Afghanistan needs military leadership

If materialized, the creation of large-scale militias could plunge the country back into civil war, undo achievements in establishing conventional national forces, and divide the country into several fiefdoms controlled by militia commanders.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, the current first vice president; Mohammad Mohaqiq, the deputy chief executive; and Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balk province are some of the major politicians who have been publicly vouching for the rearmament of their loyalists.

Reports from some northern regions have already indicated that former factional commanders, widely known as “warlords” who were involved in the devastating civil war of the 1990s, were recruiting and rearming their fighters.

The move is ostensibly prompted by Taliban insurgents’ brazen attacks in the northern provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz and Faryab, where militants briefly overran districts and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) posts. The Taliban have recently also carried out attacks in other parts of the north, including Baghlan and Balkh provinces.

There are legitimate concerns about the growing attacks and influence of the Taliban in the northern regions, and they must be dealt with through military might. However, these threats must be tackled by national security forces, not through any disproportionate and dramatic measures that could-undoubtedly-become unproductive in the long run.

Afghan national forces

There are currently more than 320,000 Afghan national police and army personnel-with a targeted peak level of 352,000 by the end of this year-including thousands of elite commando forces.

Additionally, there are more than 12,000 troops from the US and other NATO countries, as well as thousands of Afghan intelligence officers that are actively engaged in anti-insurgency operations.

These combined Afghan and foreign forces are tasked to rein-in Taliban insurgents, who are widely believed to number between 20,000 and 30,000, scattered across remote districts and villages of the country.

Despite bleak pessimism by Afghan and western military experts about the ability of Afghan national forces to independently defend the country after the end of the NATO-led combat mission in 2014, Afghan uniformed men and women have proven to be a strong force.

They have not only held their grounds, they have also retaken new areas which were under Taliban control in the past years when more than 150,000 foreign troops were stationed in the country.

Arming militias just as Afghan forces are demonstrating professionalism and bravery in the battlefield is disrespectful to their service and it would unwittingly hurt their confidence.

While Afghan national forces have improved, it is also true that the Taliban have carried out large-scale attacks in the country, reportedly resulting in 4,100 deaths and 7,800 injuries among Afghan forces last year.

The toll is much higher than last year, when 5,000 deaths was the worst casulaty rate for national forces since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The Taliban’s increased militancy, particularly in the northern region that is not part of its traditional area of influence, is not aimed at gaining a greater foothold.  

This is, in part, because the Taliban realize that they would not be able to hold ground for long in the face of empowered Afghan forces and US-led air power. Rather, it is widely believed that the Taliban intend to use their military power as a bargaining chip during ongoing negotiations with the Afghan government in order to gain more shares in any political settlement.

Creating local militia forces, or as Western and Afghan officials would rather put it a “citizen-uprising”, is nothing new in Afghanistan. Forces based on the political calculations of a few leaders would be more dangerous as they could act independently of the national security forces and could undermine the authority of central government.

Having seen the success of a Sunni militia uprising against Al-Qaeda militants in Iraq in 2005, the US military leadership prescribed the establishment of Afghan Local Police forces as a remedy for Afghanistan in 2009. Many Afghans including former President Hamid Karzai had initially opposed the decision.

Today, there are around 30,000 men serving as Afghan Local Police (ALP) based in hundreds of communities in 29 of 34 provinces.

The ALPs, essentially, are local villagers who protect their areas and report to the ministry of interior. While in some areas the ALPs managed to kick out Taliban from their areas, they have become the source of instability and extortion in many others.
International Crisis Group, in its report last June, had said that that the ALP “has not improved security in many places and even exacerbated the conflict in a number of districts.” The report said that the ALP forces have killed civilians and committed fraud, theft, rape, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and extortion.

Additionally, there is no guarantee that the ALPs would continue supporting the central government, particularly when Western countries decrease their financial support for the government.

ALP’s role models, Iraqi Sunni units who initially defeated Al-Qaeda in their areas, stopped supporting the Baghdad regime after the government broke its promise to integrate 90,000 fighters and provide them with jobs.
Some of the Sunni fighters later joined Islamic State militants, while others watched as villages in the region fell to ISIS fighters like dominoes.

The arming of old militias that fought in the country’s civil-war would unintentionally force their old foes to either buys guns for their own protection, as has been reported in Kunduz province, or join the insurgents.

One thing is clear: the militias would damage the recently improved national unity of the country as forces deployed in these units tend to come from one specific ethnic group.

When 16 to 30 ALP forces were killed by alleged Taliban fighters in Jalrez district in Wardak province in June, Hazara political leaders claimed that the government did not send reinforcement because of the ethnic background of the deceased.

While it is difficult to prove what really happened during that attack, the incident was a blow to country’s national unity as many anti-ethnic slurs filled the Afghan media and social media platforms in the days that followed.

Civil-military relations

Dostum, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s vice president and his main political ally during last year’s elections, wields massive influence in the northern region.

So do Noor and Mohaqiq, who are top political allies to Ghani’s partner in the unity government, Abdullah Abdullah. Noor and Mohaqiq have criticized the central government for failing to stop the Taliban in northern regions and describe their alliance with Dostum as a last resort to protect their constituencies.

Their opponents, however, accused the trio of trying to exploit the current situation and increase their power by rearming their former fighters, most of whom were disarmed during the post-Taliban Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration.

Whether the decision stems from the alleged thirst for military power or genuine concerns about the spread of insurgency in the northern region, it is not the job of political leaders to act like lance corporals.

In order to consolidate democracy, it is necessary for any government to apply the sort of Civil-Military Relations in which political leaders provide guidance but do not, themselves, engage in military affairs, and in which soldiers are obedient to civilian leadership and avoid playing politics.

Acting as democratic leaders, Afghan politicians-especially those with previous military experience-should provide advice to the national forces rather than attempting to create parallel forces that are a proven recipe for more disaster.

If there is one thing the Afghan forces, who have paid the heaviest sacrifice in the war against the Taliban and foreign terrorists, urgently need it is a clear strategy and a united military leadership. Nearly 18 months since the creation of the unity government, the country still does not have a defence minister.

Political rivalries between the two blocs that formed the current government have pushed parliament to reject two candidates, while a third withdrew his bet under heavy political pressure.

The recent trips by Ghani and Abdullah to military bases of Afghan security forces around the country or their visits to injured forces in hospitals are unprecedented and encouraging.

Other politicians, including Dostum and Governor Noor, have met and rewarded officers in recent weeks. Afghan leaders need to unite behind their forces if they want their rule to continue and stop confusing soldiers on the front lines with their politicking.

As a first step they must agree on appointment of a new defence minister so that the Afghan forces have a clear military leadership.

The rapidly created militia units have confused the regular forces in most areas, where the ALPs roam around with the same traditional outfits as the Taliban. Most Afghans, with bitter memories from the civil war, oppose the creation of private militias.
The Afghan government must not outsource its task of defending the country to militia groups, but instead demobilize all ALP units and other militia forces and enlist young Afghans who want to protect their area under the banner of the regular national forces.