Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera Youtube
The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan
The Cost of Escalating Violence 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
Survivors walk after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan 13 March 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Commentary / Asia

The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan

Taliban attacks in Kabul in late January 2018 are part of an escalation in violence in Afghanistan, where the civilian population is bearing the brunt of a particularly intense winter of fighting.

Over one week, as many as 130 people, the overwhelming majority civilians, were killed in twin attacks claimed by the Taliban in Kabul. On 20 January, five Taliban suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least 22 people, mostly foreigners, after breaching the security of the heavily guarded building. Almost half the dead were employees of Afghan airline carrier, Kam Air. Families and friends of civilians trapped in the fourteen-hour siege spent the night in the sub-zero temperature outside the hotel waiting for news of their loved ones.

A week later the Taliban launched a deadlier attack, killing over 100 people, again mostly civilians. This attack, near an old interior ministry building, was carried out using an ambulance. Despite their reluctance to accept responsibility for such attacks in the past, the Taliban this time were quick to claim the attack, but denied civilians were killed. An International Committee of the Red Cross statement condemned the attack as “senseless”, noting that ambulances should be used “for saving lives, not destroying them”.

A third suicide attack, this one claimed by the Islamic State’s local branch, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP) hit a military academy of the Afghan army on 29 January.

The attacks have provoked widespread fury at the Taliban, prompting some Afghan political leaders and activists to press the government to crush the insurgency instead of pursuing peace talks. Some have even called for the execution of Taliban prisoners; government officials said they were considering the option. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described the 27 January attack as “our 9/11” and vowed to order massive operations against the Taliban. Similar anger was directed by Ghani, other politicians and the public at Pakistan, which hosts Taliban leaders and is widely perceived as a key external enabler of the insurgency.

The attacks have provoked widespread fury at the Taliban [and] have added to Afghans’ mounting frustration with their government.

The attacks have added to Afghans’ mounting frustration with their government. Many view the government as bogged down in micromanagement and too distracted by a power struggle against potential rivals ahead of the 2019 presidential elections to adequately protect against insurgent attacks.

The attacks not only provoked rage among Afghans, but attracted sharp condemnation from abroad. On 29 January, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “They’re killing people left and right”. He appeared to rule out engaging insurgent leaders: “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it”.

The day after President Trump’s statement, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, visiting Kabul, appeared to walk it back, saying it was meant to highlight the depravity of the Taliban’s recent attacks and did not reflect a policy shift. Talking to reporters, Sullivan argued that the U.S. overall still hopes to move toward peace talks.

Despite Sullivan’s recalibration, Trump’s words matter in Afghanistan and the region. His rhetoric should be seen in the light of a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that thus far has mostly involved committing further U.S. forces and an escalating military operation against the Taliban. U.S. signals on engaging the Taliban – or at least on encouraging the movement’s leaders to enter talks with the Afghan government – have been mixed. In principle, and notwithstanding President Trump’s 29 January remarks, top U.S. officials say the new approach includes both military and diplomatic efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet U.S. diplomacy has clearly taken a back seat to military operations. U.S. contacts with insurgent leaders, which were ongoing, albeit limited, in the latter years of the Obama administration, appear to have petered out.

A Wider Escalation

The recent Taliban strikes take place amid a wider escalation of the war. The uptick in attacks is not the first such increase over the past few years. Nonetheless, Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter – winters usually see a lull in fighting – since 2001.

This comes alongside U.S. public messaging that its military posture against the Taliban will be increasingly aggressive, winter will offer no respite and spring will bring ever fiercer operations. Indeed, the Afghan security forces and U.S. military are already conducting record numbers of airstrikes and raids against the Taliban. Their stated intention is to gain the upper hand before the fighting season starts, undermine the insurgency and convince its leaders they cannot win militarily.

The U.S. military has stepped up airstrikes, raids and operations by U.S. Special Forces.

Throughout December and January, airstrikes and ground raids appear to have affected the Taliban’s battlefield mobility across the country and have inflicted losses on the insurgency at a level unprecedented for a winter season. Facing increasing battlefield pressure, the Taliban seem to be shifting toward tactics that pressure the Afghan government, its security forces and the U.S. while reducing insurgents’ exposure. Recent Taliban statements warn of an increase in suicide strikes and attacks by insurgents that have infiltrated security forces or related security partners. Taliban sources also threaten further massive attacks against Afghan and U.S. troops. The lethality of the attacks has increased, in part thanks to sophisticated modern equipment such as sniper rifles, laser sights and night-vision goggles.

Suicide attacks have long been part of the movement’s urban warfare. As military operations against the Taliban escalated over 2017 – even before the new U.S. strategy was formally announced – so too did suicide attacks. Last year saw a 50 per cent increase in the number of such attacks compared to 2016: 48 versus 32, according to the Taliban’s own records (this may exclude attacks it did not claim). As the movement faces further pressure this year, the pace of spectacular attacks and urban warfare may well continue as pressure on the battlefield is unlikely to radically undermine insurgents’ ability to stage them. The same week Kabul suffered the two Taliban attacks described above, the provincial capitals of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south were also struck by suicide bombers.

The Kabul attacks suggest the Taliban is sending signals of its own: that the U.S. cannot fight its way to peace. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the movement “has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response”. By turning Kabul into a battlefield, insurgents gain wider attention, shake public confidence in the government, while showing their continued ability to strike hard.

The U.S. military has stepped up airstrikes, raids and operations by U.S. Special Forces. In December 2017, U.S. and Afghan forces conducted 455 airstrikes, compared with just 65 in December 2016. Even in the same month in 2012, when nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were present in Afghanistan, barely 200 strikes took place. All told, 2,000 airstrikes were carried out between August and December of last year, nearly as many as in all of 2015 and 2016 combined.

The increased battlefield tempo might have hurt the Taliban. But it does not yet appear to have translated into increased territorial control for Afghan forces, which the U.S. military has defined as a key metric for measuring progress (U.S. Defense Department officials reported in late January, with data from October 2017, that more territory had slipped from government to Taliban control).

Increasing Civilian Suffering

The escalation clearly has not improved security for the population – another critical metric for any campaign’s success, though not one referred to by the U.S. administration. The U.S. Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in its quarterly report in late January that the number of civilian casualties (4,474) from 1 June to 27 November 2017 increased by 13 per cent compared to the same period during the previous year. Civilian casualties due to airstrikes have increased too. According to UNAMA, civilian casualties by airstrikes increased 52 per cent in first nine months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. The toll from airstrikes is mostly borne by rural populations, whose suffering receives considerably less attention than that of those affected by the Taliban’s strikes in Kabul. Indeed, a striking feature of the Taliban’s own propaganda is what they charge as the double standard in reporting by Western and Afghan media.

Nor is it clear that a military build-up, despite its tragic costs, will necessarily make insurgent leaders more willing to talk. In fact, the opposite may be true: it risks empowering elements within the movement more resistant to reconciliation.

The [Taliban] leaders [who have signalled interest in peace talks] may not always be in sync with the mood on the battlefield.

The Taliban faces its own internal struggle. Those on the political-civil front, including parts of the leadership and representatives in the Doha political office, appear to have already accepted in recent years that they are unlikely to win the war militarily and have quietly signalled interest in peace talks. These leaders may not always be in sync with the mood on the battlefield. Although command and control within the movement is still fairly coherent, leaders outside the country find it increasingly hard to shape the daily decisions of their on-the-ground commanders, who in any case enjoy considerable autonomy and whose units are suffering high casualties. This could mean a gradual erosion of influence among insurgents who are more inclined toward talking and more power for harder line fighters on the ground.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg reacted to the Taliban’s Kabul attacks by vowing that the alliance will continue and increase support to the Afghan forces. But he highlighted too the need to ramp up diplomatic efforts: “It is essential to redouble efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation”, he said. Notwithstanding the many difficulties peace talks would pose, he and the U.S.’s other allies should press Washington to do exactly that: keep channels of communication to insurgent leaders open and at least lay the ground for peace talks by continuing to test with Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional powers what a settlement might look like.

Absent that, U.S. strategy risks further increasing the intensity of violence across the country, with no foreseeable end in sight. Civilians on rural front lines will bear the brunt of much of the fighting, but those in the capital and other towns will suffer too if the Taliban continues to perpetrate horrific attacks like those last week.