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 agentof 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.
Matthew Dearing is an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University, in Washington, D.C. He is author of Militia Order in Afghanistan: Guardians or Gangsters? (Routledge 2021). The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.
Uniformed Afghan Local Police (ALP) line up for the first time in the village of Dey Gairow, in southern Daykundi province April 24, 2011. The ALP was an initiative of U.S. and NATO forces commander David Petraeus. Picture taken April 24, 2011. REUTERS/Rob Taylor
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.