SSR-RC Blog Archive

“Just Don’t Call it a Militia”: Human Rights Watch Reports on the Abuses of the Afghan Local Police By: Michael Lawrence | Afghanistan | Sep 16, 2011

Human Rights Watch just this month released the report “Just Don’t Call it a Militia”: Impunity, Militias, and the “Afghan Local Police” which details the dangers and abuses of informal militias and the Afghan government’s Afghan Local Police (ALP). The report can be downloaded here. Concerns regarding the latter group raise important issues about the role of non-state actors in SSR.

The ALP was created in July 2010 by Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry to deter insurgent infiltration of rural communities that lack a strong state presence, and in this way create conditions for improved governance and development. Members are nominated by the local shura council, vetted by Intelligence agencies, outfitted with a uniform, salary and AMD-6 assault rifle, trained for three weeks and partnered with the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police (ANP) and U.S. Special Forces. Member do not have formal law enforcement powers; rather, the now former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, U.S. General David Petraeus, characterized the ALP as “a community watch with AK-47s.” There are presently 7539 ALP volunteers operating in 43 validated ALP districts, but the program is slotted to expand to include as many as 30 000 members.

Though American and Afghan authorities praise the program, Human Rights Watch (HRW) raises serious concerns about the ALP in three ways. First, the report situates the ALP within a disastrous history of militia violence in Afghanistan, explaining how the ALP has failed to correct the mistakes of similar local security initiatives, such as the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, the Community Defense Forces, and the Local Defense Initiative. HRW (and others) fear that the ALP may formalize illegal militias, entrench the power of warlords and local strongmen, deepen impunity, increase the risk of insurgent attacks on communities, and enflame inter-tribal tensions. Second, the report documents specific abuses suffered at the hands of the ALP, including killings, illegal detention, stealing, extortion, beating and torture, (as well as criminal and Taliban infiltration), which have gone unpunished. Third, the report examines a range of organizational shortcomings of the ALP that permit such abuses to occur without punishment, including weak command and control, impunity for harms inflicted on community, inadequate vetting of new recruits, inadequate training, lack of oversight, and vaguely defined official powers.

HRW is not the first to raise such concerns. Refugees International (RI) recently reported: “Internally Displaced People (IDPs), government officials, security analysts and humanitarian actors told RI that the expansion of poorly vetted, ill-trained and unsupervised ALP units and irregular militias are a major threat to civilians and stability. These armed groups have allegedly committed abuses including murder, theft, extortion, bribery and intimidation.” A joint report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission on civilian protection raises similar issues.

The HRW report has significant implications for an emerging direction of SSR in areas of limited statehood: the possibility of empowering non-state actors to provide security and justice in areas where formal state institutions cannot (see, for example, the work of Bruce Baker and Eric Scheye). The ALP represents one such experiment in local security solutions. It responds to a grave dilemma of security in Afghanistan: while all communities would ideally enjoy the direct, effective, accountable and responsive services of the state police, the ANP does not have the capacity to protect the entire territory of Afghanistan and is hardly free from abuses such as those committed by the ALP (though in theory it has better accountability mechanisms). In these conditions, are local initiatives better than nothing, or is there another option?

The HRW report does not (and should not) answer this question, though it stops short of recommending that the ALP be immediately dismantled and instead advocates strengthening its accountability, training, oversight and vetting, as well as investigation of alleged abuses. Similarly, the specific example of the ALP alone permits no definitive conclusions about the feasibility of incorporating non-state actors in SSR. Importantly, HRW (and others) also note that many communities have a positive view of the ALP and many districts have requested ALP units. The ALP may, however, be better understood as an example of how the imperatives of counter-insurgency (COIN) can doom a non-state SSR strategy from the outset.

Indeed, the ALP is a better example of COIN than SSR, or more specifically of how the imperatives of COIN can undermine efforts to construct responsive security architecture. In practice, its primary purpose appears to be fighting and deterring insurgents rather than serving communities. The HRW report suggests that ALP members are (weakly) accountable to US Special Forces and Afghan government authorities who are primarily concerned with their efficacy in the counterinsurgency campaign rather than their responsiveness to the needs of the communities they purportedly serve. Clearly, strong mechanisms are needed to build this channel of accountability, for the sake of Both SSR and the ‘hearts and minds’ pillar of COIN.

The creation and mobilization of paramilitary forces is a central part of the counterinsurgency doctrine of many countries, including the United States. But history is replete with examples of how such measures have damaging long-term consequences that complicate SSR and other development initiatives. In Colombia, for example, the military collaborated with self-defense groups in its campaign against left-wing guerillas. These paramilitaries committed some of the most heinous atrocities of the conflict and persist even after their formal demobilization in 2005 as organized crime groups known to terrorize political opponents and human rights activists (indeed, Colombia’s former head of intelligence, Jorge Noguera, was just sentenced to 25 years in prison for colluding with paramilitary death squads). Similar problems remain as a legacy of Guatemala’s Civil Defense Patrols.

For a more systematic assessment of the ways in which COIN impedes the SSR process in Afghanistan, watch out for a forthcoming article by Gen. (ret.) Andrew MacKay, Mark Sedra and Geoff Burt in the Journal of Security Sector Management.

As a sidenote, the HRW report states: “In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2011, Gen. David Petraeus called the ALP “arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself.” (p. 5). Although several sources have used this quote in a similar manner, Gen. Petraeus was actually speaking about international assistance to the development of the Afghan National Security Forces in general, and not specifically about the ALP (see page 6 of his testimony).

Michael Lawrence is a Research Officer from the SSR Resource Centre at the Centre for International Governance Innovation