What Lessons Do We Already Have On “Tribal Militias?

by Joshua Foust on 3/14/2009 · 1 comment

FOB SALERNO, AFGHANISTAN — Here is some neat research:

Tariq, Mohammed Osman (2008). “Tribal Security System (Arbakai) in Southeast Afghanistan,” Crisis States Research Center [PDF]

The issue of raising up tribal militias to do our fighting for us has caused me a great deal of worry. In 2006, for example, the Afghan government thought it needed to try this in the South. Needless to say, few received it well:

Plans to fill the gaps in Afghanistan’s overstretched police force by hiring local men from southern communities may make sense given the insurgent threat, however some commentators believe the move could given members of illegal armed groups a new lease of life… The merest hint that the government might consider reversing four years of intensive efforts to disarm and demobilise unofficial armed groups was bound to set alarm bells ringing. The June 11 announcement of a scheme known as “community police” was immediately picked up by local and international media, and President Hamed Karzai was forced to repeatedly reject suggestions that the plan really meant that tribal militias would be re-formed and re-armed under the guise of the police…

During a visit to Baghlan province in late June, the president said the aim was to task local men with helping ensure security in areas where the ANP is currently unable to do so. He noted that some district forces had less than half of the 100 policemen they would need to do a proper job.

Not only did most of the militias recruited actually defect to the Taliban, less than two years later the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, as it was known, was disbanded. David Axe reported:

“Afghanistan has long struggled with warring tribes and warlords,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert Cone, the top coalition training officer, during a March telephone interview with World Politics Review. “What we saw was that the effect of paying people to support us when we needed them, despite the positive impact over time, also had the effect of arming people who were not necessarily in line with the [Afghan] government.”

Right. So what does Tariq’s paper bring to the table? For starters, he argues, much like Masood Karokhail and Susanne Schmeidl of the Tribal Liasion Office, that outside of an area with an historically strong use of semi-official tribal militias, it is a terrible idea. Secondly, two of his examples show both how it should not be done, and how it could be reasonably controlled. First, the big failure he notes is Tagab District, Kapisa:

Most of these people involved in the establishment of this Arbakai were excombatants related to the jihadist parties and were included because of their political affiliation. According to the respondents and interviewees from the district, it was not a successful system… the security force did not have the backing of a collective decision-making body and of leadership, a Jirga, embedded within the community. Thus the Arbakai lost their impartiality.

[T]he Arbakai system established in the Tagab District of Kapisa Province has the following weaknesses. It was not established using proper procedure, and indeed was implemented through a top-down approach, against the core principles of the Arbakai. It was based on implicit political goals by some local officials and was not embedded in the social fabric of the area, and thus lacked
trust and support. Individuals joined it for financial reasons, not to serve their communities. It was not an impartial system and had no autonomy, and finally there was no history of the use of the Arbakai in the area.

Tariq then tries to argue that the use of Arbakai in Kunar Province in 2004 was a success:

The system in Kunar Province was financed by the government through the Jirga and not through direct payment to the Arbakai members when serving as, for example, militia. The money given by the government was not intended to be used as a salary, but was to cover the expenditures of the Arbakai. The system was influenced by that practiced by the neighbouring tribes of Muhmand, Shinwari and Khogyani. These Arbakai had previously received financial assistance from the government when they were focussing on border protection in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time the Afghan government was concerned with interference from Pakistan. The government handed over a section of state irrigated land for use by the Jirga, from which production profits were to be used to cover Arbakai expenses. The amount of land given ranged from 1,000sqm per small village with one or two Arbakai members to 8,000sqm for bigger groups of Arbakai. This dependence on government handouts can be seen as a weak point for this Arbakai system as it made it vulnerable to the insurgency in Kunar Province. Nevertheless, the system was successful because it was run through its own leadership: the Jirga. It has had some success in maintaining the security of development projects, as well as security on the main roads. As Giplin points out, in such situations the state is just a facilitator and the main security providers are the people (2002). Thus people are more active in these provinces with regard to their own security, compared to those where the state is the main security provider. The state began manipulating security systems from the birth of the Afghan state, from which emerged a deep distrust among the people.

To this I must take extreme exception: in much of Kunar, the “tribal security” is actually arrayed against the government, and against Coalition Forces.

When looking at the current push to build the APPF, or Afghan Public Protection Force, in Wardak, it should be noted that the Afghan government itself is explicitly denying any attempts to create an Arbakai system. Even so, the structure of the APPF seems remarkably similar to those untrustworthy ANAP, and to the Kapisa attempt at an Arbakai. All have been resounding failures. The one time that Arbakai seemed to work they really didn’t since post-2004 Kunar has turned nightmarish, at least along the border with Nuristan where security is most needed.

I still see little reason to think we’re not just still repeating the same old errors of the past.


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

{ 1 comment }

David M March 16, 2009 at 9:56 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/16/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Previous post:

Next post: