The American withdrawal from Afghanistan and expanding reach of Taliban control from rural districts to provincial capitals raises important questions about whether new militias will emerge in the country’s future and what they might look like.
For years the U.S. relied on militia order to wage counterinsurgency, recruit villages into civilian defense forces, and hold territory long enough to protect Americans from insurgent attacks. One problem the U.S. rarely solved, is how do you ensure militias remain accountable to the state and interests of the local population they purportedly protect? In my new book, I examine this issue and found militias were better behaved when under the control of local communities.
Counterinsurgency theorists have long argued militias are an important piece of stabilizing rural villages and expanding state reach. They are generally cheaper than regular military forces, easier and quicker to train and deploy, and have a wealth of local knowledge if they are used in their home communities. On the other hand, militias are a double-edged sword. Patron-client problems are typical when the state has limited control over their militias. The spoils of war can steer militia towards rent-seeking rather than protection. And, particularly in Afghanistan, age-old grievances and trust deficits from decades of conflict often led militia to engage in retribution or political opportunity. Even with these risks, and like their Soviet counterparts in the 1980s, the U.S. invested heavily in militia programs in Afghanistan.
Counterinsurgents assumed that if militias were under state control — through resource delivery, patronage, and embedding them in legal and moral norms of the state — they would behave well. But even though during the war nearly all militias in Afghanistan were under some form of state patronage, U.S. Special Forces oversight, or even graduates of human rights training, they were still predatory. The reality is that militias are as much a part of the community as they are an agent of the state. Whether those militias were guardians or gangsters over the civilian population depended more on the resiliency of the local community and whether militia patrons invested and relied upon existing local order as a controlling process over militia behavior. When local order was broken down, or ignored by state patrons, militias became gangsters, and further eroded trust between the state and society.
Two decades of counterinsurgency and centralized state building in Afghanistan shows that the answer to a better disciplined militia was not necessarily more state, but a better relationship between state and society. The latter is a process America rarely got right. Instead, unaccountable militias preyed on the civilian population, generated new levels of instability, and now, leaves Afghanistan with a big problem.
The short-lived process of guardians in Marzak, Paktika sheds light on the few cases where militias worked. A mountain town situated over 9,000 feet high that was long considered one of those places in between — too far from state reach, and too insignificant for insurgent control. Still, it was positioned in what U.S. military considered a strategic zone where insurgents moved from safe havens in Pakistan to the front lines and back. Their rich pine nut harvests were taxed by Taliban, and the village was often used as a place to hide weapons and people.
A number of great battles were fought nearby like Operation Anaconda in 2002, and the Soviet Battle for Hill 3234 in 1988. Still, Marzak remained in this shatter zone outside of state capture and relying upon the strong order within that included a voluntary community watch and respected village elders. The Adi Khel sub-tribe of Kharoti Pashtuns made up the residents of the village. They were a minority in the province and the district, so they relied upon themselves. When on the edge of the state, this serves people well.
In the winter of 2013, the U.S. and Afghan government targeted Marzak with resources, recognition, and reassurance, but most importantly, they relied upon the local order in place. For years, Taliban pressured families to give up their sons to the resistance. By recognizing the threat Taliban posed to Marzak residents allying with the state, the U.S. offered informal amnesty and reintegration opportunities as a way to break the village free from Taliban control. When the community agreed to give up their sons for a local militia, they did so with an agreement that the elders would supervise the force. Like a pitchfork, multiple points were used to turn the soil in Marzak—elders, the Ministry of Interior, and the Afghan Army all played a complementary role in supervision and oversight. Enough to repel enemy attacks and ensure the local militia did not prey on the community.
Local order and the reinforcement of tradition kept the Marzak guardians a prudent and community-focused institution. But Marzak was never under the impression the force would remain in place and when state support declined so did interest in keeping a local militia that would challenge Taliban. Marzak went back to its long-held bargaining position — one part with the state, the other with the Taliban.
As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and the Afghan government builds defensive walls around itself, there are still many militias operating around the country. The largest militia force, the Afghan Local Police, recently dissolved with many transitioning into National Police under the Ministry of Interior, the Territorial Force under the National Army, or Uprising Forces under the National Directorate of Security. All these forces require continued resources, funding, and oversight. Unfortunately, many go without all three, let alone oversight from state and local communities. If funding and resources decline, and the militias are not working on the behest of local authorities, these forces will engage in predatory taxation, bribery, and extortion of the population. In many cases they already do (see here, here, and here).
We should also expect that Taliban will increasingly become the militia order in town. In places like Helmand and Kandahar, they already are. While Taliban rely upon coercion and violence in the short term, that will only take them so far. They will need to lean on local communities, understand and accept the order within, if they are to gain legitimacy. The Taliban will also have to prove they can accommodate diverse communities, tolerate dissent, and meet the demands of people they govern, including women and girls if they expect to be taken seriously by the international community. If the Taliban become part of the Afghan state, there are legal and political limits to what the U.S. and other international partners will accept.
While some argue an empowered Taliban will be different from the horrors in 1996-2001, the group has yet to offer proof beyond vague statements against al Qaeda and a willingness to embrace 21st century technology. Promises made to US negotiators to decrease violence levels were never fulfilled. Instead, Taliban recalibrated their military stance, launched major southern offensives, and engaged in a brutal assassination campaign of civil society activists — the very people that would likely resist. In the places Taliban rule, they are bringing back many of their old policies — girls banned from school, return of the morality police, and extortion for protection. The next few years will likely see an expansion of militias in Afghanistan, some on the side of the state, others with the Taliban, but few protecting the interests of local communities.
There were plenty of missed opportunities in Afghanistan – America’s over reliance on power-hungry warlords, overlooking corruption of its clients, and centralizing Kabul power at the expense of local rule. America will have little oversight of Afghan militias going forward, but it can focus investment on developing local communities. The U.S. should support organizations like the Independent Directorate of Local Governance to train and develop rural community leaders. The international community should continue to train and support a wide range of civil society like journalists, legal advisors, and community development activists that can hold militias accountable and empower communities to do the same. We also need to think creatively about how rural areas under Taliban control maintain their agency.
Over the last two decades, America has rarely used economic pressure, sanctions, and aid conditionality in Afghanistan. These will be critical tools to incentivize cooperation and penalize predators.