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Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track
Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track
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
During a rare ceasefire in 2018 in Andar, young Afghan men and boys fly both the flags of Afghanistan and of the Taliban. CRISISGROUP/Fazal Muzhary
Commentary / Asia

Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track

The peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban offer a genuine opportunity for peace although obstacles abound. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue pushing for a more inclusive peace process, specifically in terms of women’s representation in the negotiations, avoid singling out the Taliban as responsible for obstacles for peace, and reassure the Afghan government by continuing aid into the future.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

September saw the start – at long last – of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. The U.S. had been trying to kick off such negotiations for most of 2020, since signing its own agreement with the Taliban on 29 February. Yet the onset of talks stalled for months; the Afghan government resisted the release of Taliban detainees to which the U.S. had committed, while the insurgents continued to carry out acts of violence, defying President Ashraf Ghani’s long-sought request for a ceasefire before commencing peace talks. The intra-Afghan talks offer a genuine opportunity for peace although obstacles and risks abound. The continued violence first and foremost: although the Taliban scaled back attempts to seize territory and monitors reported fewer combat deaths than in previous years, targeted killings rose, and the civilian casualty toll remained among the world’s highest. On the government side, Afghan leaders have spent the year deadlocked over political appointments, rendering governance increasingly dysfunctional. As for the U.S., its approach seems guided by the desire to disengage its troops as soon as possible. Many Afghans and international observers are concerned that a hasty settlement could result in degradation of civil liberties and human rights, especially women’s rights, as well as regression into state fracture and full-fledged civil war. 

To help avoid those outcomes, the European Union and its member states should: 

  • Continue pressing for a more inclusive peace process, particularly in terms of women’s representation in the Afghan government’s negotiating team and affiliated bodies. Europeans should also provide support to civil society initiatives that complement the formal negotiation process and promote peace at grassroots level.
     
  • Call upon all Afghan political figures to uphold the May agreement between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and encourage Ghani to respect provisions specifying Abdullah’s authority.
     
  • Ensure unified messaging among member states so as to best use Europe’s principal sources of leverage – financial assistance and economic engagement with a future government – to nudge negotiations forward.
     
  • Avoid singling out the Taliban as responsible for threats or obstacles to peace; instead, make clear that any action destabilising the peace process, including by the government, deserves condemnation. Brussels should balance its support for the Afghan government with acknowledgment that the Taliban will be a major political force in any post-peace Afghan order.
     
  • Reassure the Afghan government by committing to continue aid into the future. European leaders could qualify such reassurances and align them with EU principles by allowing for re-evaluation in the event of changes to the government in a peace settlement, as the EU did in its May Council conclusions.

The Hard Road to Talks

An atmosphere of nervous anticipation prevailed in Afghanistan when the U.S. and Taliban signed an agreement in Qatar’s capital Doha on 29 February, laying out a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for anti-terrorism guarantees and a promise to commence intra-Afghan negotiations. A historic week of reduced violence across the country preceded the accord. Though not technically a ceasefire, this period saw a significant drop in fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces. It was the insurgent movement’s first major gesture of good-will toward Kabul since its ceasefire declaration during Eid al-Fitr in 2018. 

Any positive feeling quickly dissipated, however, as the Afghan government publicly rejected the terms of the prisoner exchange to which the U.S. had committed in Doha and the Taliban responded by announcing a resumption of hostilities. Fighting picked up across the country, albeit at a lowered intensity that seemed tied to the Doha agreement (although it was not spelled out in the public text). The Taliban carried out fewer high-profile attacks in cities than in previous years and limited their large-scale assaults on government forces. The insurgent group made none of its traditional annual attempts to overrun provincial capitals and did not announce its usual spring offensive. Afghan security forces maintained a largely defensive posture, which officials claimed was a demonstration of the government’s commitment to peace, but almost certainly also owed to the near cessation of U.S. airstrikes after 29 February. Those strikes contributed to record levels of civilian casualties in 2019, and observers hoped that casualty figures would plummet in 2020. The war continued to take a high toll, however, as the rates of targeted killings and small bombings climbed in many parts of the country. These included two attacks on prominent women’s rights activists in Kabul.

The U.S. waded into Kabul politics when contestation of the 2019 presidential election results escalated into full-scale dysfunction.

Meanwhile, the U.S. applied pressure on both sides, dragging the prisoner exchange forward, as the government and Taliban let prisoners go in small batches. The releases stretched into September before reaching the 29 February agreement’s promised totals. The U.S. also waded into Kabul politics when contestation of the 2019 presidential election results escalated into full-scale dysfunction. Just days before 29 February, President Ghani was declared winner by the narrowest of margins, without official clarity on multiple vote recounts and audits. His chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, and allied politicians threatened to not only protest the results but also establish a “parallel government”. Abdullah’s staff refused to vacate Presidential Palace grounds (where they had been working as part of a power-sharing deal struck between Abdullah and Ghani after the previous election in 2014). The standoff prevented politicians from agreeing on the composition of a negotiating team to represent the government in intra-Afghan talks – which donors, including the EU and member states, had repeatedly urged Ghani to do – until late March. Perhaps in part due to acrimony over appointing the negotiators and powerbrokers’ jockeying to place loyal representatives on the team, only four women ultimately were included in a team of 21. Abdullah and Ghani did not reach a governing compromise until late May. Since then, the two leaders and their allies have repeatedly disagreed on appointments of officials and delineation of authority, reminding Afghans of the disputes that plagued the power-sharing government of 2014-2019. 

This deadlock coincided with the spread of COVID-19 across Afghanistan. The virus appears initially to have been transmitted primarily by migrant workers returning from the global hot-spot of Iran. The Afghan government struggled to check what became an unfettered spread. In August, health officials announced that random sampling – actual testing was minimal – suggested that the virus had infected more than 50 per cent of Kabul residents and over 30 per cent of the national population. Lack of reporting made it impossible to measure the death toll with any accuracy. The severe economic impact of lockdowns, however, was evident within weeks, leading many Afghans – including many officials – to ignore restrictions in most of the country outside Kabul. The Taliban publicised a number of COVID-19 initiatives in areas under their control, but many of these reportedly lacked enforcement or follow-up. The group continued to reject international calls for a ceasefire, even in the name of a “humanitarian pause” to enhance the public health response.

By the start of intra-Afghan talks in September, high-level sources told Crisis Group that the Afghan government was considering arming and funding new networks of militias across the country, outside the security forces’ hierarchy and only loosely controlled by the Afghan intelligence agency. Such reports, which have circulated widely among Afghans, amplify fears many already have about the potential impact of peace talks on human rights: not only could talks herald a return to political power of the Taliban, whose abuses many Afghans recall all too well, but they might also lead to the proliferation of government-affiliated militias, who have their own terrible track record. Fears of predation by armed groups of all stripes are hardly new – the EU Council addressed them in its May conclusions. But they have grown amid increasing unclaimed attacks on activists, the U.S.’s announcement of further troop drawdowns and political infighting in Kabul that some worry could create space for extrajudicial action by the security forces. 

Amid these many concerns, the first days of talks between the Taliban and the government-appointed negotiating team already give a taste of the hurdles that lie ahead. While negotiating the rules and procedures to govern the talks, the two sides tangled over what Islamic legal interpretation should be used to mediate future dis­agreements (the government team insisted on acknowledging Shia Islam and non-Muslim minorities’ existence in the framework of the talks, which the Taliban have rejected). The Taliban have yet to fully articulate what they believe a future Afghan state should look like, as Crisis Group has noted. It is far from clear that the Taliban’s vision will be acceptable to other parties and the many Afghans who fear the Taliban may wish to curtail rights and freedoms. What the insurgents have made clear is their stance on a ceasefire. They reject any discussion of a lasting and comprehensive one until, as their spokesperson said, “the root causes of the war” – ambiguous language that could mean anything from the West’s influence, to the exclusion of parts of population from power, to the abuses of government-allied strongmen – are addressed. With current levels of violence having climbed throughout 2020, this may be the most immediate potentially destabilising factor as talks progress.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

As the intra-Afghan talks proceed, the EU can exert a positive influence. First, it should expand its support for civil society. Given Afghanistan’s contentious politics and its weak formal institutions, civil society's participation in the peace process will be vital to ensure the representation of popular interests and preferences. The EU has already affirmed its commitment to the protection of human and women’s rights and encouraged strong representation of women in intra-Afghan talks, but it should promote efforts that go beyond the structure of formal negotiations to lay grassroots groundwork for lasting peace. Afghanistan’s National Action Plan for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is regarded by experts as a “top-down” approach, which should be balanced by EU support to local initiatives such as local councils that advocate for peace. This approach could involve greater cooperation with the UN mission in Afghanistan, with its infrastructure and networks of field offices capable of extending peacebuilding’s reach. The EU should review and report on earlier civil society and development efforts in Afghanistan to support peacebuilding, some of them initiated more than a decade ago, to identify effective initiatives.

Secondly, the EU can help steady the Afghan government’s negotiation approach by offering its good offices to ensure a smoother, more streamlined dialogue to implement the political compromise between President Ghani and Abdullah. Disputes between Ghani and opposition leaders have already hampered governance and they will almost certainly bleed over into the negotiating team’s internal deliberations during talks. The peace process cannot succeed without genuine inclusion of a broad range of political elites in both the talks and the tasks of governance while negotiations are ongoing. Moreover, the political wrangling among elites has reportedly hamstrung civil society efforts to engage with the peace talks: different political factions are now competing for authority over every aspect of the process, which could have the effect of impeding civil society participation. By ensuring that Ghani and Abdullah continue to communicate on and implement their power-sharing commitments, the EU can help mend relations that in turn will improve the negotiators’ effectiveness.

The EU should seek to ensure that member states deliver a unified message.

The EU should seek to ensure that member states deliver a unified message. As the EU stated in its May conclusions, it can use the prospect of financial assistance to and economic engagement with a future government to nudge negotiations forward. But that leverage is only as strong as member states’ unity. Since issuing those May conclusions, European governments have diverged in their reactions to prisoner exchanges, and uncertainty lingers about their views on a major planned donor conference in Geneva. Several European diplomats told Crisis Group that although public unity on Afghanistan policy has been maintained, member states’ own diplomatic engagements have softened or strayed from the common line.

The EU’s influence over the Afghan peace process, and any outcome that may result, depends in large part on whether Afghan parties – including the Taliban – perceive it as a fair interlocutor. Almost any successful settlement will include the Taliban’s re-entry into Afghanistan’s political system. The EU’s current conditions, in particular its explicit rejection of the Taliban’s concept of an Islamic Emirate and its several public disapprovals of Taliban actions, without similar recognition of the Afghan government’s stalling ahead of talks, have been characterised by the Taliban as interference in Afghanistan’s sovereignty. As talks proceed, the EU and European leaders should make extra effort to appear to be more open to a greater Taliban role.

Most importantly, the EU and member states should commit to continue aid and development support to the Afghan government. They should do so before the end of 2020, in spite of the uncertainties surrounding the peace process and U.S. Afghanistan policy. They could qualify such reassurances and align them with EU principles by making clear that aid would be subject to re-evaluation in the event of changes to the government as part of a settlement, as the EU did in its May Council conclusions. This pledge would be the greatest possible show of support for the Afghan government as it negotiates an end to the war, and it would demonstrate to the Taliban that Afghanistan’s international partners remain invested in the post-2004 constitutional order and the gains it has won. It would be another incentive for both sides to reach an agreement.