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What America's Leaving Behind in Afghanistan: Trained Militias Accused of Rape and Murder

The U.S.-trained Afghan Local Police have been accused of committing serious human rights abuses.

Americans who left Zero Dark Thirty thinking that the dark stain of torture is behind us should be cautioned by the U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan. 

As the 2014 deadline for ending the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan approaches, U.S. forces have been working with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) to build their capacity to fight the Taliban and other insurgent elements on their own. Yet even as the ANA and ANP cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars a year, there are still swaths of the country that the national army and police cannot control. 

Faced with an impending withdrawal deadline and tightening budgets, U.S. planners created another security entity, the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which they have pitched as an affordable short-term fix to fill this security vacuum. However, the name is a misnomer, since members do not have police powers and are essentially village militias armed with AK-47s. Highlighting its prominence as a key feature of the U.S. exit strategy, General David Petraus described the ALP program in 2011 as “arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capacity to secure itself.” 

Despite some success in achieving security gains, the ALP program has been plagued by such problems as Taliban infiltration and insider attacks. But most controversially, ALP units have been accused of committing serious human rights abuses against local populations with apparent impunity. Afghan President Ahmed Karzai recently  expelled U.S. Special Forces from Wardak province due to allegations that American forces and the ALP members they trained had tortured and killed Afghan civilians. Many commentators in the United States attacked Karzai’s decision, but allegations of human rights abuses must be taken seriously.

Echoes of Wars Past

ALP units are established in volatile districts where the national army and police have little presence. According to the official directive, ALP members are selected by local shura members and, after passing a biometrics test, receive three weeks of training from U.S. Special Forces. They are paid about 60 percent of a policeman’s salary and provided with AK-47s, radios, and uniforms. They perform a range of duties, from manning checkpoints to providing information about insurgents. Some 20,000 members are currently employed nationwide.

The ALP is the brainchild of Petraeus, who modeled the program after the Sons of Iraq initiative, a major centerpiece of the Iraq “surge” that is often credited with taming the violence in Anbar province. The Sons of Iraq (SOIs) were Sunni militias employed by the U.S. military from 2007-2009. They were made up of former insurgents who became disillusioned with the violence wreaked by al-Qaeda forces on Iraqis. At the height of the program, some 100,000 SOI fighters were employed by the United States.

U.S. leaders promised  SOI members that they would eventually receive jobs in the Iraqi security forces. However, the Shiite-led Iraqi government, suspicious of the Sunni SOIs, remains reluctant to integrate them. To date, only a small percentage of SOIs have received government jobs, and many are left feeling isolated and disgruntled. 

The fate of the Sons of Iraq is instructive. What happens to 30,000 armed and unemployed former ALP members once the United States is no longer around to pay their salaries? Due to funding constraints, it is unlikely that ALP forces will be absorbed into the Afghan army or national police. In a public report, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission ( AIHRC) expressed concern that ALP members, primarily motivated by their own economic prospects, could turn against the government after the U.S. withdrawal.

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