Arrow Left Arrow Right 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 Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
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
Op-Ed / Asia

Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death

Originally published in The Interpreter


The recent confirmation of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the symbolic leader of the Taliban, has added fresh uncertainty to Afghanistan's fledgling peace process. 

There were already signs that Taliban unity was under stress, and the internal disagreements that have emerged since the announcement of Omar's death have raised concerns that the insurgency could further dissolve into warring factions. These developments raise the daunting prospect of trying to broker peace with a movement at war with itself. 

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani enjoyed a minor breakthrough in his long efforts to negotiate an end to the insurgency when his team sat down with Taliban officials for talks in Pakistan on 7 July. His government went into those negotiations knowing that some in the Taliban rejected peace talks and would probably break away from the main group.

Earlier this year, Afghan intelligence estimated that 10% might switch their allegiance to ISIS or other hardline factions if they saw their leaders negotiating. Some Western analysts guessed an even higher percentage would defect, refusing to die on sun-baked battlefields for leaders who talked in air-conditioned hotels.

In fact, the talks may have had an even more profoundly destabilising effect. The Taliban published a statement supposedly signed by Omar in support of peace negotiations on 15 June, but internal opponents of the talks tried to undermine the process by questioning its authenticity. They complained that the process had been 'hijacked' by Pakistan and demanded that Omar back up his statement with proof of his existence.

The top Taliban leadership was eventually forced to confirm suspicions that its reclusive leader had died. Omar's former deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was appointed to succeed him on 31 July. Though the Taliban arranged displays of support for Mansour in the following days, and many field commanders have pledged allegiance to him, the movement seems divided. Tayyeb Agha, head of the political commission, resigned on 4 August due to tensions with Mansour and reports are emerging of fighters quitting en masse to join more extreme groups.

This latest turmoil in the insurgency comes after months of escalating conflict between militant factions. Two databases maintained by Western security analysts show that armed clashes between insurgent groups have tripled or quadrupled since 2013, as infighting has spread to more than half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

In previous years, the internecine battles were largely over money or historical grudges, often involving old feuds between the Taliban and the armed wing of the Hezb-e Islami political party which fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This year the conflicts have been concentrated in eastern Afghanistan, frequently pitting the Taliban against a variety of more extreme militants who seem less willing to entertain peace talks.

While battles against self-declared ISIS factions have grabbed most of the headlines, the Taliban have also fought Lashkar-e-Taiba (a Pakistan-based militant group), parts of the Pakistani Taliban and smaller groups such as Fidai Mahaz. A tiny faction such as Fidai Mahaz poses no military threat to the Taliban, but such groups are spreading propaganda – including a claim that Omar was poisoned – that could further undermine insurgency unity.

The dissent often focuses on the Taliban's recent forays into politics, and the degree to which some groups feel the movement's hardline ethos is being undermined. The Taliban is discovering that it's easy to rally fighters with a battle cry, but more difficult to transform an insurgency loosely based on opposition to the status quo into a coherent political organisation with a vision for the future. Shortly after the Taliban admitted Omar's death, the central leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an occasional ally, formally swore allegiance to ISIS.

Such losses seem likely to escalate in coming weeks as field commanders decide where their loyalty rests. Before this recent leadership crisis, Pakistani intelligence had been telling Western diplomats that Mullah Mansour commanded about 40% of insurgent fighters in Afghanistan. His biggest rival, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a senior member of the leadership council, held sway over perhaps 20%, with the remainder controlled by lesser commanders. Those percentages almost certainly involved many guesses, and probably reflected an inclination to exaggerate the importance of Mullah Mansour, who is considered an ally of Pakistani intelligence

Whatever his actual degree of authority, Mansour has been pushing to consolidate his hold in recent days. Mullah Zakir has formally disavowed any conflict with him, and the first public statement from the new leader was carefully lukewarm on the peace talks, an apparent effort to mollify all sides. 

Mansour has the advantage of controlling power levers such as the Taliban media and intelligence apparatus; the latter selects assassination targets and allegedly coordinates with Pakistani security. If he succeeds in uniting the main factions and fending off challenges from rival insurgent groups, it could eventually help with peace negotiations by giving the Afghan government a single major interlocutor.

But nobody knows how much of Taliban logistical support in the field comes from the central leadership. One theory is that most fighters operate close to their homes and depend more heavily on illegal taxation and other local revenue. If correct, the field commanders may have some latitude to decide to support Mansour, shift their allegiances to groups such as ISIS or break away completely and start new careers as bandits or warlords.

For peace negotiators, the nightmare scenario would be a splintering of the insurgency into a thousand sharp pieces.