Militia ties undercut security steps in Afghanistan

Col. Shir Shah, the Dand district chief of police, in his office during a meeting with a Coalition soldier about ways to improve his police force. Shir Shah is struggling to maintain authority after a deal brokered by coalition forces integrated the militias of two powerful strongmen into his force.


By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 28, 2010

DAND, Afghanistan -- Coalition forces have put the militias of two prominent warlords into Afghan police uniforms and on the official payroll, but the men still do the bidding of their militia bosses, creating a sanctioned power structure outside the legitimate government.

As a result, those warlords essentially have their own Afghan National Police fiefdoms in Dand, a district in Kandahar province, undercutting both the coalition’s stated goal of connecting the people to the government and the progress made by the local police chief.

The U.S. military says rolling the militiamen into the ANP was a baby step toward legitimizing forces that roamed a big swath of the district.

The largely symbolic move, though, is emblematic of just how much rightful leaders are undermined by behind-the-scenes operators in Kandahar.

The militiamen largely disregard the chief of police.

He can’t fire them, assign their leadership or even order them to move to a different checkpoint.

The men still fall in line behind their old militia bosses, who call the shots for two-thirds of the district.

The police chief “is getting pushed around by a lot of people more powerful than him,” said Maj. Ned Ash, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 71st Cavalry Regiment, which operates in Dand.

Dand is the home turf of two of Afghanistan’s mightiest figures — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, and Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Kandahar and now governor of Nangahar province, which is on the other side of the country.

Both have far-reaching influence across the Pashtun south.

Coalition forces brokered a deal with Sherzai and Karzai last summer.

Their roving militias, which held sway over their old neighborhoods and answered only to them, were impeding the establishment of the fledging ANP as the local security force and wouldn’t be tolerated.

The warlords were told “You can get with the program or we’re going to be bumping into each other,” said Canadian Capt. Ken McClure, who is a Civil-Military Cooperation officer assigned to 1-71.

Karzai and Sherzai agreed to send their militiamen to the ANP academy to be trained as part of the legitimate police force, and coalition officials feel that as the government progresses the militiamen will truly come into the fold. For now, the militias get away with only the appearance of ceding control.

“There’s a certain amount of wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” McClure said.

Still, the military counts it as progress, a step toward establishing law within the local government.

“We forced a symbolic gesture from the guys who were seen as counter to the government,” said Lt. Col. John Paganini, the commander of 1st Battalion, 71st Cavalry Regiment.

Among residents, the result is police patrolling the neighborhood and engaging the citizens — exactly the kind of security the military wants to see. The goal across Afghanistan is to have the Afghan National Army end its role as the dominant security forces on the local level and leave that to the police.

The Dand militiamen are “professional enough,” said Canadian Capt. Chris Cyr, who is with the Canadian unit that mentors the Afghan police. “They’re not extorting money or beating people.”

And as to whether the militiamen are following the chain of command, he said, “if they’re looking after the people in their area, then who cares?”

Sherzai and Karzai are like the mafia, according to Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote that the men “control economic and political favors throughout” Kandahar and “are far more powerful than the offices of the provincial governor and the mayor of Kandahar, both of whom are appointed by the president,” he wrote.

As such, the district police chief doesn’t stand a chance. He commands the loyalty of only a third of the police force, consolidated at four of 13 police substations around the district. Sherzai and Karzai control the rest.

“It’s the biggest security challenge in Dand,” Ash said.

Reforms, then the deal

When the chief, Col. Shir Shah, arrived 16 months ago, he took bold steps. He found himself in charge of an opium den, not a police station, so he cleaned house.

“[On a scale of] 10 to zero, they were a zero,” Shir Shah said.

Starting from scratch, Shir Shah sought out candidates “with a strong dignity,” he said.

He has been unable to assert that kind of sweeping reform since the inclusion of the militias.

When he tries, he is warned to back off. The militiamen “work for the chief of police as long as the chief of police doesn’t tell them anything that makes them sad,” Ash said.

But Shir Shah is stuck with them. Any attempts to fire the men are met with blatant intimidation. Shir Shah is left hampered in his ability to groom the young police force into a well-trained, trusted organization.

Shir Shah can’t assign a good sergeant to Sherzai’s men, for example, because he knows they won’t follow the orders of someone outside their militia framework, Cyr said. Sherzai’s former “general” is now officially a sergeant in the ANP, but he uses that rank only when he is at the district center in formal police meetings. Among his men, he is still addressed as “general.”

The chief can’t distribute the force as he sees fit throughout the district. There are men manning a police checkpoint who Shir Shah has ordered to move, but they’ve ignored him.

The military isn’t sure if they are simply waiting for the order to move to be approved by Sherzai or “if they’ve been told not to,” Paganini said.

There is also a battle over resources. Shir Shah is at the mercy of the provincial and national government to get equipment to the policemen who are loyal to him. The official process is slow and underfunded. Sherzai and Karzai, however, pump their own money into their hometowns, keeping their guys — and only their guys — well-equipped.

Shir Shah said he doesn’t want to have to put aside his proper duties to kowtow to tribal chest thumping — something endorsed by the district governor, who is willing to play those games, including interfering with criminal cases on behalf of tribal kin.

“Unfortunately, in this province, tribe is No. 1,” Shir Shah said, shaking his head about how his authority is ignored.

He has a reputation as being fair and trustworthy among the people and is viewed by the coalition as a one of the good guys. Villagers go to Shir Shah as an authority on the law, asking him to settle problems with land, divorce and other issues. The powerbrokers in Dand will try to influence the outcome by intimidating Shir Shah into deciding the case a certain way.

Shir Shah “is an honest broker,” Cyr said. “He’ll send them to someone else if he can’t do the right thing because of pressure.”

The chief is getting worn down by the political maneuvering that he’s not willing — and not connected enough — to do himself.

“Sometimes, I am disappointed,” Shir Shah said. “I came here to help, and these people don’t follow my leadership.”


Col. Shir Shah, the Dand district chief of police, in his office during a meeting with a coalition soldier about ways to improve his police force. Shir Shah is struggling to maintain authority after a deal brokered by coalition forces integrated the militias of two powerful strongmen into his force.