An Afghan security force which has faced corruption allegations is to be doubled in size as the West embarks on its exit path from the war.
The government militia, say coalition commanders, has proved to be highly effective in combating the insurgency in their own back yard, and needs to be strengthened.
The ranks of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) are to rise from the current 15,000 to 30,000 as international troops begin the drawdown for 2014, a deadline reiterated at this week’s international summit in Chicago. Officials in Kabul, who strongly refute charges of malpractice against the force, hold that the numbers should be further augmented by another 10,000 if necessary.
Crucially the ALP is not included in the total strength for country’s military and police – the subject of an ongoing debate with proposals for the numbers to be cut from 352,000 to 228,000. Senior officers have warned that too hasty a reduction would prove damaging at a difficult time with fledgling Afghan forces taking over control of security throughout the country. Iraq, with a smaller population, they point out, still faces serious violence despite having security forces numbering 670,000.
The lightly armed bands of the ALP, raised to protect their communities, have been engaged in bitter and often bloody clashes with the Taliban in rural areas with a degree of success.
However, there have also been charges that its fighters have been involved in corruption and abuse, with some of the allegations based on reports of US soldiers training the local police units in a Pentagon-funded study.
The ALP was set up by General David Petraeus when he commanded Isaf (the International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. It is partly modelled on militias which turned the tide against the Iraqi insurgency when he was leading Coalition forces in that country. President Hamid Karzai was initially reluctant to authorize raising the levy due to apprehension that the armed men may become ‘private armies’ for regional power brokers, but eventually did so putting it under Ministry of Interior supervision.
Sami Sadaat, a security analyst and former policy analyst in the Ministry of the Interior, warned: “We must be careful of what we are creating.” In some southern parts of the country the local police, he claimed, “are taking the law into their own hands, beating people and taking money. Yes, they helped remove the Taliban. But in a way they replaced them by doing these kinds of things.”
The allegations are disputed by others. Sayed Hotak Naimtullah, a former security adviser to the Karzai government, said: “Yes there have been cases of criminality, but comparatively few considering we are in the middle of a hard war. The fact is the ALP are based around their own villages and they will not last long if they rob their own people.
“There is a case, in fact, for expanding the ALP, we could take between another 8,000 to 10,000 more on top of 30,000. Compared to the army and other police branches they are cheaper and often more productive.”
Lieutenant General Adrian Bradshaw, the British deputy commander of Isaf, said the ALP has “proved to be extremely effective, they have local knowledge and they can defend their communities”. He added: “I recently went to Kunar province where I saw them operate and I was impressed. They are doing well in interdicting, cutting insurgent supply routes. They are armed with AKs [Kalashnikovs] and PKMs [machine guns], and good training is frankly all they need.”
Lt Gen Bradshaw confirmed: “The total strength of the ALP is around 15,000 at the moment. It is due to rise, in time, to 30,000.”
The total strength of the Afghan police and army, excluding the ALP, is due to rise to 352,000 by October. However, some countries who will be providing funding for Karzai's government after 2014, want the total to be reduced to 228,000. This will reduce the total bill for the Afghan military from $6.1 billion a year to $4.2bn.
On average, Afghan soldiers and policemen are paid around $300 a month. Members of the ALP receive a lower salary of about $200 a month, although this may rise to $300 in the future.
Lieutenant Colonel Dino Bossi, commanding officer of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, in charge of police training in Helmand, said: “We maintain a zero-tolerance when it comes to corruption. I am not saying it does not exist, but a lot has been done to tackle it. The fact is that of all the police units the Taliban fear the ALP the most. They are local people, they know who is who, what people are up to, they spot suspicious strangers.”
Brigadier Doug Chalmers, the commander of the UK’s Task Force Helmand, acknowledged that the Afghan police force had an unenviable reputation in the past, but stressed that there has been significant improvements.
“When I came into Nad-e-Ali [a Helmand district] two-and-a-half years ago the police were despised, absolutely hated by local nationals. They weren’t trained, they weren’t well paid so they survived effectively by preying on the local population” he said.
“But it is not the same institution any more. There is now a system in place to check for corruption, senior officers show a great commitment to upholding standards and the population are more confident about the police.”
The type of fighting the ALP is engaged in is often internecine, vicious and, at times, treacherous with insurgent infiltration. In one attack two months ago a member of the police at Paktika, on the Pakistani border, put sleeping drugs in their tea and slaughtered them when they were helpless.
Arif Mohammed Rauf, serving with an ALP unit in Paktika, knew some of those killed. He said: “The Taliban and their Pakistani masters are afraid of us and so they want to kill us, so when we find them we kill them, although sometimes we arrest the terrorists. We know we have to be careful all the time but we have the help of our villagers who know we are there to protect them.
“Is there corruption? Yes we have had some police who take have taken ushur [part of a farmer’s harvest as tax ] because they say it is their right because they are defending the villages. But we have made them pay the farmers money for that because, otherwise, the next time the farmers will help the Taliban. If there are more serious cases then more serious action is taken. We do not want to end up dead because of mistakes made by others.”