Small Wars Journal

Favoring Warlords: Afghan Local Police

Fri, 05/18/2012 - 5:49am


Assuring security in Afghan local communities has been one of the top priorities of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan. To achieve this goal, the US-led coalition forces have launched several local defence programs aiming to stabilize unsecure communities. Following to the unsuccessful paramilitarisation efforts under the names of Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP) in 2006 and Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3) in 2008, the United States Special Operation Forces (USSOF) has began to conduct Village Stability Operation (VSO), a bottom-up approach that seeks to involve community inhabitants in enhancing security and local governance. As a result, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, one of the core pillars of VSO, have been initiated by USSOF and officially endorsed by the Karzai government in mid-August, 2010. One of the severe consequences of such short term initiatives has been a less developed and less reformed security sector, including its weak ANA and ANP pillars, in more than a decade of multi-donor intervention in Afghanistan.

In Theory

The ALP is designed to arm a limited number of Afghan villagers to protect their communities from the Taliban and other anti-government elements. ALP militias are being deployed in villages where Afghan National Police (ANP) do not operate. Each ALP unit contains approximately 30 militiamen that are supposed to be selected from their own villages through the community councils led by local elders. ALP members are responsible to supply their own weapons (AK47s); however, these weapons must be registered with the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI). At the time of writing, the Chief Commander of Afghan Local Police at MoI has confirmed validity of 13,000 ALP/militias across the country. It is expected that this figure will be increased up to 30,000 in next 2-5 years. However, Zoe Leffler, EU’s Attaché for Justice, Rule of Law and policing in Afghanistan, in an interview with the author talked about “rumours of increasing ALP up to 50,000 by the end of 2014, however, this report is not confirmed by any American official.”

In Practice

The ALP program that looks charming in theory has faced a number of long-term threatening challenges in practice. Contrary to expectations, ALP members have used their guns and US Special Operation Forces (USSOF) patronage to engage in human rights abuses such as rape, arbitrary detentions, forcible land grabs, and other criminal acts, just to name a few of them. (HRW Report, Sept 2011). In addition, this initiative has technically undermined other pillars of Security Sector Reform (SSR, especially police reform, in Afghanistan. At the policy level it caused frustration for most of the European allies, particularly for the police reform leader, Germany. Mr. Micha Ramakers from a EU delegation that serves as a hub streamlining EU’s Interventions in Afghanistan including EU’s Afghan Police Mission, expressed his concern in an interview with author, asserting that “paramilitarisation programmes such as ALP and its precedents have highly blurred the line between civilian and military aspects of the police. Such interventions have led ANP to fight insurgents at the frontline.”

Moreover, the other aspect of the game sounds to be more dangerous than it looks to some intransigent security strategists in Afghanistan. A senior Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) official in north of the country, who preferred to be anonymous, explicitly explained how he is shocked witnessing warlords’ loyalists being recruited to the ALP. He further explained the scenario detailing that “strongmen and warlords’ illegal militias are deliberately naming themselves as anti-government elements to the APRP program to be considered as reintegrees. This tactical move, guided by their warlord patrons, firstly qualifies them to receive APRP incentives and secondly increases their chances to be recruited at ALP units. However, such kind of recruitment strongly contradicts ALP recruiting procedures.” The informant added, “once the militias, loyal to local strongmen, legitimised themselves through the APRP channel, they are recruited as ALP and sent back to their villages based on political expediencies of their warlord supporters”. According to Gen. Ali Shah Ahmadzai, Chief of ALP at MoI, a normal ALP member receives a totally monthly salary of 9,200 Afs, however, monthly wage of an ALP team leader is up to 13,500 Afs.

From another perspective, some sources at Afghanistan High Peace Council (AHP) confirm presence of yet another type of paramilitary unit, Community Infrastructure Police (CIP), in Charbolak and Chemtal districts of Balkh province. The CIP neither fits under the structure of ALP nor ANP.

As a result of such short-term and counterproductive interventions, the notorious Afghan warlords are exploiting the weak vetting system of security sector institutions in Afghanistan to secure their political interests. As time passes, it is becoming clearer that manipulation of ALP members is augmenting warlords’ traditional approaches to use the government and international community to secure their personal, political and ideological preferences.

Above all, the main question is: What would happen if the funding flow to this highly donor-driven program is stopped? We must also ask, if ALP’s salaries are banned, what would 30,000 – 50,000 well-armed unemployed men do?

Categories: warlords - VSO - COIN - ALP - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Ramin Shirzay is an Afghan citizen and MA student in post-war recovery studies at the University of York, UK. He holds a BA degree in Political Science and has written a number of articles in Farsi-Dari and English. Shirzay’s Masters thesis focuses on Security Sector Reform in Afghanistan, and he is particularly interested in international policy towards Afghanistan's security sector and governance.

Besides his active participation in several civil-society organizations in Afghanistan, he worked with a number USAID and ECHO-funded programs, aiming to promote good governance and institution-building at Afghan government institutions. He also co-founded a non-governmental organisztion, intended to support civil-society activists in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/19/2012 - 11:49am

To blame 11 years of formal ANSF failure on 2 years of informal ANSF success defies logic.

Why indeed, are western efforts to build a mini-me centralized security force struggling to make progress, while efforts aimed simply at helping Afghans secure themselves in a manner wholly Afghan appear reasonably effective?

This is one of the unique aspects of how US Special Forces approach working with foreign nationals. We don't attempt to make them lesser versions of ourselves; instead we attempt to understand them as they are and to help them be better at being themselves. That may seem a fine point to many, but it is an essential one. Plus, the SF effort is tied to the entire community, and at the end of the day, insurgency is not about the insurgent, it is about the populaces the insurgent represents. VSO cannot fix Afghanistan, I stand by that. But it is, as Bill Moore suggests, perthaps the best thing that our Special Forces can be doing within the parameters of the overall strategy that we are forced to work within.

I fear for the communities that place their trust in VSO though. These people will not have fat bank accounts and viable options for going elsewhere if GIROA continues to pursue its Northern Alliance monopoly and refusal to truly seek reasonable compromise and reconciliation with the other half of Afghan society. Such refusal can only result in renewed conflict once ISAF leaves, and it will be the small and weak who suffer, not those who have profited so highly from the experiment of the past 11 years.

So no, do not cast stones at VSO and what our Special Forces do to attempt to prop this all up from the bottom. Aim your stones much higher, for the flaws of this operation reside at the very top.

ALP is part of the ANSF. It's the lowest echelon of the Afghan National Police which extends from Kabul to the Provinces, Districts, and finally to key villages. The District Chief of Police (DCoP) and District Governor are involved in the individual vetting process and often work closely with SOF to identify key villages. The DCoP is then responsible for the logistic and admin support to sustain the ALP within his District.

In the District I just came from the DCoP viewed the ALP as his police and the ALP saw the DCoP as their boss. ALP Commanders met regularly with him and attended weekly meetings at the District Police Center. In some locations, the DCoP augmented the ALP with some of his Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP). I do not think we can develop a local security force more tied into GIRoA than that.

I don't want to make it sound too much like that perfect combination of peaches and cream because like anything with the ANSF there were some issues. Overall, however, the system worked rather well. It extended security to hard to get to areas which had been firmly under the control of the Taliban by providing an enduring presence of GIRoA backed security forces.

R. Shirzay

Sat, 05/19/2012 - 5:51am

Thank you for the comments.

I belief that generally there is a huge difference between the program design and the results of that during or after implementation in complex fragile states, such as Afghanistan. This means that mostly there is a strong, perhaps sometimes illusive, optimism on the top/policy level concerning the results; however, on the ground there is a shocking concerns…

As for the questions - “.. insurgents/conflict…can be defeated by improvements in Karzai government..?” I would say yes - if not, then who will vet, mentor and make sure that the government institutions in long-term, including security sector, are doing their best to defeat insurgents? I don't think ISAF would do it in long term..

“..are the Afghanistan security forces ready to the lead from ISAF” of course not! But my question is why not? Who established them? Who trained them? Whose financial and human resources were spent in strengthening them? and why in more than 10 years still it is not working? Perhaps because high attentions are paid on other short-term, overlapping and publicly unacceptable initiatives like ALP rather than putting all necessary efforts in strengthening the ANSF…

“I ask the same thing concerning the ANP and ANA with the current problems that Afghan government has paying it's security forces.” – I guess for supporting ANA, ANP and other legitimate pillars of SSR, Karzai government has the financial pledge of all international community in mid/long-term – Now the concerns is that: What would happen if the US congress lets say, don’t approve funding this program....?

My other personal concerns is that if in a far Afghan village, where ANP is not able to stay (one of the reasons why ALP should be there) who will make sure if they are using their authority as expected and legitimately? SOF? To be frank, it looks good in the theory…

“Why do you single out these crimes committed by the ALP when many of the other security forces engage in the same crimes?” – the article doesn’t claim that ALPs are committing crimes and ANA,ANP aren’t. It rather highlights how local opportunists are exploiting from such initiatives…

“The ALP fill a void that the ANP and ANA simply cannot.” I respect the optimism, but I hope you know the complex ethnic fabric in the afghan communities. do you know that in some village a cousin is an ALP member and another is anti-government? Such relationships have led to the situation where ALPs have sold their guns to insurgents and reported back to their SOF fellows that they fought with the Taliban, lost their ammunition and need more...

Anyway, thank you again for sharing your ideas – I will keep my fingers crossed for a strong Afghan-led ANSF that would reject any necessity for establishing any extra paramilitary units...


Sat, 05/19/2012 - 9:45am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M.

Very tactfully put. The article does successfully raise an issue but frustratingly fails to provide any suggestion or alternative. I also find it extremely ironic to use a quote from a German official being critical of the current policies regarding policing...


Thanks for submitting this article. Your short bio points to your experience with USAID and ECHO programs to improve good governance. I'm interested in your informed opinion what should ISAF should focus on? If not the VSO program, what then? Do you think the conflict (I hesitate to call it an insurgency since it involves more than insurgents) can be supressed and ultimately defeated by improvements in Karzai government and economic development? What should the role of the U.S. military and the remainder of ISAF be? Are the Afghanistan security forces ready to the lead from ISAF? If not, why?

Mr. Shirzay,

While I agree with many of the tenets laid out in your article, I do have to voice a few opinions. The final question you pose is "we must also ask, if ALP’s salaries are banned, what would 30,000 – 50,000 well-armed unemployed men do?" In response, I ask the same thing concerning the ANP and ANA with the current problems that Afghan government has paying it's security forces.

Additionally, while I absolutely agree that the violence and law-breaking committed by the ALP is despicable, rumors abound that the ANA and AUP commit these same acts against their own people as well. Why do you single out these crimes committed by the ALP when many of the other security forces engage in the same crimes?

Despite their many shortcomings, I believe an Afghan security force that has a vested interest in the local populace is important to the long-term security of Afghanistan. The ALP fill a void that the ANP and ANA simply cannot.