The Afghan government is responding to an intense Taliban summer offensive in part by providing increasing support to armed militia groups, according to news reports over the past week. But USIP research, including a recent report that examines shifting efforts to disarm and rearm militias, shows that turning to local weapons-toting powerbrokers to shore up the state more often worsens instability.

afghanistan militias
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Bryan Denton

The Afghan national security forces (ANSF) continue to face huge challenges maintaining security across the country, as the U.S.-led international military coalition has shifted to a supporting and advisory mission over the past year and the Taliban insurgency has launched its most recent spring offensive. Last month, Taliban militants in northern Kunduz Province initiated one of the fiercest attacks this year, striking at multiple districts on the outskirts of the province’s capital city. The assault was the culmination of years of deteriorating security in the province. While the initial Taliban offensive was blunted by ANSF reinforcements, provincial officials report that fighting continues in the surrounding area.

The cost of the Taliban’s spring campaign has been high: 4,950 Afghan police and soldiers killed or wounded in the first 15 weeks of the year – an increase of 70 percent compared with the same period in 2014.

According to the recent news reports, the Afghan government has resumed overtures to hundreds of militia fighters and the warlords who command them, to bolster its strength against the Taliban insurgency in Kunduz. Described by the presidential spokesman in an account by the Reuters news agency as “selective voluntary citizens’ participation in the defense of the country against terrorists,” these fighters are self-armed, and their control through the military chain of command is uncertain.

Rearmament also has been seen in other northern provinces such as Faryab, a power base of First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was previously reported to be seeking to strengthen the role of militia forces loyal to him within the ANSF structure.

This is not the first time militias have been relied upon to battle the Taliban. While potentially expedient in the short term, enlisting local militias in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban could create more problems for the government of Afghanistan than it solves.

Conflicting Approaches

The latest initiative is reflective of the conflicting approaches taken over the past decade and a half by the international community and the Afghan government towards the proliferation of local armed groups in Afghanistan. Indeed, the move reverses previous efforts by the heavily divided national unity government to scale back reliance on such groups; during a visit to the province in early May, Interior Minister Noor-ul Haq Uloomi had suggested that he would reform militia groups and “and only authorize those individuals [to engage in combat and law enforcement] who are supported by the people.”

As Afghan government and international policymakers have vacillated between attempts to disarm and rearm militia fighters, the process of determining which local players would receive official sanction to continue carrying weapons and which would be shut out of the political mainstream has proven to be intensely contentious and a major driver of conflict. New research by former correspondent Deedee Derksen published this month by USIP, “The Politics of Disarmament and Rearmament in Afghanistan,” offers a comprehensive assessment of the history of internationally-backed disarmament programs in Afghanistan, and illustrates how local rivalries were reinforced in the process – including in Kunduz, one of four case studies in the report.

“Four internationally funded disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs initiated after 2003—two targeting government-aligned militias and two targeting insurgents—have failed to make Afghanistan more secure,” Derksen wrote. “Instead, society has become more militarized.”

Worsening Fragmentation of Power

Derksen’s study complements a December 2013 USIP report on the use of irregular armed groups by the international military coalition and the Afghan government, “Counterinsurgency, Local Militias, and Statebuilding in Afghanistan.” Authors Jonathan Goodhand and Aziz Hakimi describe numerous “experiments in local policing or community militias” from the early days of the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan through the present. The most well-known was the Afghan Local Police (ALP).

With the ALP, local leaders and the international coalition sought to place controls over their activities – ALP salaries are channeled through the Ministry of Interior, although some commanders now complain that that support is drying up. But in many cases, these groups undermined the state-building effort by contributing to the fragmenting of power, and were often co-opted by local strongmen to take sides in local conflicts.

Although details are limited, contemporary reports suggest that the new Kunduz militia force will operate under the ALP banner. According to the New York Times, “the new plan to mobilize militias, a high-ranking official involved in the effort insisted, ‘will be controlled and not an irresponsible distribution of arms.’” But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because planning was not yet complete, acknowledged that government sponsorship of the militias ‘might increase rivalries’ between armed groups on a local scale.

Derksen argues that total disarmament is unlikely in Afghanistan, but significant rearmament could be averted as the result of a peace process with the Taliban. As the events of the last few weeks have shown, however, the Taliban seem intent on fighting for now. There looks to be no  clear strategy to address the oscillating policies of disarmament and rearmament of militants in Afghanistan. 

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