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A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
A member of the Afghan local police meets with soldiers from the U.S. Army at a checkpoint near Combat Outpost Hutal in Maywand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on January 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Burton
Report 268 / Asia

The Future of the Afghan Local Police

Too often, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) has preyed on those it is meant to guard. Some members are outright bandits, exacerbating conflict. Rogue units should be disbanded, and better ones integrated into the armed forces. This must be done carefully and slowly, or else insurgents will win a new military edge.

Executive Summary

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) began as a small U.S. experiment but grew into a significant part of Afghanistan’s security apparatus. In hundreds of rural communities, members serve on the front lines of a war that is reaching heights of violence not witnessed since 2001, as insurgents start to credibly threaten major cities. The ALP also stand in the middle of a policy debate about whether the Kabul government can best defend itself with loosely regulated units outside the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) structure. The mixed record suggests that the ALP contribute to security where local factors allow recruitment of members from the villages they patrol and where they respect their own communities. But such conditions do not exist in many districts. The ALP and pro-government militias are cheap but dangerous, and Kabul should resist calls for their expansion. Reforms are needed to strengthen oversight, dismiss ALP in the many locations where they worsen security and incorporate the remaining units into the ANSF.

Since 2001, when intelligence officers arrived in northern Afghanistan to raise local militias against the Taliban, the U.S. presence has been associated with a proliferation of irregular or semi-regular forces backed by American sponsors. None has approached the scale of the ALP, which has perhaps 29,000 men deployed in 29 of 34 provinces. Its predecessors were invented to meet short-term tactical requirements, such as assisting counter-terrorism teams in border regions; the ALP is a broader effort to correct strategic problems in the war against the Taliban. U.S. planners realised they were sending Afghan forces into rural communities that treated them as outsiders because of their tribe, ethnicity or urban background.

Senior Afghan officials were reluctant to endorse community-based units, in part because they circumvented central government authority, but also because they resembled militias that had contributed to the civil wars of the 1990s. President Hamid Karzai eventually accepted the ALP concept after insisting the armed villagers would at least nominally be categorised as “police” and answer to the interior ministry. He approved a 10,000-man roster as a two- to five-year temporary measure to address growing instability, although the program rapidly expanded. Five years later, officials in President Ashraf Ghani’s government are considering plans to increase the roster to 45,000 and seeking money to continue the program after the scheduled September 2018 expiration of U.S. funding.

U.S. and Afghan security officials also continue experimenting with other irregular units. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first vice president and an ex-militia leader, has publicly called for a new force of 20,000. Already, security officials are attempting to raise about 5,000 militiamen in at least seven provinces as a stopgap against rising insecurity. Afghan officials who feel qualms about hastily-raised forces with little training may lose the internal argument if insurgent attacks continue growing in 2015-2016 as forecast, leading to more pressure for quick fixes.

However, the ALP program has not improved security in many places and even exacerbated the conflict in a number of districts. A minority of villagers describe it as an indispensable source of protection, without which their districts would become battlegrounds or insurgent havens, but it is more common to hear complaints that ALP prey upon the people they are supposed to guard. Such behaviour often provokes violence: in 2014, an ALP officer was three to six times more likely to be killed on duty than his ANSF counterpart. At times, this reflected the way ALP units have become a central part of the war, singled out by Taliban as important targets. In other places, the high rate resulted from abuses – extortion, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings – that instigated armed responses. Teachers who feel outraged by ALP behaviour and pick up guns to attack an ALP outpost may have no connection to insurgents and may quickly return peacefully to civilian life. Such cases illustrate how ALP can inspire conflict, instead of quelling it.

The chequered history suggests further expansion of such forces would be a mistake, but an abrupt halt to the program would give insurgents a military edge, and ex-fighters might also be drawn to banditry and other forms of lawlessness if not carefully reintegrated into society or the ANSF. New policies are needed to extend ALP units with proven good behaviour, while reducing the overall force and ultimately ending the program. The mix of interventions required – strengthened oversight and integration into ANSF of units that would remain after poor ones are disbanded – includes additional training, vetting and discipline. Many domestic and international actors should be empowered to identify where the ALP contributes to instability, including the councils of elders originally convened to approve the program. Oversight mechanisms should have power only to reduce or eliminate ALP where the program is not working, not authorise bigger rosters or shift resources to new locations.

Only a minority of the existing ALP would likely pass muster in such a stringent system, but those remaining should receive pay increases equivalent to those received by the national police (ANP), and adequate support from the government and international community. Washington’s allies have been reluctant to get involved with the program, but they should set aside their concerns as ALP members become bona fide policemen and leave behind the ALP’s history as a U.S. military project.

The Uncertain Future of the Afghan Local Police

Crisis Group's senior Afghanistan analyst, Graeme Smith, sheds some light on the uncertain nature of the ALP, and looks at the confusion surrounding whether they are harming or helping the situation. CRISIS GROUP
Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is likely to continue unabated in 2018, despite the U.S. effort to step up its military campaign. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to utilise its influence with Afghan political actors to help rebuild trust and increase prospects for mediation.

This commentary on the escalation of danger in Afghanistan is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

In 2018, Afghanistan is likely to witness escalating violence and could also face political crisis. President Ashraf’s National Unity Government (NUG) should work with U.S. officials to ensure Washington’s new strategy has a political, not merely military, component. It also should reach out to opposition politicians and parties, advance preparations for credible parliamentary elections and counter the perception that power is being centralised along ethnic lines – all measures the EU and its member states, which retain influence in Kabul, should encourage. With the U.S. for now determined to escalate its military campaign against the Taliban insurgency, prospects for progress toward a political settlement in 2018 appear dim. Still, beyond their contribution to the training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces, the EU and European leaders and member states should continue to emphasise the importance of such a settlement and help preserve channels of communication to the insurgency.

A military strategy with no political framework

Washington’s new Afghanistan strategy involves stepping up the military campaign against the Taliban through U.S. airstrikes and mostly Afghan-led, U.S.-supported ground offensives. U.S. President Donald Trump removed deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while increasing the number of troops on the ground by 4,000, to reach a total of 15,000 (still far below the 100,000 deployed as part of the 2011 surge). European NATO allies have committed to sending more military personnel to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Although the increase is modest – less than a thousand officers – it is a symbolically significant expression of support. U.S. officials maintain that the goal is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and leave the group no choice but to enter into talks about a political settlement, although when such talks would take place is unclear. U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban – or at least encourage them to enter talks with the Afghan government – appear to have petered out.

Over the past year, the Taliban have stepped up their offensive, launching massive high-casualty attacks, sometimes by driving military vehicles – usually stolen from the Afghan army – laden with explosives into military and police compounds. These demoralising bombings are likely to continue. The Taliban also could continue their pattern of spectacular urban attacks to shake public confidence in the government; a 27 January attack, which saw insurgents detonate explosives packed in an ambulance on a busy Kabul street, killing more than 100 and injuring at least 200, mostly civilians, is only the latest such strike. For some years already, insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated equipment and, in some places, engaged Afghan forces in direct – as opposed to asymmetric – confrontation. The Taliban also appear to enjoy stronger connections than ever before to outside powers, not only their traditional patron (Pakistan), but also Iran and Russia. Afghan civilians are likely to bear the brunt of any escalation.

The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit.

Prospects in 2018 for serious progress toward a peace process are slim. U.S. officials say their new strategy integrates diplomatic and military efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet diplomacy clearly has been downgraded. The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit, however, as cuts to U.S. military assistance almost certainly will not alter the strategic calculus of Islamabad’s security establishment that drives Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents.

U.S. and Afghan officials pay increasing attention to what they describe as a growing threat from foreign terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP). In truth, however, non-Taliban groups contributed only a small percentage of the violence in 2017. Despite dramatic and shocking attacks in urban centres, the IS-KP has, for the most part, been held in check by U.S. and Afghan forces, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other.

Politics in crisis

National politics are likely to suck oxygen from counter-insurgency efforts as President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government may well face a political crisis in the coming year. Parliamentary elections, already postponed in October 2016 and now scheduled for July 2018, are at risk of further delay while presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. Delayed reforms and preparations risk undermining prospects for clean polling, according to Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan. Insecurity across much of the country may also obstruct a credible vote.

The government faces a political opposition that is larger and more diverse than previously has been the case during the post-Taliban era. Afghan politics may be factious and fluid, but, at least for now, several groups have aligned against the Ghani government, in part because they see stalled election preparations as evidence it is looking to manipulate the vote. Many accuse the president of tightening his grip on power and deepening ethnic divisions.

Ghani’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who left for Turkey amid a criminal investigation into allegations (which he denies) that he abducted and raped a political rival, has formed an alliance with influential Tajik and Hazara leaders. A spat between Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who is resisting the president’s efforts to remove him from his post, also threatens turmoil. Atta has the support of a major part of Jamiat-e Islami, one of the largest political parties. That he seems ready to defy the central government so brazenly, even violently, sets a dangerous precedent for regional power brokers seeking to slip Kabul’s grip.

Powerful politicians also are arrayed against the government. Ex-President Hamid Karzai has been mobilising to convene a Loya Jirga or grand council of tribal elders to debate the country’s future. While Karzai argues a council would unite the bitterly divided Afghan polity, his critics accuse him of trying to shake up politics and regain power.

President Ghani has tried to fend off his rivals and shore up his legitimacy with the backing of Western powers. But external support is an inadequate substitute for domestic approval, particularly with elections looming. Ghani needs to invest more in building national consensus, which will be critical to manage conflict and street protests should a political crisis unfold.

Making external influence more constructive

The EU and member states have difficult tasks ahead: they must simultaneously help keep the government from unravelling; support, along with the UN, election preparations; encourage President Ghani to reach out to his opponents; and assist the U.S.-led battle against the Taliban, all the while talking to the insurgents.

Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table.

In this respect, the EU continues to enjoy clout with various Afghan political actors, even if less than some years ago. Their reduced footprint in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the EU and member states provided €30.5 million in humanitarian assistance in 2017 to help the country’s growing numbers of displaced people and other civilian victims. More broadly, over the past decade the EU has provided some €756 million in life-saving aid. It should now use the resulting influence to push for progress toward a political settlement to the conflict. Specifically, it should press and encourage the Afghan and U.S. governments to go down this path, while ensuring that lines of communication to the insurgency remain open. If signs re-emerge that the Trump administration is planning to close the Taliban’s political representation office in Doha, Qatar – which it threatened to do in 2017 but then apparently reconsidered – European leaders should actively discourage such a move. Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table. Indeed, mistrust between the Taliban and the Ghani government means credible third parties will, at some point, need to step in.