaderships, and the fundamentalists did the same thing," Sultanzoy says.

President Hamid Karzai (right) with General Abdul Rashid Dostum in 2002
"They both made every effort to replace it by their own systems. And those [fundamentalists] are the people in most cases who are acting now as tribal leaders, acting as influential people in villages and districts, and they usually will probably be the recipients of such funds and such structures and they are in cahoots with the warlords, and the drug lords and the mafia."

He warns that turning to local forces works best when their leaders are kept under tight central control. Given the weakness of the current Kabul government, he says, that is impossible today.

'Will Not Lead To Good Results'

Others agree that the dangers are high but that the security situation may warrant partnering with, or fostering, local forces.

"In reality, this is like the militias of the past," says Atiqullah Baryalai, a political and military analyst and a former army general. "This will not lead to good results; the historical experience to date has not been successful.

"But if they want to do this, it must be done under two important conditions. One, it must be controllable and, two, it should be on a legal basis acceptable to all sides. It that case, such measures could be helpful and even necessary in the short term to bring security to the country."

One thing encouraging U.S. officials to look at Afghanistan's local power structures is Washington's success in Iraq with tribal forces. The U.S. decision to offer weapons and funds to tribal forces in Sunni central Iraq all but eliminated Al-Qaeda in a part of the country where the Shi'ite-dominated central government could not do the job.

So, even before Obama's current strategy review, U.S. officials have considered ways to apply that model to Afghanistan.

As early as December 2008, Washington and Kabul agreed to launch a pilot program of raising local militias among the Pashtuns in some areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan Social Outreach Program was intended to build on a local tradition of "arbaki," or self-defense forces. The word refers to the men who grab their weapons and come running when tribal elders sound an alarm.

For centuries, the Pashtun tribes of eastern Afghanistan have relied upon arbaki to defend themselves and, at times, the country's king or government. It was part of the tight state-tribe link that made Afghanistan as difficult for the British to conquer in the 19th century as it was for the Soviets in the 20th.

But since December, the new Afghanistan Social Outreach Program appears to have made little progress.

"In 2008, there was discussion between the United States and Afghanistan about involving people in local areas in the defense of the political system of the country, to fight against the Taliban, and to bring security to their area," Hillaludin Hillal, a member of parliament and a former deputy interior minister, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

"In that time, the U.S. took responsibility for providing the funds for this. But the experience in some areas, Wardak and Farah, was not successful."

Integration Is Central Challenge

Afghan experts variously describe the problem as a lack of coordination between Afghan forces and militiamen and a lack of confidence among militiamen in the strength of the government as an ally.

Today, it is uncertain where the so-called arbaki initiative stands. And that uncertainty helps to underline the difficulties of working with local forces -- even when they initially appear ready to share the goals of the central government.

A central challenge for any stepped-up outreach to local powers is how to integrate them into central structures to assure their commitment and loyalty.

Another recent initiative in Afghanistan, the creation of a National Auxiliary Police Force, is a case in point.

Militia leader Nabi
The program gave assault rifles, uniforms, and limited training to local fighters and tasked them with policing the areas they came from. But it was scrapped in 2007 due to desertions, selling of weapons, and members freelancing as criminal groups.

The details of what any new U.S. outreach to local forces might look like are unclear as discussions continue in Washington.

But one certainty is that the Afghan central government today is not well-prepared to integrate local forces into its structure in the ways that may be needed to assure cooperation rather than competition.

The experience of the Qala-e Zal district militia in Konduz Province provides an example.

The local militia helps the hard-pressed national police and army to fight off Taliban incursions. But the relationship between the cooperating forces is entirely ad hoc.

The militia's leader, Nabi, told Radio Free Afghanistan that he hopes his force one day will be integrated into the national security structure so that it can receive regular salaries from the government, rather than rely on funds from the local community. His hope comes from the fact that the governor of Konduz, who nominally reports to the Interior Ministry in Kabul, was one of the regional and local officials who urged him to raise the force.

But when Radio Free Afghanistan followed up with the Interior Ministry to see where Nabi's prospects stood, it became clear that the ministry itself had no knowledge of his force or provisions for integrating it into its command structure.

Still, the ministry proved flexible.

After looking into the case, Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari told Radio Free Afghanistan: "The payment is in progress. The ministry leadership is aware of the issue. When you brought the issue to our attention [on October 14], the next day I brought the matter to the attention of the leadership of the Interior Ministry and told them word-for-word what you said. And they issued a formal order to expedite the payment according to legal procedures and to enroll them within the ministry's structure."

The Interior Ministry envisions enrolling Nabi's militia under a new and radically revised version of the failed National Auxiliary Police Force program.

The new effort, the Afghan Public Protection Force, also aims at recruiting local people to supplement the national police. But this time the members are to be recruited in cooperation with local councils, vetted for their character, and under the control of the national police.

Those recruiting and vetting provisions would have to be waived for Nabi's militia, which has already formed.

But the vetting and control are essential lessons learned from Kabul's previous efforts to work with local forces. And, if the United States pushes forward with a strategy of reaching out to provincial leaders, tribal leaders, and militia commanders, they will be essential lessons for Washington, too.

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