He leads a group of men who wear irregular fatigues, let their hair grow below the shoulders, and drive around in white pick-up trucks, looking like the militants they have vowed to fight.
Bilal Bacha is the commander of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in the Achin district in Eastern Afghanistan. The area was once the stronghold of the Islamic State group. While most of it has been cleared, the day Bacha talked to VOA at one of his check posts, fighter planes whirred overhead, dropping multiple bombs in the surrounding mountains and creating mushroom clouds that could be seen from a distance. The fight was obviously not over.
Residents described Bacha and his men to be some of the fiercest fighters against IS militants and for good reason, their families had been among the victims of the IS attacks.
“We've picked up these guns to protect our women and children. We are not doing this for money or for a salary. The $100 or $150 dollars we get per month is nothing. We can earn that doing anything else,” Bacha said while looking out from his check post over the dusty surroundings.
The ALP unit in Achin is part of a project started in 2010 with American money and support from the U.S. Special Operations Forces. The idea was to create, train, and arm local units that could defend their own neighborhoods against the Taliban and other militant groups, particularly in areas where the government’s security presence was weak.
Many resisted the concept at first, including the then-President Hamid Karzai, local units without central government’s authority would resemble the militias of the past that contributed to the vicious civil wars of the 1990s, they reminded. In the end, Karzai accepted the proposal to establish a 10,000 member temporary force that would dissolve or be merged into the more structured Afghan security forces in a few years.
Since then, the ALP’s strength across the country has grown three times, and it operates in 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in one of his reports, described ALP’s strengths as, “Its ability to distinguish local residents from insurgents, a higher level of perceived trustworthiness compared to outside forces, and an intimate knowledge of villages’ vulnerable sites and exit routes.”
ACHIN, AFGHANISTAN - But what is strength in some communities is exactly what is making the ALP controversial in others. Having local roots raised the ALP’s stakes in the security of the area, but it also made it vulnerable to local influences, including those of local powerbrokers who have, in several instances, co-opted the force as local employment schemes for their followers and a tool to assert their control over the population.
An independent group of Kabul based researchers at Afghanistan Analysts Network reported, “Evidence of ALP being imposed on communities, of abusive behavior and of the capture of units by strongmen and tanzims [the old armed factions] ... with political connections between ALP and figures in central government often making control of abusive forces impossible.”
In a September news release, the international rights body Human Rights Watch said, “While these forces have gained some local support as a result of recent reforms, in many localities these forces have been responsible for numerous abuses against civilians, as well as summary executions of captured combatants and other violations of international humanitarian law.”
Afghanistan’s own national body, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, reported that recruitment in the ALP was not always done according to protocol. Criminals, members of illegal armed groups, even the Taliban in some cases, managed to find their way in.
The Afghan government has responded to the criticism by increasing accountability of these local units by its Afghan Local Police Directorate, and the sole funder of the force, the United States, has conditioned future support with reforms in the system.
Despite the reported problems, almost everyone, including the rights groups, seemed to agree that disbanding the forces suddenly was not an option, since it would create a security vacuum that was likely to give a military edge to the Taliban. Which was why many, including the International Crisis Group, had recommended a program of careful reintegration of these men into either the regular Afghan security forces or back into society.
Meanwhile, Bacha’s men regularly watered the new trees they had planted around their check post, hoping to watch them grow and one day enjoy the fruit.