The Coming Rise of Afghan Militias

24 01 2013

24 January 2013

My latest piece for The Atlantic, available here.

In early 1989, Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, the embattled communist president of Afghanistan, faced a choice. As the last of the Soviet forces supporting him had withdrawn, he knew the momentum of the U.S.-funded mujahideen bent on his overthrow would be hard to stave off. Moscow was offering only money, a handful of advisors and limited air support as a consolation to what seemed like impending doom. Even with a strong army, Najibullah knew success would depend on his ability to secure mujahideen territory outside of Afghan cities, and that would require the help of militias.

While centuries of fickle alliances and treacherous terrain have made unaccountable Afghan warlords and the fighters they command a double-edged sword, it was a risk Najibullah felt compelled to take. By the time Soviet financing finally dried up in early 1992, Najibullah had amassed more than 170,000 irregular fighters (not including those whose neutrality he leased), and as he knew they would, his newly poor militias switched sides in droves, signaling the beginning of the end.


President Karzai (and his 2014 successor) will soon face a similar dilemma, though in all likelihood, what surely didn’t feel like much of a choice to Najibullah will feel equally constricting to Kabul in the coming years. The numbers and dynamics on the ground speak for themselves.

Assuming Washington is able to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul, U.S. forces will draw down to an expected 5,000-10,000 advisors and counterterrorism professionals by the end of 2014. In the following three years, Afghan forces (police, military and border security) will collectively contract from 352,000 to 230,000 due to budget constraints and a lack of international donors.

Currently, Afghan forces have significant difficulty holding territory on their own even when NATO forces secure it for them, to say nothing of their ability to capture new territory independently. Worse still, Afghans are known for abandoning their outposts shortly after U.S. forces leave them in Afghan hands; in one catastrophic 2011 instance, the Afghan army abandoned a fully-stocked, well-fortified, battalion-sized base to the Taliban in Kunar.

Given the terrain and vulnerability to NATO and Afghan forces, it is unsurprising that before his death Osama bin Laden even suggested Kunar and Nuristan as havens for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters seeking refuge from the drones over northwest Pakistan, and many took his advice. Today, nearly all of Kunar and Nuristan have been conceded to the Taliban, and the withdrawal of the final U.S. brigade in the region will surely widen the security vacuum. Elsewhere, even when Afghan forces hold their ground, absent NATO forces goading and supporting them, they rarely leave or venture far from the confines of their bases to engage the Taliban.

In due time, when the contraction of Afghan forces requires an even more acute realignment to protect only the country’s most important population centers and infrastructure (government buildings, roads, etc.), there won’t even be the semblance of a military presence in the countryside, nor targets to draw Taliban attention from the prized cities and district centers.

After 2014, CIA and U.S. special operations forces will try to compensate for these shortcomings by drastically increasing the number of drone strikes in Afghanistan (which, by December 6, had exceeded 447 in 2012 alone). Predictably, while a counter-terrorism strategy might be sufficient to prevent locally planned attacks against the American homeland, it will not be sufficient to protect Afghans who are sure to suffer an increase in domestic terrorism attacks like those seen throughout Iraq after the U.S. drawdown there.

Unpleasant as it is, the same geopolitical necessity that drove Najibullah to use Soviet money to play militias and mujahideen against each other will lead Afghanistan’s next president to do the same with American support. Karzai’s successor will not be as ruthless as Najibullah was, yet neither will he be under any illusions; he will not blindly hope for “victory” in the absence of more than 100,000 proficient soldiers and marines when their presence couldn’t even bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, much less to its knees. As a result, to keep militants from trying to contest populated areas, he will feel compelled to knowingly instigate conflict in rural areas to keep fighting out of the dozens of small and large cities across the country. The countless anti-Taliban militias, mostly dormant since the U.S. invasion, are sure to rise again, though absent coherent organization and effectiveness. Kabul will seek to harness their efforts in order to keep the various Islamist elements busy in the countryside — away from the people and institutions that matter most to a threatened regime — leaving rural Afghans to bear witness to the coming war.

The problem, however, is the resistance such a plan would inevitably face, both by Afghans who remember how Najibullah’s militias laid waste to Afghanistan, and to international donors who have become sensitive to the country’s history of irregular forces eclipsing conventional ones. As a result, the new militia effort will likely have two defining characteristics: it will be strictly tethered to the concept of self-defense at the local level to promote the impression that every militia is small, independent and lacking grander ambitions; and it will try (but surely fail) to bypass the most well known warlords in its selection of candidates to minimize the threat of nationwide civil war or insurrection.

For perspective, the bulk of Najibullah’s militia forces were generally designated to a certain region or cluster of provinces, and they were known for preying on the population throughout their area of operation. In contrast, through a mechanism designed for locals to protect their own communities, a smaller number of his militia forces were anchored to the villages the fighters actually lived in, with the senior-most commanders in charge of a handful of villages at the most. These latter forces, like the modern day Afghan Local Police (ALP), were relatively less prone to exploiting their communities and, in fact, had a decent track record of defending them by Afghan standards. But there weren’t nearly enough of them to make a difference, just as there aren’t nearly enough ALP to make a difference today. Given the ALP’s modest success and relative lack of controversy, Kabul will seek to reproduce it.

Yet because it takes anywhere from six months to a year to stand up an ALP unit — and the program’s funding is closely monitored out of the Ministry of Interior — Kabul will resort to creating similarly small local defense forces on the cheap and with less red tape through the National Directorate of Security (NDS). At the president’s guidance, NDS will do its very best to avoid empowering the most potent warlords and to focus on installing lower-level commanders, thus keeping civil war predictions at bay.

Unfortunately, the very men who whose role in these local militias would raise red flags in Kabul or Washington are ultimately the only men who can sign off on such local forces. In the enormous web of Afghan patronage networks, most potential leaders of a local force in the east or south are beholden to (or at least subject to the strong influence of) a mujahideen commander or warlord. So try as Kabul might to bypass the more corrupted and corrupting influences of the informal Afghan security sector, they will fail, and exceptions will be made often and begrudgingly.

More problematic, when one force isn’t working well, or the Taliban moves to a different area, new forces will be stood up and rivalries will inevitably be born to compete over government resources, prestige and access to vulnerable populations. Internecine conflicts between the various village forces will become abundant, even while many also successfully fight the Taliban, and local chaos will become a byproduct of self-defense. Yet at the strategic level, pockets of civil war in the east and south will be regarded as a necessary cost of protecting the built up areas from Taliban infiltration. Kabul is well aware of this trade-off and surely recognizes that rural Afghans in the Pashtun heartland will be offered as a sacrifice for the country as a whole, with or without their consent.

Perhaps as a test-run, this strategy was clearly visible over the summer in Ghazni’s Andar District, where a number of unaccountable Karzai loyalists and kingmakers (including the Chief of NDS) co-opted and armed an anti-Taliban resistance made up of Hezb-e Islami fighters. To be sure, their initial success has been remarkable, and Kabul has struggled to conceal its glee at having found a militia-in-a-box masquerading (for American eyes) as an organic resistance movement, taking the fight to the Taliban and capturing terrain the government hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.

It is painfully ironic, however, that the same resistance fighters expelling the Taliban for their predations today were expelled by the Taliban nearly a decade ago for their own abuse of the population. Unsurprisingly, post-“liberation” honeymoons are getting shorter and shorter in Afghanistan; while the resistance fighters have ousted the Taliban in places, residents claim they have brought more problems than they have alleviated. Where once Andar was under complete control of the Taliban, now it is hotly contested, and marauding gangs of armed youth are terrorizing locals because no one has the preponderance of force to stop them. Worse still, even the anti-Taliban resistance itself has fractured and regularly clashes internally, even though one of the three sub-groups is funded by NDS and another by the Ministry of Interior. If this is what Kabul touts as success, sad as it is, then it is sure to be reproduced, likely on a massive scale.

As was the case with Najibullah, even with implausible deniability, the financial and political costs for Kabul to instigate conflict between and among sponsored militias and the Taliban are negligible provided that they stay out of built up areas. While undoubtedly a dangerous short-term solution to a lasting problem, Kabul will be forced to triage, and national security will come at the expense of local security.

Apparently well ahead of the curve, Herati strongman Ismael Khan recently announced that he was mobilizing his militia in anticipation of a 2014 security vacuum, provoking widespread rebuke from Afghan officials. Yet they should not be surprised if other warlords follow suit, nor if their own president quietly encourages Khan to carry on, well aware that the contraction of Afghan troops will deplete forces in Khan’s relatively safe corner of western Afghanistan long before they depart the less secure district centers in the south and east.

Despite the implicit and uncomfortable reliance on local fighters, with Kabul repositioning its forces to protect the population, the Afghan government will — ironically — attempt to keep the militias themselves out of cities as well, depriving warlords both big and small any opportunity to challenge government forces directly wherever territory overlaps. Anticipating such a tightrope and addressing claims that he wants to plunge the country into a civil war, Khan even framed his force’s mobilization not as in opposition to the government but rather as a supplement to Afghan forces.

Najibullah no doubt would be thrilled to hear it, checkbook in hand. And despite widespread reluctance to admit it throughout the capital, Karzai’s successor will quietly embrace such developments as hated necessities, though with a stronger emphasis on local security measures. After all, while the survival of the government will likely cost rural Afghans dearly, in Kabul’s eyes, Afghanistan faces either a possibly limited civil war in the boonies, or a nearly guaranteed civil war everywhere.



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