The Militiamen of Afghanistan

With most foreign troops scheduled to leave the country by 20014, local militia have a growing stake in Afghanistan’s future.

Some of Gecchis fighters on patrol through a part of Qula-e-Zal district. Visible in the background is one of the 50 fixed check-posts that Gecchi has established to consolidate his control over the area and to ensure fortified fighting positions for his men. VIKRAM SINGH
Some of Gecchis fighters on patrol through a part of Qula-e-Zal district. Visible in the background is one of the 50 fixed check-posts that Gecchi has established to consolidate his control over the area and to ensure fortified fighting positions for his men. VIKRAM SINGH
01 April, 2013

ON 24 FEBRUARY THIS YEAR, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai made an announcement that surprised observers around the world—through a spokesperson, Karzai ordered US Special Forces to leave Wardak, a key province west of Kabul. In his statement, Karzai accused the elite American unit of paying local militias that were “harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people”. It was a dramatic order, given that the Special Forces are amongst the few US troops engaged in active combat duty, mostly targeting Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. Many observers feel that removing their firepower could potentially leave Kabul open to insurgent attacks launched from restive neighbouring provinces. In the end, the Afghan government’s mistrust of the militias, also known as arbakai, seems to have superseded concerns about the security of the capital.

Calling them ‘parallel structures’, the spokesperson asked foreign forces to transfer charge of the militias to the Afghan government  , a not unreasonable demand given that these armed groups now patrol, and in some cases, control significant pockets of the country. The announcement came a week after a UN report that said 2,754 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, and that more than 15,000 died since the organisation started tracking civilian deaths in 2007. This climate of insecurity is a major contributor to the emergence of the arbakai across the country. Some are funded by the US Special Forces, but there are others backed by local warlords, and some by communities convinced the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is one of their own guys with a gun.

These arbakai have existed in various guises in Afghanistan for decades. Traditionally, they were small self-defence forces raised periodically to protect communities from the threat of outside violence. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, many contributed mujahideen fighters to the war against Russia, and afterwards some joined alliances to support local warlords. After the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some arbakai were included in the half-hearted attempts at disarmament and demobilisation, and convinced to give up their Soviet-era weapons.

But the arbakai were brought back into the war by the resurgence of the Taliban. Though initially routed, by 2006 the Taliban and associated groups were carrying out 400 attacks a month. With the public’s confidence in the NATO coalition and Afghan government deteriorating, the Americans threw their weight behind a strategy of reactivating old militias across the country and providing these groups with arms, money and basic training, hoping to emulate the success of similar programs in Iraq. Organisations like Human Rights Watch criticised the decision, calling it a short-term fix that would have disastrous long-term consequences. Hamid Karzai’s government, although wary of creating more armed factions, reluctantly signed on.

There have been mixed results. Today, the arbakai are just as renowned for fighting the Taliban and protecting schools for girls as they are reviled for carrying out murderous tribal vendettas and for raping women and children. While the debate about their merits continues, one thing is clear: given their sheer number and their presence in large swathes of the country, the militias and the men who run them will have a significant stake in Afghanistan’s post-2014 future.

To better understand their motivations and to see how they operate, I travelled to different parts of Afghanistan to spend time with two arbakai groups. One, in the eastern province of Logar, bordering Pakistan, had been formed in July 2012 in response to the killing of a local businessman’s mother by a group of Taliban fighters. The businessman, Farhad Akbari, runs a construction company and uses the profits to finance a militia of 200 men who regularly fight Taliban crossing over from Pakistan. When I met them, some members of the group had just started receiving funding from a nearby American base. The militia, which claims it protects nearly 70 villages, is fighting directly with the Taliban.

The other group I focused on, led by a Turkmen ex-mujahid named Nabi Gecchi, was located in the slightly calmer northeastern province of Kunduz. Here, after defeating the Taliban, the militias have taken to fighting amongst themselves, leading to a situation that Amrullah Saleh, a former director of Afghan intelligence, described as a civil war. Kunduz saw a proliferation of arbakai after particularly violent Taliban campaigns in the 2010 and 2011 ‘fighting seasons’—a reference to the March-October period, when there is a massive spike in attacks from insurgent groups and the Taliban—in which the province’s governor and police chief were killed. Today, the Taliban have been beaten back in some areas here and are limited to carrying out attacks with improvised explosive devices. However, militia commanders like Nabi Gecchi continue to control their districts to the extent of collecting taxes, building infrastructure and providing protection to the police. These groups offer a disturbing glimpse into the potential future of Afghanistan, where arbakai might effectively replace the state in parts of the country, leaving battered and war-weary Afghans once again at the mercy of men with guns.