Plan to convert Taliban, create defense force has promise and peril
Making new friends in Afghanistan
By MICHAEL GISICK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 29, 2010
SHAHABUDDIN, Afghanistan — For the last few years, the 30 or so men camped along a stream in this idyllic village of walled orchards lived as armed bands here have lived for decades, if not centuries.
They roamed and robbed and raided. They collected “taxes” for protection, and kidnapped for ransom. Occasionally, NATO and local security officials say, they picked up the banner of insurgency and attacked Western troops or the Afghan police or army.
But fortune being fickle as the rains, this band of lonesome and rather quarrelsome fighters now finds itself as a key test case of a critical new pillar of U.S. strategy. They are part of an ambitious plan to bring wavering insurgents into the fold while establishing village defense forces to fill the gaps between thinly stretched NATO and Afghan forces.
On the surface, the plan resembles what the U.S. attempted with the Sons of Iraq, groups of former insurgents who allied with the U.S. during the surge in 2007, an approach widely credited with turning around the Iraq war.
Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge strategy in Iraq, has pushed the initiative hard since taking command in Afghanistan in July, despite hesitancy among Afghan officials who worry the groups will prove impossible to control.
“He believes it’s a potential game-changer,” said U.S. Army Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, a staff officer at ISAF headquarters in Kabul who oversaw the Sons of Iraq program during 2008 and has a similar role in Afghanistan. “So do I.”
U.S. troops working with the test group in Shahabuddin — a village in Baghlan province that has been a safe haven for the Taliban as insurgents have moved north over the past two years — also see the promise. They view the fighters as intimately familiar with the area’s insurgency and generally more motivated than the Afghan police.
But they also see the risks.
“What I get from them, it’s [comparable] to heading to Compton and hiring a gang to help you out,” said Spc. Chad Cunningham, a squad leader with Company B, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, referring to the Los Angeles neighborhood synonymous with gangsta rap. “My personal opinion, I’m not sure about them yet. They’re definitely motivated. Whether it’s for the good of their country or for personal reasons, I don’t know.”
Gen. Abdur Rahim Rahimi, the province’s police chief, offered a similar assessment.
“We know the Taliban have weapons in their hands and are bad people,” he said. “Maybe we need to have the same kind of people fighting against them.”
Handle with care
In an interview last month, Petraeus said the task of arming local groups must be done carefully, given Afghanistan’s recent history. Many Afghans view the years preceding the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, when the country was picked over by warring bands of guerrilla fighters, as the darkest chapter in a bleak half-century. And U.S. support for unaccountable local warlords in the years after the 2001 invasion is often cited as contributing to the Taliban’s resurgence.
“That’s why there was such a healthy debate within the Afghan cabinet, to ensure that this is very carefully controlled,” Petraeus said. The groups, he added, “must be properly vetted to mitigate against legitimizing warlord militias.”
On paper, the initiative taking form in Baghlan combines two programs agreed to in recent weeks by the Afghan government after months of prodding from the international community.
One, the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Program, offers education and job training to insurgents who lay down their arms, while rewarding villages that take them back with promises of development projects such as schools and wells.
The other, the Afghan Local Police, calls for enrolling 10,000 villagers in what U.S. officials liken to neighborhood watch groups. Members of the groups will be paid 60 percent of the salary of Afghan police officers, or roughly $100 a month, and will be issued light weapons and trucks and given three weeks of training. American commanders believe the village forces will quickly grow beyond the initial 10,000 men.
But plans in Kabul have not kept up with events on the ground, and the group in Baghlan exists somewhere between the two programs. Though local officials approved the Baghlan group because of a pressing need to bolster security, the local police program is not primarily intended for former insurgents. And while it’s possible the fighters in Shahabuddin will transition into the local police if all goes well, that’s not entirely clear either.
“It’s definitely a case where we are learning to fly the plane while it is in the air, so there are a lot of things that could go wrong.” said Swedish Army Maj. Mats Afzelius, the chief of reintegration programs for NATO’s Regional Command-North.
“The APRP is not about weapons or providing a security force,” he added. “It’s about breaking the cycle of violence and giving people a chance to have something else to do, [other] than fighting.”
U.S. officials, including Petraeus, have cited growing signs of interest among some insurgent groups in ending the fight, which they attribute to increased military pressure brought by this year’s troop surge.
But in Baghlan, it was not pressure from NATO or Afghan government troops that prompted the group of former Hezb-i-Islami fighters to quit. Rather, local officials say, it was pressure from Taliban who had moved into the province.
That pressure has continued despite the group’s new alliance. A teenage suicide bomber killed three of the men and injured another in early September.
“The Taliban fought them and the Taliban kicked them out of Shahabuddin,” Rahimi said. “So the Taliban is going to continue fighting them.”
Try, try again
While it remains to be seen how appealing the reconciliation program will be, the program follows similar efforts that have met with little success.
An Afghan government-led reintegration program, known as Peace Through Strength, has often failed to deliver on promised benefits to insurgents who lay down their arms, and it all but collapsed this year.
The program “lost the confidence of the international community because of a lack of transparency and a lack of follow-up in terms of recidivism,” Kulmayer said.
Efforts to set up local militias have also largely failed to catch on. In Baghlan and neighboring Kunduz province, a network of ad hoc defense forces known as arbakai have been trained by U.S. Special Forces over the past two years. But many of the groups have since melted away and others have turned to fighting each other.
Moen Marastial, a member of parliament from Kunduz, said the groups have had a “definitely negative effect.”
“There is a history of arbakai in the South, but it doesn’t work in the North because there is no one tribe or one ethnic group,” Marastial said. “If one ethnic group receives arms they are going to turn them on another ethnic group, which is exactly what is happening.”
U.S. commanders say fighting between the groups has been rare but acknowledge isolated issues.
Despite all that, U.S. officials say the new initiative is fundamentally different from past efforts.
“In the past, what we saw were typically local initiatives,” Petraeus said. “There has never before been a formal Afghan structure in place to legitimize those efforts or formal resources in place to sustain them.”
The government lags
The opening weeks for the first group in Shahabuddin, however, suggest that the central role of the Afghan government may be overstated and problematic.
Though U.S. and German patrols made the 90-minute trip along dirt roads to the village almost daily to check on the fighters, the Afghan police usually sent only a token presence, typically a single pick-up truck and a handful of officers.
Police Lt. Col. Mohammid Asim Mangal, a district commander, said he lacked the manpower to oversee a significant number of village fighters. “We agreed to a small number, but not to a lot. If they send a lot more of them, we won’t be able to control them,” he said.
Like other security officials, Mangal was ambivalent about the larger goal.
“We don’t really need this militia,” he said. “The government needs to build the ANA and ANP instead of giving weapons to uneducated people who don’t know the rules.”
A night operation involving a platoon of U.S. troops and the Shahabuddin fighters in late August further strained the support of local officials. Though the Americans intended the patrol as part of an effort to build mutual confidence, the fighters used it as an opportunity to raid a house where they said a Taliban commander lived.
With barely a word to the U.S. troops, the fighters pushed their way into the house and began shooting into the ceiling — they later explained that they were trying to calm the screaming women and children inside.
The raid netted three men whom U.S. and Afghan officials described as Taliban, including a local commander. But local officials said a 10-year-old boy was killed when the Americans opened fire on a figure they saw moving on the roof with a gun.
That prompted a riot in a neighboring town — with several hundred residents burning tires in the street — and a sharp rebuke from the provincial governor and other officials who blamed the U.S. for acting rashly and giving the militiamen too long a leash.
“This boy was completely innocent,” Rahimi, the police chief, said. “Whatever his father did, he should not have had to pay for that.”
Two days after the raid, the NATO command in northern Afghanistan issued new guidance to troops saying the reconciliation groups were not authorized to carry out night raids, couldn’t search houses and could not make arrests.
But while local officials backed off their criticisms, the episode raised troubling questions about the depth of support for the program among the local officials tasked with seeing it through.
“That’s going to be the key,” said 1st Lt. Bryan Cercy, a platoon leader who has worked closely with the group in Shahabuddin. “These guys are always going to go to the highest bidder. If the government can always be the highest bidder, then they’ll be OK. But if the government fails to pay them and support them, then what’s going to stop them from going back to the insurgency?”