Community Policing, Afghan-Style

Lal Mohammed says his 9-year-old son was stabbed and shot and left to die in a raid on his home. Another Afghan villager reported that a 17-year-old boy had been detained, beaten, and had nails driven into his feet. His injuries were so bad that his family packed up and left the country to get medical treatment.

A 13-year-old boy was walking home after evening prayers when he was allegedly gang-raped by a local commander and his henchmen.

Stunningly, the accused perpetrators in these crimes were not Taliban but local Afghans the U.S. military helped to recruit and arm as part of a local “community policing” effort to protect Afghans from the Taliban scourge.

In fact, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) program is the latest in a long line of controversial attempts to turn local strongmen and their militias into the “sons of Afghanistan” à la Iraq. It was the brainchild of the omnipotent Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, who has since left his post for greener pastures at the CIA, leaving this potentially explosive taxpayer-funded mess behind.

Mohammed said of his son’s killing: “I have not been given any compensation or anything else by Americans or the Afghan government. No one has told me sorry or expressed their condolence about my only 9-year-old son, and for these reasons I hate them. I want to fight against them till the end of my life.”

This is not exactly the effect Petraeus was going for when he announced the ALP program in August 2010 and told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2011 it was a “community watch with AK-47s,” so “important that I have put a conventional U.S. infantry battalion under the operational control of our Special Operations Command in Afghanistan to increase our ability to support the program’s expansion.”

However, since reports about abuses being carried out by these neighborhood watchmen were already bubbling up last winter in places like The Washington Post, Stars and Stripes, and The Associated Press, the always cagey Petraeus made sure he called it “President Karzai’s Afghan Local Police initiative,” which is really disingenuous when two clicks of the mouse will show you that Karzai was averse to establishing these local constabularies and only agreed to the ALP after pressure and assurances that the authority of the program would reside within the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and be administered locally.

Stars and Stripes, hardly an unfriendly forum for the feted four-star, also recalled it differently:

Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge strategy in Iraq, has pushed the initiative hard since taking command in Afghanistan in July, despite hesitancy among Afghan officials who worry the groups will prove impossible to control.

“He believes it’s a potential game-changer,” said U.S. Army Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, a staff officer at ISAF headquarters in Kabul who oversaw the Sons of Iraq program during 2008 and has a similar role in Afghanistan. “So do I.”

According to a new 120-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW),  the ALP is no “game-changer” in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Iraq, and it is likely mucking up an already muddy rural landscape filled with thugs, militias, and bandits of myriad tribal, ethnic, and sectarian associations. In several areas thoroughly described by HRW, it is making the overall violence and insecurity worse.

In addition to the ALP, HRW warns of the proliferation of local armed militias, or arbakis, run by tribal warlords and local power brokers who enjoy special relationships with U.S. Special Forces and U.S.-funded security contractors in restive northeastern provinces such as Kunduz. Many of these groups are former mujahideen who have been rejoined and activated by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. They are feared by the people as much as the Taliban — probably in some cases more — because they are well-armed, politically connected, and untouchable.

In its report, “Just Don’t Call it a Militia: Impunity, Militias and the ‘Afghan Local Police,’” HRW found “serious abuses, such as murder, rape, arbitrary detention, abductions, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids by irregular armed groups in northern Kunduz province and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) force in Baghlan, Herat, and Uruzgan provinces.”

It’s no surprise that region of the country has seen a serious uptick in violence over the last two years.

“The Afghan government has failed to hold these forces to account,” said HRW, “fostering future abuses and generating support for the Taliban and other opposition forces.”

Petraeus’ Other Legacy: The ALP

Certainly, HRW wasn’t the first organization to bring these troubles to light. Oxfam International, the UK-based charity and human rights organization, put out a report in May that found communities in these northern provinces were endangered by their own local security forces.

“The people recruited into the local police are essentially seen by communities as criminal thugs who have in the past been involved in criminal activity, many of whom have appalling histories of human rights abuses,” said Rebecca Barber, who authored the Oxfam report, “No Time to Lose: Promoting the Accountability of the Afghan National Security Forces” [.pdf].

“In some cases, the situation is so bad that we are hearing reports that community members are actually threatening to arm themselves against the Afghan local police.”

The HRW report goes deeper, showing us how Petraeus came into command in July 2010 and assured Congress and Karzai that his “Sons of Afghanistan” would succeed where every other reintegration and local militia program had failed. The report then details just how wrong he was, exposing the bitter truth about “population centric warfare” — that it’s really all about tactical expediency and not the long-term security of ordinary Afghans.

On an even darker level, the report indicates that U.S. Special Forces were working closely with former warlords and gangs and in documented cases took the advice of corrupt power brokers and their connections among former insurgents over villagers who on paper were supposed to be guiding the local ALP program themselves. As a result, critics say, the vetting and oversight became an empty formality, and accountability quickly disappeared.

To make it worse, the rules of engagement for the ALP are said to be too vague and prone to vast misinterpretation regarding the officers’ detention and investigatory powers.

The following is an example of how the ALP rolled out in Shindand district in Herat. As the original ALP directive states, recruits must be nominated within the local shura and vetted by the MOI and NDS. According to interviews with HRW, it didn’t quite happen that way:

The Ministry of Interior directive creating the ALP states that recruits are to be vetted by the local shura, with the list then approved by the ministry. In practice it appears that some LDI (local defense initiative) members were enlisted into the ALP by US special operations forces without following the official vetting process. Lal Mohammed Omarzai, the district governor of Shindand, who has been publicly critical about the way ALP was set up in Shindand, told Human Rights Watch that current ALP members were “not properly vetted according to the MOI directive … as a result, it is difficult to hold anyone accountable when they commit crimes.”

According to officials in the Pul-e-Khumri district of Baghlan province, U.S. Special Forces helped to enlist former Hezb-i-Islami fighters, despite the resistance of local officials. Hezb-i-Islami was founded and led by notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is currently wanted by the U.S. for his alleged participation in al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist attacks against U.S. forces in the country.

According to local officials, the initial recruits to the ALP in the greater Pul-e-Khumri area included former former Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) members, including a commander called Nur-ul Haq and a group of men who joined the government in March 2010 and began working with U.S. troops in August 2010.

Three members of the Baghlan provincial council, including Mohammed Rasoul Mohsini, told HRW that they were pressured to take on the men that the U.S. suggested on “a list” brought to the commission. Nur-ul Haq’s men were reportedly already working with U.S. special operations forces before the list was created, according to the report.

Mohsini told HRW, “The establishment of ALP did not happen in accordance with the MOI directive. Instead the Special Forces went to the thieves and brought in arbakis.”

They [U.S. special operations forces] did not listen … and recruited 150 people. I spoke with Captain Andy from Special Forces. I told him that you are here to support Afghan people, not give them guns, they are criminals…. Captain Andy responded that they are not criminals. I was surprised that Special Forces are backing these people…. I made an argument that if you don’t listen to us then there is no need for the provincial council, police, the governor … you are doing our job. I left the meeting. I am a representative of the people and they should listen to me.

Since the inception of the ALP in Baghlan, Haq’s men have been accused of “sexual abuse, a night raid that resulted in the death of a boy, an extrajudicial killing, and an enforced disappearance, and have used their status as ALP to force resolutions to land disputes.”

Like something out of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, 13-year-old Zia J (a pseudonym) was returning from prayers on April 12, 2011, when he was allegedly yanked off the street by Abdur Rehman, ALP sub-commander, and his bodyguards. His family says the boy was gang-raped at Rehman’s house and managed to escape the next day. His family has attempted to have Abdur arrested for this heinous crime, but “local challenges” have gotten in the way.

Gen. Gulab, the head of the ALP, told HRW, “I don’t know the details of the case and how many people were involved since no investigation has been done. Both the provincial chief of police and I have requested U.S. Special Forces to summon Abdur Rehman for investigation, but they have not sent him yet.”

In February, Ghulam Jan, a political rival of a former Hezb-i-Islami commander, was shot dead in his home after several threats to him by Haq to leave his position as director of the National Solidarity Program, his relatives told HRW. Another man, Gharib Shah, 25, disappeared after a detention at Rehman’s house, which is at a checkpoint, and never heard from again. An Omer Khel villager, Jummah Jul, reported that his land was stolen and his house was looted by Rehman and his men, a case that the report says is still being investigated by the Baghlan Criminal Investigation Division.

House raids and general intimidation have become quite common in the last year, but the most stunning of accusations came from Lal Mohammed, whose son was allegedly killed by Haq’s men during a raid on his house. Mohammed himself was suspected of being Taliban, he told HRW interviewers, and held in a cell for three months until released without charge.

“Human Rights Watch is unaware of an Afghan government or U.S. military investigation into this raid and the circumstances that resulted in the death of a 9-year-old boy,” claims the report.

When The Washington Post attempted to interview Haq about the incident and “dozens” of other complaints, reporters were rebuffed — by U.S. Special Forces. “The local U.S. Special Forces captain who runs the local police program in the area declined to comment and would not permit Haq to leave the base for an in-person interview,” the Post said. This is interesting, because the Afghan National Police (ANP), not the U.S. military, is supposed to be “running” the ALP. Contacted by phone, Haq told reporters, “Those who told all these things to you, they have spoken from the tongue of the Taliban…. All these people in the government are supporting the Taliban. The head of the provincial council himself is a Talib.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for U.S. Forces described the accusations against Haq as “interpersonal stuff” that U.S. troops are “interested in but not involved in.”

HRW describes a similar dangerous situation in Shindand in Herat province, already a hotbed of rival armed groups, Mafia-style organizations, and Taliban. Having a new, separate police force backed by the U.S. military on top of it all was like putting a match to fuel.

Unsurprisingly, there are already signs that the creation of the ALP has caused friction between the tribal and political factions in Shindand, an area already rife with political complexities. As Mohammed Qasim Stanekzai, head of the High Peace Council and adviser to the president, told Human Rights Watch, “In Shindand there have for many years been tribal issues, warlord issues, [and] special forces issues.”

What follows are numerous reports of retaliatory raids, abuse, theft, and cruelty, including the June 2011 story in which two teens allegedly suspected of planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detained by ALP and beaten. One of them, his name withheld, had nails driven into his feet before he was released without charge.

Again, the vetting process was questioned, and Afghans complained that former fighters were being chosen for the ALP for their affiliation with the Americans, an accusation that when asked, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman flatly denied.

There have been similar complaints — tracked by HRW, Oxfam, and news reports — from Afghans in Takhar province and in eastern Paktika province. In some cases, American soldiers and officials, not so thoroughly convinced these guys were going to turn into Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels anytime soon, have spoken out about their own uneasiness with the program.

“It’s [comparable] to heading to Compton [in Los Angeles] and hiring a gang to help you out,” Spc. Chad Cunningham, a squad leader with Company B, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, told Stars and Stripes in September 2010.

“They’re definitely motivated,” said the specialist, who, as working with ALP there. “Whether it’s for the good of their country or for personal reasons, I don’t know.”

Five months later, answers to his question emerge.

“In Baghlan, all the developments have been bad,” a “U.S. official in Kabul familiar with the program” told The Washington Post. “They’re supposed to be neighborhood watch with AK-47s. But these guys are setting up checkpoints, they’re doing classic militiaman shakedown things.”

A year ago, Gen. Petraeus, with his 60-watt smile and groaning chestful of medals, was able to convince Congress that he could transplant his “Sons of Iraq” formula to northeastern Afghanistan. In order to do that, Washington kicked in enough money to hire 30,000 ALPs across the country. Currently there are some 7,000 in 43 districts. But now Petraeus is gone to head the CIA, where “protecting the population” means dropping bombs on it, and Afghanistan is more dangerous than ever.

Meanwhile, an ISAF spokeswoman told The Guardian on Sept. 12 that the HRW report “potentially provides a way ahead in refining and improving areas” in the ALP and that ISAF would work with Afghan partners to investigate the troubling allegations.

In a few years it won’t be the West’s problem anymore. Or so we think.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.