This week, Oxfam and five of its local partners in Afghanistan released a damning report on human rights violations committed by the Afghan police, army and pro-government militias. In ‘No Time to Lose: Promoting the Accountability of the Afghan National Security Forces,’ the NGOs issue especially dire warnings against the proliferation of anti-Taliban militias and paramilitary police forces the Afghan government and its international backers have encouraged and in some cases aided with weapons and money –all while ignoring mounting reports of communities living in fear. The report describes militias being appropriated by local warlords and militiamen kidnapping, killing and sexually assaulting civilians. “Vetting systems allow individuals with appalling histories of human rights abuses to slip through the cracks,” the report states.
Oxfam and its partners are calling on the international community and the Afghan government to immediately suspend the expansion of the paramilitary Afghan Local Police and to terminate so-called local defense initiatives that fall outside the formal military and police structures.
Afghanistan watchers will find plenty to sigh at but nothing surprising in the Oxfam report. The aid and advocacy communities have been sounding the alarm on the militia problem for several years and have been steadfastly, vocally opposed to the expansion of paramilitary forces for just as long.
All the way back in 2004, the International Crisis Group expressed concern over the prospect of an early paramilitary program:
Disarmament and reintegration programs to cut down the many militias around the country are going slowly. The proposed establishment of new Special Forces-led militia units (Afghanistan Guard Forces, AGF) would cut across those programs, providing a disincentive to disarmament and reintegration. There is, moreover, no publicly disclosed plan for the eventual disarmament and demobilisation of the AGF. The hazards in the AGF concept include increasing the authority and armament of militia commanders as well as potential command and control problems.
Five years later, in 2009, Human Rights Watch cautioned that Afghanistan’s threatened presidential election would be used as a pretext to boost the creation of unaccountable militias:
Human Rights Watch said that security concerns in Afghanistan should not be used to justify the hasty creation of another irregular armed militia. The government has initiated a plan to recruit up to 10,000 “community defense forces” in areas where insecurity and insufficient police and army meant polling stations might not open. The Electoral Commission says that only official Afghan security forces and police should provide security at polling stations, but it is not clear that this will be observed.
Ahead of a major international conference on Afghanistan in November of 2010, HRW reiterated:
The use of such poorly trained and monitored forces has in the past raised a range of human rights concerns, including their records of abuses against local communities such as rape, extortion, and theft, as well as the exacerbation of local tribal or ethnic tensions. There have also been operational problems – including weak command and control; ambiguity about rules of engagement; theft or disappearance of weapons; selection problems including infiltration by the Taliban; poor training; corruption; and a high rate of attrition.
At the same time, Oxfam and 29 other international and Afghan organizations stepped up their advocacy against the paramilitary Afghan Local Police program:
The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program is supported primarily by US Special Forces, under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior and with Independent Directorate of Local Governance involvement. Reportedly, each ALP unit is placed under the command of the district Afghan National Police chief. Each individual enrolled in ALP will reportedly receive approximately three weeks of training and a salary from the Ministry of Interior. It is understood that they will be provided with weaponry, though it is not clear what kind.
Initiatives of this kind often result in abuses against civilians. The professionalism and discipline of the forces is highly questionable, given the limited training and oversight. Without a strong system of command and control, there is a danger that these forces will abuse their powers. Given the prevalence of abuses against civilians by the Afghan National Police, it is hard to believe that these groups would be immune from such concerns.
“It’s not too late” for troop-contributing countries to put in place safeguards to protect Afghan civilians from gross human rights abuses as responsibility for securing the country is passed to the Afghan security forces, Oxfam stresses in its latest report.
It might not be too late yet, but it soon will be if policy makers continue to ignore civil society’s warnings about the grave dangers of placing Afghanistan’s future in the hands of gunmen.