A controversial programme by the US and Britain to enlist former Taliban fighters and other armed groups to combat the insurgency in Afghanistan is underway.
Supporters of the “Sons of Shura” hold that they are brave men risking their lives to fight for their community. To others, though, they are a violent private army in the making who will only add to the strife in a violent land.
The force is similar to one organised by General David Petraeus in Iraq and credited with turning the tide of the war in Iraq.
However, as the Pentagon documents released at the weekend highlighted, those militias were also responsible for carrying out atrocities to which the Americans often turned a blind eye.
The “Sons of Iraq”, set up by the Coalition, used Sunni militants who had changed sides to combat al-Qa’ida and other foreign jihadists in what has been considered a successful campaign in curbing terrorist attacks.
At the time there were reports that the group, along with Iraqi government run militias such as the Scorpion Brigade and Special Commandos were responsible for extra-judicial killings and torture. The US military documents leaked at the weekend chart hundreds of cases of “Iraqi on Iraqi” abuse, some echoing the most horrific acts of the secret police under Saddam Hussein’s regime, which the US forces deliberately failed to investigate.
The UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, has called on President Obama to launch an investigation into the cover-up, saying: “There is an obligation to investigate whenever there are credible allegations that torture has occurred.”
American and British commanders have repeatedly stressed that the groups being set up in Afghanistan would be closely monitored and controlled to prevent any human rights abuse. It is claimed that creating the force is essential in paving the way for the withdrawal of international troops from the conflict.The issue, it is believed, was discussed in meetings between David Cameron and Gen Petraeus’s during the the American commander’s recent visit to the UK.
Organising the “irregular” forces was the first major initiative by Gen Petraeus since he took over in Afghanistan. The first batches of the fighters are now being used to guard territories recently retaken from the insurgents and the force is due to expand rapidly in the coming months.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was initially hesitant. However, after 12 days of personal persuasion by Gen Petraeus, the President signed the authorisation for the raising of the force which has the official title of “Afghan Local Police”.
Previous attempts to form government-sponsored militias in Afghanistan had proved problematic with officially licensed fighters accused of using their guns and uniforms to extort money and favours from the local population. One previous venture, called ANAP (Afghan National Auxilliary Police) by British forces in Helmand had to be hastily wound up after bitter complaints from local elders.
But Nato commanders insist that the Afghan Local Police, which is being set up in consultations with village leaders in shuras – public meetings – will not repeat the malpractices of the past.
Major General Nick Carter, the British officer commanding 60,000 Western troops in southern Afghanistan, and who named the new force “Sons of the Shura”, said: “If you can design an ALP answerable to the institutions of the government, which is supported by the elders then they will be a huge source of security.”
Members of the ALP will be used in areas his forces have retaken from insurgents around Kandahar with the first batch deployed in the village of Nargahan. “They will be registered and sworn in, they will get uniforms, each one will be vouched for by three elders,” said Gen Carter. “The district chief of police is to remain in authority.”
But Gen Carter cautioned: “There is a risk if you don’t have the right kind of supervisory role in place. It’s one of those things you want to do slowly and deliberately and use the right principles.”
Gen Petraeus said: “There’s an old saying that ‘all politics is local’, well so are all counterinsurgency operations. It comes down to that village, that valley, that community.” Revealing that the ALP will be positioned in 68 different locations, the General said: “They are essentially community watches with AK-47s. We think these will complement our operations in other areas.”
Some senior officers of Afghan security forces fear that militias would undermine the authority of their own personnel. Col Fazal Ali Shirzaad, the police chief in charge of security in Kandahar City said: “Security should be provided by police and soldiers and we are worried about more men with weapons.
“We have confidence that strong leaders like Gen Carter will ensure that these people are kept under discipline, but we must continue to make sure that people are properly controlled and they come under the command of the police.”
General Sheren Shah Kobadi, a senior Afghan army officer in Helmand, added: “This has to be handled very carefully. It has been tried before and has led to trouble. What we don’t want are tribes turning against each other because some have government money and weapons and some don’t. These weapons must not be used to settle tribal disputes. But, if these conditions are met, I welcome people fighting the Taliban.”
Government militias were organised in the Dand district of Kandahar province as a precursor to the ALP. Mohieddin Ali, one of the commanders, hopes to join the new force. He said “I have had friends, members of my family killed by the dushman (insurgents) and we have killed them and the Pakistanis who come with them. We are from these villages so there is not question of us taking money or food from our neighbours.
“We have no choice but to continue this fight. The foreign troops will go away one day and we will continue to defend our homes. All we need is a little help to fight our enemies.”Reuse content