Afghanistan militias: after a decade of counter-insurrection efforts, what role do they play?

An Afghan militia vehicle on the outskirts of Kunduz, in October 2016. Bahsir Khan Safi/AFP

As a candidate and now as US president, Donald J. Trump has consistently refused to specify his plan for fighting Daesh, short of his earlier promise to “bomb the (expletive) out of them”. The White House also seems to be at a loss when it comes to developing a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. The new president might very well challenge the Obama administration’s policy of recent years – limiting the sending of US forces abroad and instead working through local militias. Fifteen years after the beginning of the American intervention in Afghanistan, what role do the local militias play?

Contradictions in American policy

Confronted with the rise of the Taliban and the declining legitimacy of the Afghan government, the US army began to recruit, arm, and finance local militias, in parallel with the implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) beginning in 2009. In theory, using local militias offered the advantage of low-cost auxiliary forces that have a better knowledge of the terrain and are capable of operating on the same terms as the insurgents.

Within the strategy of counterinsurgency, these militias were also supposed to help the Afghan government spread its influence and thus its legitimacy in zones that were hitherto inaccessible. However, by authorizing armed, non-state (and often poorly controlled) actors to use violence, the strategy went against the mission of building an Afghan state that could monopolize the use of force.

Since 2006, a number of initiatives and experiments have been launched on the basis of the Iraqi model of tribal engagement of the Anbar Awakening (also known as the Sons of Iraq), initiated in autumn 2006 and whose (temporary) success was presumed to be transposable to Afghanistan. Then Afghan president Hamid Karzai was long opposed to these initiatives, which he deemed dangerous because likely to undermine the central state’s (already very relative) monopoly on the use of force.

The delegation strategy

In August 2010, faced with the surge of non-government militias, Karzai let himself be persuaded by David Petraeus, the newly-arrived commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), to sign a decree authorizing what would become the Afghan Local Police (ALP). The creation of the ALP allowed the Americans to legalize and legitimize a number of the militias that they had already armed and trained. As far as the Afghan government was concerned, it was a matter of extending state control, by means of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, over militias that had hitherto been operating outside of any state supervision.

The American programmes existed in the first place to supplant the original state-building project with a cheaper strategy that emphasized stability and control over the spread of the insurgency. For President Karzai, however, the creation of the ALP had a very different purpose – rationalize, harmonize, and take control over an ongoing delegation process that seemed ineluctable.

Often presented as a success of the US military (and of General Petraeus in particular) in their negotiations with Karzai, the creation of the ALP also derived from the Afghan president’s wish to take action when faced with a fait accompli: the growing number of extra-governmental militias. The manœuvre existed above all to recentralize the patronage networks by securing the control of ALP’s selection and supply process.

The Kunduz failure

The capture of Kunduz by the Taliban in the autumn of 2015 marked the failure of this strategy. The ALP and informal militias in the province were torn by internal struggles between commanders, each supported by patrons within the very core of the state apparatus – the Ministry of Interior Affairs, the intelligence service, the Presidency, etc. These militias also suffered from a lack of resources following the implementation of a new government (and hence of new patronage networks), from interethnic and partisan tensions, and from the porous frontiers between pro-government, extra-government and anti-government militias – with some cases of collusion between Taliban forces and so-called pro-government militias.

This strategic failure not only underlines the weakness of the government, but it also paradoxically calls for more delegation of violence, since the government does not have the ability to do anything else.

If the events in Kunduz symbolize the failure of the government of Ashraf Ghani (Karzai’s successor) to control Afghan politics, either politically or militarily, they are not the symptoms of a disintegration of the Afghan state. On the contrary, the fall of Kunduz is the product of internal – rather than external – power struggles between political groups within the state apparatus itself. The violence in northern Afghanistan must therefore be understood not merely as a sign of the Taliban advancing but also as an extension of the political struggle taking place within the Afghan to society as a whole.

The state-building project started in 2001 by the international community has had mixed results. The long-term state formation process, however, is well and truly on its way. Even weakened and challenged, and without a monopoly on the use of force, the Afghan state remains the locus of power and the main stake in the country’s political struggles.

This article was originally published in French