KABUL: Around the time President Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, a delegation of American and Afghan military officials arrived in New Delhi, reported NYT.
They wanted to learn more about the Indian Territorial Army, which has been deployed in contentious areas to ease the burden on India’s regular army.
The American military has turned to that force as a potential model for how to maintain the Afghan government’s waning control — without too high a cost — in difficult parts of Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban are resurgent.
But diplomats and human rights groups worry that the proposal looks much like an older model — the Afghan Local Police, local militias who were trained and paid by the Americans but were accused of a long series of human violations, including abuse of civilians and sexual abuse of boys.
The size of the new force is yet to be finalized, but it could number more than 20,000, according to a senior Afghan official who was granted anonymity because the concept is still being discussed.
The new local force would be under the command of the army, and recruits would go through similar training as regular soldiers. But the new force would serve primarily in local communities, holding areas cleared by the regular army, whose units would take on a primarily offensive role.
Afghan officials say the new approach would in fact help rein in an unwieldy array of militias, rather than empower them to commit abuses.
The idea surely appeals to American commanders, like Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Military officers want to demonstrate progress to Mr. Trump, who said his “original instinct was to pull out.” He has ruled out a “hasty withdrawal” but insisted that there is no “blank check” for what has become the longest war in United States history.
But in interviews, at least four Western officials briefed on the plan expressed doubts that the new force would be much different from the old Afghan Local Police militias, given the violent reality that districts are threatened by the Taliban.
“It risks being turned into a dangerous shortcut,” one of them said.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch, which has widely documented past abuses by Afghan militias, called on the Afghan government to reject the proposal for another force with inadequate training and oversight.
“The Afghan government’s expansion of irregular forces could have enormously dangerous consequences for civilians,” said Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of creating additional local forces, which are hard to control and prone to abuses, the Afghan government, with U.S. and NATO support, should be strengthening training and oversight to ensure that all forces respect the law.”
Over 16 years, the United States has bankrolled a handful of militias, hoping that each of the latest would improve on the previous one’s history of abuses.
The Afghan Local Police, or A.L.P., began in 2010 as a 10,000-strong force but now stands at more than 20,000 members. Despite significant training, American officials concluded that the force had brought about mixed results at best, with only one-third of the areas they patrol seeing improvements in security.
Independent observers and human rights groups have often described the A.L.P. as a source of abuse, with little of the oversight in paper often materializing on the ground. The forces often have served as the extortion wings of local strongmen. The Afghan National Police was supposed to oversee the local police, but that rarely happened.
The National Army has a better reputation for staying above the fray of often nasty local rivalries, but critics worry that drawing it into the same mess could undo hard-gained reforms made over the past year. Creating a new army force that holds territory after the national army has cleared areas is also seen as another step toward a military occupation of the territories, with rule of law and governance often taking a back step.
“Placing the new militia under the army leadership, as opposed to the police-district governor oversight structure of the A.L.P., hopes to increase monitoring and control,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Afghan security and governance. “However, since the Afghan Army suffers from leadership problems at the unit level, there is no guarantee that army will be significantly more capable of controlling the new militias than the previous police leadership managed with the A.L.P.”
The senior Afghan official said the need for creating such force was born out of the experience of fighting largely on their own since 2014, with American troops reduced to a small advisory role. As districts have come under Taliban attack and the regular forces stretched, they have often turned to local militias to hold the district on the government’s behalf — and on its payroll.
The new force will be cheaper than the national army, and more sustainable and accountable than the existing militias. The average army soldier now costs between $12,000 to $15,000 a year, the most expensive in the region, the official said. Only 20 percent of that money is for salary; the rest to the logistics of his sustainment that could be much reduced in the new force.
Capt. Bill Salvin of the United States Navy, a NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said the mission will “closely monitor the development and implementation of these local forces.”
“The most effective local security forces comprise locally recruited personnel, who are far more likely to be accepted by their communities, and if effectively led, could greatly enhance security and reduce abuses and corruption,” he said.
While the senior Afghan official insisted that only the conceptual framework of the force has been agreed to, and that details were still being sorted out, several Western officials said that preparations were already underway to pilot the new force in southern districts of Nangarhar Province. The force will hold areas where the Afghan Army and United States special forces have driven out Islamic State militants.
The last militia deployed in those districts was loyal to a strongman who is also a member of Parliament. Its members cut off the heads of several suspected Islamic State fighters and displayed them on pedestals built of rocks.
“They will be recruiting from the same pool,” one Western official said, registering dismay.
Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former Afghan Army general who served during the Communist era in the 1980s, said that young army officers might struggle to control such local forces, who rely on the support of powerful local patrons. He also warned that the American military should draw lessons from similar irregular forces tried by the communist government.
“Our government collapsed because of these militia groups,” General Amarkhel said. “I have said several times to the current government — that they should learn from us and that they should not support thieves.”