Fetishizing “culture”: local militias and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

The US military's attempt to mobilize local militias against the Taliban paradoxically imposes a “traditional” mode of governance on a subject people initially the target of an emancipatory and liberating discourse to justify military intervention in 2001. This is the sub-text to the corrosive relationship between President Karzai and his western allies.

Aziz A. Hakimi
24 January 2014

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is a US military supported local militia programme run by the Ministry of Interior. It was established as part of NATO and Afghan government efforts to counter the insurgency that has been sweeping the country since 2005, and to supplement the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) - comprised of the national army, national police and paramilitary units of the Directorate of National Security.  The ALP was initially envisaged as a short-term security solution which involved the deployment of additional US and NATO troops in southern, eastern and northern Afghanistan to combat the insurgents. However, plans are now underway to make it a permanent part of ANSF.

The former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called the ALP ‘’potentially a game changer’’, and the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. David Petraeus, described it as ‘’arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capacity to secure itself’.  Despite public criticism of the programme, especially in northern Afghanistan, President Karzai believes that when implemented according to procedure and under government control, the ALP is a useful initiative in improving security at the local level.

The conceptual lineages of the ALP can be traced back to the Afghan Public Protection Programme (AP3) which was the culmination of a series of attempts since 2006 to tap into and rejuvenate what were presented as ‘’authentic’’ and ‘’enduring’’ rural and tribal traditions of ‘’self-protection’’ based on the tribal policing concept of arbaki.

Before the advent of the ALP, local militias under US military control had taken an ad-hoc and decentralized character with few, if any, links to Afghan government institutions. Consequently, centralizing the means of coercion became a key priority of the Afghan government. In 2009, after winning a second term, President Karzai not only promised to build Afghanistan’s national army and police force, within the next three to five years, but he also pledged to adopt, within two years, more stringent measures to improve the regulation of local militias, and to end the operations of private security companies.

Realizing that as long as foreign forces conducted combat operations, Afghan forces would always remain in a subordinate role and that the US and NATO were unlikely to invest sufficiently in building ANSF’s capabilities, Karzai brought forward the date for the transfer of security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces from 2014 to 2013, giving ANSF time to adjust to a lead role in combat, and to encourage the US and NATO to invest in training and equipping ANSF.

To improve the regulation of local militias and private security companies, President Karzai and his government embarked on a ‘’twin initiative’’ by establishing the ALP and the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) and banning private security companies. This was met with strong opposition since thousands of US and NATO-funded private security companies and local militias were employed by international forces to protect military bases and logistics convoys, and to pursue Taliban insurgents.

When it was approved by the Afghan government in August 2010, following contentious negotiations with NATO, the ALP incorporated all previous militia formations under the Afghan Ministry of Interior. It was part of attempts to subordinate US-funded armed units to the Afghan National Police command at the district and provincial levels – an objective which proved problematic considering the interference of US Special Forces, the power of local commanders, and the weakness of sub-national administration in many parts of the country.

The ALP, in many ways, represented the struggle between President Karzai and the US military over the control of local armed groups. It was an imperfect solution that allowed Karzai to centralise his hold over the murky world of US counterinsurgency with its fragmentation and decentralization, involving a variety of armed groups and the patronage that accompanied US security initiatives.

Refashioning the ‘traditional’ through western intervention

By the end of the decade, with the war against the Taliban showing few signs of victory, American commanders increasingly framed their efforts to arm local militias in the fight against insurgents in the language of ‘’tradition’’ and respect for Afghanistan’s ‘’authentic’’ culture, in particular the enduring imagery of ‘’the tribes’’ fiercely guarding their independence and protecting its members against outside threats. NATO hoped that the purportedly still-tribal Afghans could yet be mobilized - and armed - against an elusive ideological enemy, represented by the Taliban.

NATO’s efforts were presented as a corrective to previous western interference and imposition of liberal norms and institutions on non-western and non-liberal societies – a somewhat vague, but nonetheless revealing, critique of initial western attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan. Western ‘’experts’’, critical of earlier failures to build a centralized nation-state redoubled their efforts in engaging with and cultivating the so-called ‘’traditional’’ or ‘’customary’’ terrain.

However, there remained a yawning chasm between western claims about valorizing authenticity and non-interference, and the actual processes through which local forms of security were promoted and the political effects they ended up producing. So-called ‘’local solutions’’ were in fact imposed from above, as the case of the ALP graphically illustrates. It is a story of how short term measures, based on expediency and quick fixes were delivered in a package bearing the seal of “culture” and “tradition”.

Local militias and ‘military patrimonialism’

The US military’s attempt to resuscitate ‘’age-old Afghan traditions’’ of self-protection -  based upon an idealized and reified vision of the past -  proved difficult to realize, as did the assumption of willingness of Afghan villagers to stand up and revolt against Taliban. The case of Wardak province, which has been a hornet’s nest of factional rivalries between armed groups dating back to the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s and the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, illustrates this point.

A number of factors coalesced to produce this outcome. A sense of pervasive insecurity compelled local villagers in Wardak to avoid involvement in the ALP programme being forced upon them. The US military struggled in Wardak as local support proved elusive, and many villagers seemed unwilling to defend themselves against Taliban insurgents. Since the ALP was mostly used by Special Forces to carry out  night raids and targeted killings against insurgents,  it played a limited role in protecting the population.

The transformation of the Afghan countryside through the war years, particularly the loss of influence by so called ‘’traditional’’ leaders who in the past played a key role in patron-client relations, meant that the search for ‘authentic’ tribal leaders produced few results. In fact, local commanders emerged as the main beneficiaries of the programme, and used it to ‘’re-invent’’ themselves and their militias and to expand their power. As a result, while the American counter-insurgency experts and the US military ‘’did’’ culture, and local Afghan intermediaries earned a premium as cultural brokers, those alleged to be enmeshed in their tribal ways and traditions refused western and Afghan government attempts to lock them into indigeneity and then police them by invoking tradition.

The ALP study in Wardak, based on my year-long research (2011-2012) examining the dynamics of government and NATO supported local militias, showed that although actors and regimes have come and gone, the system of rule based on patronage and patron-client relations has survived and important traces of it can be observed in President Karzai’s system of rule. In this system, jihadi commanders have replaced the old ‘’traditional’ elites.

The ALP fed into a variety of patron-client dynamics at different levels, by empowering local and national level power brokers, and local commanders and parliamentarians -  an outcome which critics claim is at odds with liberal notions of transparency and accountability supposedly at work in the projects of international state-building and peacekeeping.

After a number of attempts over the years to ‘fix’ the ALP in Wardak, Afghan officials and US military authorities eventually gave up on earlier ambitions to reform and expand it . Since the ALP played a negligible role in improving security, in the spring and summer of 2012 senior Afghan officials and US Special Forces began to discuss a more dramatic, if problematic solution, which allegedly involved arming local Hizb-e-Islami fighters -  a long standing rival of the Taliban in Wardak - in order to contain the insurgency and improve security.

With the failure of ALP in Wardak, the US military abandoned the ambitions of a transformative counterinsurgency campaign, and reverted to counterterrorism tactics and the use of covert operations by Special Forces and proxy militias. However, the human and political cost of this shift was so great that the subsequent stages of US military presence in Wardak severely strained relations between the US and Afghan governments.

Violent practices and contested legacies

In the spring of 2012, the US military operations began to undergo important changes. As part of President Obama’s planned withdrawal, the US military withdrew its regular forces from many parts of Wardak, replacing them with additional US Special Forces. As a result, the role of regular forces diminished, while that of Special Forces and counter-terrorism pursuit teams increased. This was the background to the war crimes that were allegedly committed by US Special Forces between October 2012 and February 2013.

The widespread abuses occurred during search operations for suspected insurgents, which involved forced entry into homes, destruction of property, beatings, arrests and intimidation. According to local accounts, US Special Forces operated private prisons and interrogations centres in their base in Nerkh district, close to the provincial capital Maidanshahr, where they allegedly tortured prisoners.

In February 2013, the allegations of abduction, torture and extrajudicial killings emerged into the open, prompting local resident and family members of victims to organise demonstrations in Wardak and Kabul. The allegations, widely reported by local and international media, prompted President Karzai to order US Special Forces out of Wardak in late February. Whilst continuing to insist that US forces had not been involved in criminal incidents in Wardak, in March, the US military began the withdrawal of its Special Forces from Nerkh.

Karzai’s attempts in 2010 to reduce the influence of US Special Forces over US funded local militias, by establishing the ALP, could arguably be justified as a means to avoid the kinds of grave human rights abuses that later occurred in Wardak. However, despite securing a formal agreement with the US military, he could not fully control their conduct, as is also evident from his inability to end night raids by Special Forces and the detention of Afghan nationals.

The ALP in Wardak constitutes a microcosm of the dynamics of conflict in Afghanistan as a whole. Western politicians invoke the image of Afghanistan as an ‘’ungoverned space’’, a zone of chaos and a frontline in the war on terror; Wardak itself is positioned in this discourse as the frontline of the war against Taliban ‘’barbarians’’. In this seemingly epochal confrontation, civilization and barbarians mutually sustain each other. The Taliban thrive on the presence of ‘’foreign infidels’’, a reference to NATO and US forces, while at the same time Taliban’s continued armed resistance against US and NATO forces provides the justification for continued US military presence.

This is the sub-text to the tense, and at times corrosive relationship between President Karzai and his western allies, the latest glimpse of which was fully on display in the recently concluded ‘’Consultative Jirga’’, which approved the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). This broader ‘’structuring’’ environment has provided ample opportunities to some Afghans to profit from the political economy associated with the west’s 'war on terror'. Therefore, many people have a lot to lose from a reduced military presence, and even more so from a complete withdrawal of NATO and US troops (in the event that the Afghan government does not approve the BSA). It is little wonder that Afghan politicians and businessmen-and-women who profit from the NATO presence are the most vocal advocates of the BSA with the US, which President Karzai has resisted so far.

As David Keen argues, war may be less about defeating the enemy than maintaining a system in which insurgents and counter-insurgents both accrue benefits. A range of different actors and organizations accrue political and material benefits from the ALP programme and the wider war, and each fights to shape the process to their own advantage, ensuring its survival in diverse forms in spite of its evident failure.

The US military’s move  to mobilize local villagers in Wardak against the Taliban may be interpreted as a paradoxical attempt by the representatives of modernity and civilization to impose a traditional mode of governance on a subject people who had initially been made the target of its emancipatory and liberating discourse by the Bush Administration to justify military intervention in 2001.

The corollary of this  - the idea, popularized by American scholar Louis Dupree, of a traditional Afghan peasantry erecting a metaphorical ‘mud curtain’ to keep the modernizing influences of the state at bay, or to limit contact with the outside world - no longer applies, if it ever did. The war appears to have changed Afghans’ expectations of the state after years of experiencing ‘’decentralized despotism’’, and their willingness to be encompassed by it.

There is a crucial difference between endogenous state-making and centralization of power as a result of a broader historical ‘’civilizing process’’ -  the organic emergence of new political orders as against the reality of coercion and imperial imposition by Special Forces, and counterinsurgency experts’ attempts at social engineering. After more than a decade of muddling through, the west is likely to leave behind a violently transformed landscape dominated by local militias and only loose­ly held together by short term deals with local allies, for whom violence and predation has become an effective means of staying in power.

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