Posted by: Christian | November 8, 2009

Militias: fail, repeat, fail, repeat…

Local militias, tribal militias, ethnic militias, arbakais, Social Outreach Program, community defense and happiness brigades – whatever you want to call them – have failed and failed again throughout the history of Afghanistan. Some worked short term and then ended in disaster while others went straight to disaster (1840s, 1880s, Nadir, Dostum, auxiliary whatchamacallits down south). Some appear to be a joke. For example, the AP3 in Wardak. In regards to that, I’ve got one:

Q: What do you call 4 Hazaras with AK47s in a Ford Ranger?

A: A Pashtun tribal militia.

So the AP3 doesn’t have enough Pashtuns and I couldn’t bring my ’89 Ford Ranger to Australia. That means immediate fail. However, the AP3 was never advertised as a tribal militia. It is just a derivative failure in the making. On the other hand, I no longer have to put up with snobby grad students mocking my “redneck” truck right up until the date they need me to drive their furniture across Bloomington.

More recently (last few years), government-sponsored militias have never got off the ground in the first place. Why? My best guess is that all the proposals for Pashtun tribal militias that will hopefully take on the Taliban all assume one fallacy: that Pashtun tribal identities, when and where they exist, are coherent social and/or political entities with a hierarchy of authority. They are not. There is no leader of, say, the Examplezai who can be approached, recruited and paid to deliver all of the Examplezais. THERE IS NO CHIEF. THERE IS NO LEADER. THERE ARE ONLY NOTABLE ELITES WITH FLUCTUATING LEVELS OF INFLUENCE. THIS IS NOT AL ANBAR.  But enough people haven’t bothered to actually check out the literature on that basic fact. And that fluctuating level of influence has been in a downward spiral since Amir Abdurrahman. There are at times people identified as tribal leaders with sufficient levels of influence to actually control sizable rural areas (i.e., apparently, Ajmal Khan). But will these people really work to further the interests of coalition forces and the central government? Or will they work only to further their (and hopefully their community’s) interests? And what sort of losers in the local power struggles will be created by the ascendancy of a paramount local authority? [some of this asked at the above link].

Basic argument: Pashtun tribal militias can’t be raised by outsiders to fight the Taliban.

Anyways, it has failed in the East and in the South. Can it fail in the north? RFE/RL reports From Kunduz:

One sign of that feeling in Afghanistan is the spontaneous rise of local militias in previously quiet districts like northern Konduz Province. Until just a few months ago, residents of the region had relied upon the national police and army for security.

A sign of the same sentiment in Washington is U.S. President Barack Obama’s request last week for senior U.S. officials to take a province-by-province look at Afghanistan’s local power structures. Officials say privately the goal is to weigh the possibility of partnering with benign local forces, or trying to co-opt hostile ones, against the slow progress of establishing wider central government control.

A flurry of recent reports have all argued for something similar, if not just saying that local forces can be used to push back the Taliban. But this RFE/RL article is an antidote to that. It’s as if they have been reading Josh Foust’s work. They cite an example:

But one certainty is that the Afghan central government today is not well-prepared to integrate local forces into its structure in the ways that may be needed to assure cooperation rather than competition. The experience of the Qala-e Zal district militia in Konduz Province provides an example. The local militia helps the hard-pressed national police and army to fight off Taliban incursions. But the relationship between the cooperating forces is entirely ad hoc.

The militia’s leader, Nabi, told Radio Free Afghanistan that he hopes his force one day will be integrated into the national security structure so that it can receive regular salaries from the government, rather than rely on funds from the local community. His hope comes from the fact that the governor of Konduz, who nominally reports to the Interior Ministry in Kabul, was one of the regional and local officials who urged him to raise the force.

But when Radio Free Afghanistan followed up with the Interior Ministry to see where Nabi’s prospects stood, it became clear that the ministry itself had no knowledge of his force or provisions for integrating it into its command structure.

Whoops. And furthermore, this is Nabi’s picture:

Miltia leader

Well, I’m sure this fellow will do a good job of watching over his Turkmen or Uzbek manteqah. I just hope he doesn’t set up a roadblock. But he’s not going to be able to go after Talibs who are hanging out with other Pashtuns.

The RFE/RL quotes a critic of the various militia programs:

“Gorbachev came up with the idea of the ‘Afghanization’ of the Afghan war, and in the interest of Afghanizing the war [the Soviets] created militias, the warlords, the strongmen like General Dostum, General Atta, General ‘This’ and General ‘That,’ and those are the people that the United States is indirectly grappling with,” says Daud Sultanzoy, a member of the Afghan parliament from restive Ghazni Province.

“I think that we will be running the same risk of doing something similar. There are so many eerie similarities.”

He adds that, after three decades of war, it is difficult to find local leaders who are, in fact, truly local and who will not misuse any funds provided them. “When the Soviets came, they dismantled the tribal echelon by removing tribal leaderships, and the fundamentalists did the same thing,” Sultanzoy says.

I hope he’s not referring to Atta of Balkh. But anyways, I’m in agreement with him even if he comes from a position of bias as a representative for the central government.

If you want a more scholarly criticism of recent failures. Check out this, if you are wondering whether eastern mountain precedents can be transferred:

Susanne Schmeidl and Masood Karokhail. ‘The Role of Non-State Actors in ‘Community-Based Policing’ – An Exploration of the Arbakai (Tribal Police) in South-Eastern Afghanistan’, Contemporary Security Policy, Volume 30, Number 2, August 2009.

The abstract reads:

Despite the ousting of the Taliban and a subsequent peace agreement reached at the end of 2001, Afghanistan continues to struggle with insecurity. The existing security deficit of the Afghan state is currently filled by a wide array of (armed) non-state actors (ANSA). Even though much of the Afghan experience with ANSA has been negative, the inability of the state to provide comprehensive security necessitates a consideration of alternatives. One of such possible alternative, the community-based policing structure in south-eastern Afghanistan (arbakai) is explored in this article. We conclude that it is important to understand the context-specificity of ANSA before promoting overarching policies such as advocating a transferability of the arbakai outside their unique cultural and regional context. We also caution against the use ANSA beyond their capacities, such as for counter-insurgency purposes and formalize engagement with clear parameters to ensure accountability.

Underlining mine.


  1. Concerning Nabi Khan, you might even add that he is an old “friend” of another central figure of the latest “extra-governmental anti-Taliban military activities” around Kunduz, Mir Alam, a Jamiat-commander who had been in charge of the 56th Division (that is of cause they fought each other for quite a while).
    However, while I completely agree, that these militias are lightyears away from silver bullets, I think that in the case of North-Western Kunduz it does make sense to rely on them to keep Insurgents from infiltrating their area of authority (what we, the Germans, have failed to do and will continue to fail to do while ANP is no way in the situation to attempt to). It should be self-evident that the situation is different when it comes to lets say Char Darra, which is Pashtun dominated and has no good memories whatsoever of Uzbek and Tajik militias.
    But altogether rejecting the idea of cooperating with local commanders (as I read your title), even with all the bad experiences we have in other areas, to me seems something like mirroring the mistake of the “just arm the tribes”-freaks.

  2. You read the title wrong. As I said below the photo of Nabi:

    “Well, I’m sure this fellow will do a good job of watching over his Turkmen or Uzbek manteqah. I just hope he doesn’t set up a roadblock. But he’s not going to be able to go after Talibs who are hanging out with other Pashtuns.”

    And that “bad experience in other areas” is/was just as bad in Kunduz, as a search of the German media and scholarship would reveal.

    I don’t ‘altogether’ reject local power figures. But I am extremely skeptical of those armed ones and their militias based on their past record. And certainly when anyone advertises their services for foreign forces the alarm bells go off.

  3. Instead of a Ford Ranger, shouldn’t that be a Toyota Hilux dual-cab?

    Seriously though, this is an excellent post that has caused me to reevaluate some of my thinking on Afghanistan and it strikes me maybe there simply aren’t any solutions. The kind of stability that existed under the King until the 1970’s seems impossible now, a “tribal” solution, you convincingly argue, is not possible, and a highly centralized government is continuing to fail. Is there anything that can put humpty dumpty back together again?

  4. Christian, I guess our reaction somewhat reflects our different backgrounds. So far, here in Germany nobody has argued for the “tribal silver bullet”; on the contrary, pretty much everything regarded “warlordish” is shunned. Sometimes to the extent, that even admitting to “let them watch over their own mantiqa” (what they did to a certain extent anyhow) is regarded akin to a complete betrayal of all democatic values that we learned after WW2.

    So while your alarmbell goes off when advertising militias to foreign forces I fear much more that German public opinion, media and in the end our politicians will demand that these warlords have to be disarmed ASAP (for obviously they still have weapons, otherwise they couldn’t have messed with the Talibunnies). That, taken by itself, would of cause be a good thing, provided that anyone else than Maulawi Saheb Abdul Salam and friends fill the vacuum (which is rather illusionary).

    By the way, when you mention German scholars, perhaps you were not aware that even Conrad Schetter (who among our very small community focusses more on Kunduz than the others) while far from being an apologist of local militias tries his best to deconstruct the stereotypes of local commanders which dominate our discourse.
    I mention this as an example of how different the debate on Afghanistan may look like in the US and Germany.

  5. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/09/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  6. Thanks for the reply. My basic argument, now that we’re moving from Pashtun tribal militias to northern commanders, is that these guys can’t be used offensively against the Taliban. They will only do so when victory is clear. Then local allies will come out of the woodwork to set up roadblocks and start charging tolls.

    I defer to Schetter’s work, obviously. But as I said, I’m talking about the uselessness of local commanders in going after the Taliban.

  7. Andy, the Ford Ranger has been given in large numbers to Afghan security forces. But probably not of the 1989 vintage.

  8. What’s wrong with letting the Locals (whether they be a formal tribe or just a local community) play pure defense against the T-ban? Just keeping the enemy out of the villages and the Local area is more than we are accomplishing now. This would further free up U.S./ISAF forces go after the T-ban in an aggressive manner.

    It’s not an either-or situation.

  9. In most areas where the Taliban are strong playing defense is a big risk. It’s better to sit on the fence.

    I have no problem with letting people defend their communities, but some want to defend their communities against the central government and even against foreigners who support that government.

    My problem is with the people who think that giving any “groups” or “leaders” money and guns will result in them do with those resources what is wanted by foreigners.

  10. thanks


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