Afghanistan is considering training and arming 20,000 civilians to fight Taliban and other insurgent groups, sparking fears the local forces could become another thuggish militia.
The proposal for a government-backed armed group that would protect its own communities from the Taliban and the Islamic State group comes as Afghanistan’s security forces, demoralised by killings and desertions, struggle to beat back a rampant insurgency, news agency AFP reported. But the proposal has raised concerns that the local forces could become unruly and turn into another abusive militia terrorising the people it is supposed to defend.
The New York Times reported that around the time US President Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, a delegation of American and Afghan military officials arrived in New Delhi.
“They wanted to learn more about the Indian Territorial Army, which has been deployed in contentious areas to ease the burden on India’s regular army,” the Times said.
The American military has turned to that force as a potential model for how to maintain the Afghan government’s waning control — without too high a cost — in difficult parts of Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban are resurgent, the newspaper said.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the Afghan government’s expansion of irregular forces could have enormously dangerous consequences for civilians.
“Western diplomatic sources in Kabul told Human Rights Watch that President Ashraf Ghani is considering establishing a defense unit modelled on the Indian Territorial Army, an auxiliary force comprising personnel who serve on a short-term contract basis with the regular armed forces,” the statement said.
An Afghan Territorial Army with reduced training and potentially less oversight risks being yet another abusive militia operating outside the military’s chain of command, the rights group said.
American and Afghan officials told AFP the fighters would come under the command of the Afghan army and be better trained than the Afghan Local Police – a village-level force set up by the United States in 2010 and accused of human rights violations. “Right now we rely on commandos and air strikes to retake the lost territories but after the commandos leave we don’t have enough forces to hold onto the territories,” said a senior defence ministry official who asked not to be named.
“The force will operate under an army corps and will be used to fill the gaps. They will be recruited from the locals and will be numbered around 20,000.” Defence ministry spokesperson Dawlat Waziri confirmed to AFP that a plan for “local forces” was being discussed.
“People will be recruited from their areas because they know their regions and how to keep them,” Waziri said, but added there was no guarantee it would be implemented.
A spokesperson for NATO’s Resolute Support train and assist mission also confirmed a proposal for an Afghan territorial army was on the table. But another American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told AFP the idea was still in “the brainstorming phase”. The Afghan government and its foreign backers have been cultivating militias to bolster the 330,000-strong Afghan National Security and Defense Forces as they battle to get the upper hand in the grinding conflict.
In Afghanistan, militias – private armies and government-backed armed groups – have a long and chequered history in the war-torn country and many Afghans are wary of them. Civilian casualties were at record highs in the first six months of 2017, a UN report showed, with forces loyal to the Afghan government accounting for nearly 20 percent of the deaths and injuries. Since NATO ended its combat mission in 2014 the Taliban has been gaining ground and Islamic State is expanding its footprint.