by Jennifer Norris
Americans who left the theatre watching “Zero Dark Thirty” thinking that the dark stain of torture is in our past, should be cautioned by our exit strategy in Afghanistan.
As a 2014 deadline for ending our combat mission in Afghanistan approaches, policymakers say that our main objective is to prepare Afghan security forces to fight terrorists so that Al Qaeda will never again establish a safe haven in the country. To that end, U.S. forces have been working with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) to build their capacity to provide for their own security. The ANA and ANP, however, cost the U.S. billions of dollars a year, and there are still swaths of the country that the national army and national police cannot cover.
Faced with an impending withdrawal deadline and tightening budgets, the U.S. created another security entity, the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which is seen as an affordable short-term fix to filling the security vacuum. However, the name Afghan Local Police is a misnomer used to provide legitimacy since members do not have police powers and are essentially village militias armed with AK-47s, hired to fight the Taliban and other anti-governmental elements. Given the ALP’s prominence as a key feature of the U.S. exit strategy, General Petraus described the ALP program as “arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capacity to secure itself.”
Despite some success in achieving security gains, the ALP program has proved to be a high-risk strategy, plagued by problems such as Taliban infiltration and insider attacks. Most notably, the ALP program has been the source of much controversy due to complaints that members have committed human rights abuses against the local population with impunity. President Karzai recently expelled U.S. Special Forces from Wardak province due to allegations that American forces, and the Afghan Local Police they had trained, had tortured and killed Afghan civilians. Much of the media criticism focused on Karzai and his political motivations for making such an announcement. While it is true that Karzai has proven to be an untrustworthy figure, even outrageously accusing the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban, allegations of human rights abuses committed by Afghan partners working with U.S. Special Forces should be taken seriously. President Obama’s commitment to end the war responsibly in Afghanistan should also include a commitment to ensure that the ALP program does not harm Afghans.
ALP units are established in volatile districts where the national army and police have little presence. According to the official directive, ALP members are selected by local shura members and after passing a biometrics test, they receive three weeks of training by U.S. Special Forces. They are paid about 60 percent of a police member’s salary and provided with AK-47s, radios and uniforms, and perform a range of duties from manning checkpoints to providing information about insurgents to security forces. Some 20,000 members are currently employed nation-wide.
The ALP is the brainchild of General Petraus, modeled after the Sons of Iraq (or Awakening Councils), which was a major centerpiece of the Iraq surge and largely credited with defeating the insurgency in Anbar province. The Sons of Iraq (SOIs) were Sunni militias, employed by the U.S. military from 2007 to 2009, and were made up of many former insurgents who became disillusioned with the violence wreaked by Al Qaeda forces on Iraqis. At its height, some 100,000 members were employed by the U.S. The U.S. promised SOI members they would eventually receive jobs within the Iraqi security forces. However, the Shiite-led Iraqi government, suspicious of the Sunni SOIs, remains reluctant to integrate them into the Iraqi military, police, and government or ministries. To date, only a small percentage of SOIs have received government jobs and many are left feeling isolated and disgruntled. The fate of the Sons of Iraq can be instructive to the future of the ALP because a central question is what happens to 30,000 former ALP members who are armed and unemployed once the U.S. can no longer afford to pay their salaries? It is unlikely that ALP members will be absorbed into the Afghan army or national police simply due to a lack of funding. In a public report, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) expressed concern that ALP members are only motivated by economic interests and will turn into an anti-government force after the U.S. withdraws.
There is more reason to be concerned about employing a program of U.S.-backed militias in Afghanistan – a country plagued by more than 30 years of war with a long history of abusive militias or gangs with guns. Many of these militias have left behind a legacy of thuggery. Today, some Afghans have difficulty distinguishing between the ALP program and militias of the past.
Since the ALP program started in 2010, serious accusations have been lodged against ALP members, including rape and murder. In May 2012, an ALP commander in Kunduz province and four of his men abducted an 18 year old girl, chained her to a wall, and repeatedly raped her for a week. The girl’s father said she has threatened to set herself on fire if she does not get justice. Human Rights Watch investigated an incident in Pul-e-Khurmi district in Baghlan province where four armed ALP members abducted a 13-year-old boy and took him to the house of the ALP commander and gang raped him. In February 2011, an ALP unit in Shindand district in Herat province reportedly raided several homes, stole belongings, and beat residents. One boy was also reportedly detained and beaten overnight by the same ALP unit in June 2011 and had nails hammered into his feet. There have also been many complaints of ALP members demanding bribes or “Islamic taxes” from villagers. Community members say that the national police have failed to investigate such incidents.
The ALP program implicates the U.S. Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. military assistance to “foreign military units” if there is credible evidence that such units have committed gross violations of human rights. However, there have been no financial cutbacks to the ALP program under the Leahy Law. In fact, Congress has approved funding to expand the program to a total of 30,000 ALP members by the end of 2014 and the L.A. Times has reported that the Pentagon plans to ask Congress fund the program for another five years.
Despite safeguards to promote Afghan ownership, the ALP is largely viewed as a creation of the U.S. Under the official directive, ALP units should operate under the command and control of the local chief of police. In practice however, the chief of police has little to no control over ALP units, especially since ALP units operate in areas where ANP cannot go. As a result, ALP units operate relatively independently and are perceived to be an apparatus of the U.S. military.
Vetting is a serious concern. Sometimes local strongmen are selected – former Taliban commanders, or warlords who yield influence on shura members. While engaging local shuras is a laudable objective, the truth is that as outsiders, it is difficult for U.S. officials to navigate a highly complex web of histories and tribal loyalties. In Badghis province, a Taliban commander and 20 of his men were recruited into the ALP — the same men who were implicated in stoning a woman to death and a series of beheadings in the past. Both Afghan and U.S. officials have used the ALP program as a way of persuading insurgents to lay down their arms and join the government by promising them jobs with ALP units. Such quick fixes without regard for justice and reconciliation can create tension within these communities, for the regular Afghans who know exactly who the bad guys are and do not wish to see them in positions of power in their own villages.
In the end, any program where militias are trained and paid for by the U.S. government should be carefully reviewed. Congress must be better informed about the program, which is being implemented in America’s name and should ask for detailed plans from the Pentagon on measures taken to improve vetting and accountability over the ALP program. While some Pentagon officials defend the program by noting that no police program is perfect, it must be recognized that the ALP program is particularly vulnerable to problems due a general atmosphere of lawlessness in Afghanistan. To presume that security gains outweigh any abuses suffered by the Afghan population would be a mistake for the United States, especially as it seeks to persuade the Afghan government to respect and promote human rights. ISAF and the Afghan government must work together to ensure that there is greater oversight and control over ALP units by the national police and that mechanisms are in place to hold human rights abusers accountable. It is especially important that all allegations of abuse are fully investigated and prosecuted. In a country that has suffered from years of war, it is America’s responsibility to monitor this program and ensure greater protections for the local population.
Jennifer Norris is a lawyer specializing in international human rights law. She holds a J.D. from Benjamin Cardozo School of Law and a B.A. in political science from UC Santa Barbara. She recently worked for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in the treaty bodies division, specifically for the women’s rights treaty (CEDAW) and the child’s rights treaty (CRC) monitoring committees. She also worked for the UN political mission in Afghanistan as a Governance Officer and was stationed in Kunar province. Previously, she also worked for the International Rescue Committee in Iraq where she focused on refugee and IDP issues.
Jennifer credits her Peace Corps service in Benin, West Africa for cultivating her passion for human rights and international affairs.