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ISAF’s Plans for Afghan Local Police Are Shortsighted

Over the past year, human rights and humanitarian organizations have documented abuses and human rights violations allegedly committed by the Afghan Local Police. The Afghan Local Police, or the ALP, are essentially local militias that are trained, equipped and paid by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government to secure ungoverned parts of Afghanistan. Importantly, these units differ from the Afghan National Security Forces in that the ALP is purported to be largely free of central government control. It is a “bottom up” approach to security that is being implemented in concert with the development of a national security capacity.

From the point of view of ISAF, this program is filling an important gap. In theory, the ALP program is designed to provide “village level security,” bypass the central government’s corruption and help prevent the Taliban from gaining a foothold in places where international military forces are not present. In practice, serious problems exist with this program. According to Human Rights Watch, ALP units are responsible for “looting, illegal detention, beatings, killings, sexual assault and extortion.” Afghans interviewed by Human Rights Watch claim that it is difficult to distinguish between the ALP and local militias.

Recently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Obama Administration to halt plans to triple the ALP until and unless the program is overhauled. Moreover, HRW has urged the Administration to focus on training regular Afghan forces in preparation for the 2014 security transition rather than empowering local militias, or “community defense forces” in military parlance.

Last week, ISAF released a report on the ALP, which was initiated in response to serious concerns raised by HRW this past September. The investigation, which was led by a U.S. Air Force Brigadier General, substantiated many of the claims made by HRW. Some claims were not verified not because the investigators found them to be untrue, but because of an inability to locate and interview witnesses that might corroborate the findings of HRW. As ISAF’s report notes, HRW was only able to interview witnesses in exchange for confidentiality, and thus was unable to provide the names of witnesses and victims cited in its report to the investigators.

ISAF’s report urges a number of reforms to the ALP program, including improved training, oversight and accountability measures. By and large, the U.S. led military coalition acknowledges that serious problems exist with the program. Interestingly, however, the report concludes by noting that “HRW ignores the vital service ALP and VSO [village stability operations] are providing every day to give Afghans a chance to end 30 years of conflict and to live secure and peaceful lives.”

While the investigators substantiated many of HRW’s claims, the military investigation team took a cheap parting shot at the human rights group. This is especially interesting given the convergence between strategy and human rights inherent in the COIN doctrine. In other words, international military forces and human rights organizations increasingly share similar goals in Afghanistan and other counterinsurgency environments – protecting the civilian population from violence.

Sarah Sewall explains the importance of civilian protection in U.S. strategy in her introduction to the U.S. Army Field Manual:

The field manual [COIN doctrine] directs U.S. forces to make securing the civilian, rather than destroying the enemy, their top priority. The civilian population is the center of gravity – the deciding factor in the struggle…The real battle is for civilian support for, or acquiescence to, the counterinsurgents and host nation government. The population waits to be convinced. Who will help them more, hurt them less, stay the longest, earn their trust? U.S. forces and local authorities therefore must take the civilian perspective into account. Civilian protection becomes part of the counterinsurgent’s mission, in fact, the most important part.

The U.S. military brass clearly understands the importance of civilian protection to mission success as evidenced by the tightening of the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. And yet, amidst numerous credible reports documenting abuses by the ALP, ISAF has responded by suggesting it plans to triple the size of these units.

Perhaps, there is simply a disagreement over the extent of the problem. The U.N. Refugee Agency recently cited abuses by the ALP “as a factor in a 51 percent increase in displacement of Afghans in the first 10 months of 2011 compared with the same time period in 2010.” While acknowledging that problems exist, ISAF believes the ALP is “a really critical part of security.”

The U.S. military is likely feeling pressure to drawdown as rapidly as possible in Afghanistan. Empowering groups akin to local militias is a way to prevent insurgents from filling the void that international military forces leave as they begin to exit. But, it is also an incredibly shortsighted strategy. As Human Rights Watch notes in their September 2011 report:

The constant resort to militias as a quick security fix suggests a lack of understanding of how oppressive even a small militia can be when it operates without proper oversight and with impunity when it commits abuses. When militias engage in rape, murder, theft, and intimidation, and when there is little or no recourse to justice for victims, the creation of militias doesn’t decrease insecurity, it creates it.

As ISAF transitions more responsibility over to Afghans, the focus must be on ensuring that Afghan security forces operate pursuant to the rule of law. Empowering armed groups that repeatedly engage in abuse and violations of the law risks undoing the important security gains made in Afghanistan. It risks delegitimizing the central government in Kabul, inflaming sectarian tensions and could help strengthen the insurgency. The Obama Administration should re-think its shortsighted plans for the ALP if only to make good on its promise to win the war.

Image Courtesy of NATO.



Trevor Keck
Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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