On top of a ridge near Forward Operation Base Lane, Zabul Province, Afghanistan (wikimedia)

The U.S. and Other Warlords

Long before the Afghan government announced (Oct 16, 2015) plans to expand and “nationalize” its Afghan Local Police (ALP) and militia network and, virtually the same day, President Obama called off the U.S. troop pullout, Afghanistan was facing a fierce Taliban offensive in a wide swath of its northern provinces. There was no indication that either decision was connected to the other. But the Obama administration and is National Security Council (NSC) had to be aware that President Ghani would call on key warlords and countless others, for military assistance, and that forming additional ALPs would be extremely risky and probably even counterproductive. The Ghani decisions also contradicted previous assurances from Afghan officials that security forces were holding their own against the Taliban. In a sense Obama’s announcement merely confirmed that conclusion. The Kunduz capitulation pounded a final nail into the proverbial coffin.

By yielding security control to irregular forces, Afghanistan was turning back the clock to the 1990s when feuding militia commanders created chaos and a bloody civil war. Some of the commanders, “strong men” otherwise known as warlords, now hold senior government positions and will guide the Afghan’s mobilization and rearming of militias: Hajji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a former militia commander and now the country’s deputy chief executive; vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum; and the governor of Balkh Province, Atta Muhammad Noor. As has happened in Afghanistan’s past, and actually never stopped happening for decades, local “strongmen” will form rival militias, now funded by the central government.

Reflecting diminished confidence in the Afghan Army and police forces, in theory creation of nationalized police and militia forces will replace a patchwork of militias around the country, provide better training, and much more accountability to the national government. Whereas in the 1990s northern provinces were the heart of anti-Taliban resistance, in the recent past the Afghan Army has been losing ground to the Taliban that seem determined to carve out territory in the mountainous north. The collapse of Kunduz, a city in the north near the border with Tajikistan, spurred the government to adopt its plan, which involved a complete about face on dismantling local militias.

Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, said he was skeptical of any plan that involved paying warlords to deploy their men. “I think if they’re looking for people that have volunteered to protect their villages, you know, that’s one thing,” he said. But if the government’s plan involved “going to a warlord and saying, ‘I need to take you, and pay you and move you, and go do something here,’ that’s a completely different thing,” he said. General Campbell himself did not have a better solution that he was prepared to discuss. For Afghan’s leadership, relying on militias for self-defense clearly is a last resort. A little known fact, that Gen. Campbell certainly knows and that contradicts his comments, warlords and their militias have been key U.S. allies in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda: warlords operate some of the largest U.S. and NATO contractor security forces in Afghanistan. There are more than 200 warlords and their militias in Afghanistan which is one of the country’s best kept secrets.