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 In the end, the Afghan government’s mistrust of the militias, also known as arbakai, seems to have superseded concerns about the security of the capital.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.