The British charity group Oxfam has warned that a program favored by the U.S. military to bolster Afghanistan's security forces is turning militia fighters into local police who, in many cases, are violating the rights of the communities they are meant to protect.
Oxfam said in a report released on May 10 that the Afghan Local Police program is creating a situation where the planned withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan will leave many communities in danger from their own security forces.
It says the risks include the threat of theft, extortion, abductions, torture, and the sexual abuse of children by militia fighters appointed by local warlords as police officers.
Rebecca Barber, a humanitarian-policy and advocacy adviser for Oxfam who authored the report -- titled "No Time To Lose" -- after spending four months in Afghanistan researching the issue, says that the problem is particularly bad in the northern provinces of Baghlan and Konduz.
"The people recruited into the local police are essentially seen by communities as criminal thugs who have in the past been involved in criminal activity, many of whom have appalling histories of human rights abuses," Barber says.
Will warlords infiltrate their men into the national police?
She says that local people see the fighters being brought into the police-training program and backed by both Kabul and the international community. "In some cases, the situation is so bad that we are hearing reports that community members are actually threatening to arm themselves against the Afghan local police," Barber adds.
The problem stems from the de facto power that warlords and regional militia commanders have in areas that have been beyond the control of Afghanistan's central government, Barber says.
"In some locations, what the program in fact does is enable former commanders to bring their militia groups into the program and provide them with a badge of legitimacy -- which is the Afghan local police," she says. "And that legitimacy is then used by those commanders and their militias to avenge old disputes and conduct abuses against the population."ISAF Cites 'Progress' Made
U.S. General David Petraeus, the current commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, has praised the Afghan Local Police program in his reports to the U.S. Congress as a way for Afghanistan to build up its own security forces ahead of the planned withdrawal of international troops.
The current schedule calls for ISAF to transfer security responsibilities to Afghanistan in seven areas of the country in July, and to complete the handover of security across the country by 2014.
In a May 10 statement, ISAF said that "significant progress" had been made in the training and equipping of Afghan police during the past year. The statement said other issues raised in the report "are constantly being reviewed and assessed," and that "protecting the population is at the core of NATO-ISAF's counterinsurgency strategy."
When asked to comment on the serious concerns about the professionalism and accountability of Afghanistan's police recruits that have been raised by Oxfam, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry said the country's security forces "must safeguard" the Afghan people when they start taking over responsibility for security from ISAF in July.
Spokesman Ahmad Zahir Faqiri also told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on May 10 that Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul was discussing the issues raised in the Oxfam report with Chinese officials in Beijing.
China subsequently issued a statement urging the international community to keep its commitment to leave Afghanistan prepared to protect its citizens when foreign troops leave the country.Better Monitoring, Vetting Needed
Meanwhile, Afghan activists also are raising concerns about the kind of security that Afghan forces will provide after the withdrawal of international forces.
"If the international community's forces leave Afghanistan, you will witness a situation worse than the early 1990s -- perhaps 100 times worse" than when Kabul was ruled by different warring factions, says Abdul Mobin Khairkhwa, a Kabul-based rights activist.
The Afghan Local Police program is administered by Afghanistan's Interior Ministry. That means those who join the program technically are working for the central government rather than local or provincial governments.
But Oxfam's Barber says the loyalties of many newly recruited police officers remain with local warlords or militia commanders. But while that may not be the case in all the areas where the Afghan Local Police program is under way, "one of the problems is that there is a real lack of independent, externally available monitoring of the program that enables us to assess the results of the program," she says. "We know there are enormous problems because we hear it from the communities."
Indeed, the documentation in Barber's report notes that when local militia commanders bring their own militia fighters into the Afghan Local Police program, the end result often is an intensification of local disputes, or even new disputes, within Afghanistan's tribal system.
"The first solution that we recommend is to suspend further expansion of the program until proper monitoring and accountability mechanisms have been put in place," Barber says. "At the moment, it is reasonably small. There are around about 5,000 people who have been recruited into the Afghan Local Police program. But there are plans in place for that to be significantly expanded, and we are concerned that current problems -- with lack of accountability and abuse by these local police -- could be substantially exacerbated."
Oxfam, along with three other nongovernmental humanitarian groups that signed Barber's report, are urging reform to the training and recruiting process for police in Afghanistan. They say there also needs to be a better vetting process to ensure that individuals who have criminal histories are not given a badge of legitimacy in the form of a police uniform.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report