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In Afghan North, US-Backed Militias Spur Local Backlash

  • Bethany Matta

In an effort to counter a growing insurgency in northern Afghanistan, two U.S.-backed programs in Kunduz have recruited local militias to oppose Taliban militants in the area. But while the militias are better at fighting the Taliban on the battlefield, their methods turn local populations against them.

"I’m a farmer and work daily as a laborer," said one man in Kunduz who left his village for 11 months to herd sheep and make money in nearby provinces. "My mom, my two brothers and even my sister are disabled and my dad passed away last year. It’s only me to support the whole family.”

The farmer, who does not want to use his name, returned to his village recently. But the U.S.-backed security forces that the local residents call Arbakai were suspicious of his long absence. He says the commander demanded he sell half his land to pay them off, but he refused.

“A few days ago he arrested me again," he said. "He brought me to his camp, tied my hands and tortured me. Then he released his dog on me. The dog attacked me and bit my knee. He pushed me to the wall, my whole face was bleeding. “

Similar stories have become more common in Kunduz and neighboring provinces, where two U.S.-funded programs - the ALP, or, Afghan Local Police and CIP, or, Critical Infrastructure Program - recruit local militias to provide security for districts with a shortage of police officers.

Recruiting armed local residents for security has advantages: they are more effective at weeding out insurgents because they are from the area; and so they know the land and the residents.

In exchange for keeping the Taliban out, the militias are trained by U.S. special forces for a few weeks. The milita members are also provided with weapons and a salary of $150 a month.

Nibikichi is a CIP commander who oversees some 220 fighters known as Arbakai in the Qala-i-zal district. Some accuse him of widespread abuses including torture, unlawful imprisonment and imposing illegal taxes. He denies the allegations.

“If someone is complaining about me, he has to come and prove my guilt in front of the elders," he said. "If I am guilty, then the elders can hang me. Otherwise, if they are lying, the government should ask them to do the same.”

The militias now outnumber Afghan National Police in most districts by five to one, in some places the ratio is said to be even higher.

But as their numbers have grown, so have the abuses that government officials, political analysts and human rights groups had warned against.

“Originally people were in favor of the policy; they were protecting the area from the Taliban, but in the last few years there is no Taliban activity in the village," said Mirza Ali Tanai, a tribal elder from Kanam Village. "Because the Arbakai have abused the people so much and the government is not doing anything about it, the people now people now support the Taliban. It’s a threat to the government.”

Hayatullah Amiri, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission in Kunduz, says six cases of torture and murder have been referred to his office this year. But the overlapping security forces in the region make it difficult to prosecute those responsible.

NATO forces in Afghanistan largely agree. A spokesman said that people often confuse the Afghan local police for Arbakai. Nevertheless, he says the local police program has improved security in Kunduz. When abuses are reported, Afghan national police are required to investigate.

But far from Kabul, villagers say the local militias hold all of the power. The Kunduz laborer, like many others interviewed in the area, said they are scared and cannot complain or they will be arrested and tortured all over again. They say they will leave the area if they have to, or join the Taliban and fight back.