South Asia

Viewpoint: Why Afghans fear village defence forces

Talks between the Afghan government and the US to create village-level defence forces to tackle the Taliban may not succeed, argues Hekmat Karzai, who heads independent think-tank the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul.

Image caption Tribal militias have had little success against the Taliban

Creating such a defence force - intended to provide more peace and stability at a local level - is one of the key pillars of US strategy in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

It was an experiment that brought some success in Iraq.

But Afghans are worried about the strategy, because previous experience shows that such efforts offer only short-term solutions and will not provide lasting peace and stability.

Power struggle

One of the darkest eras in Afghan history was the early 1990s.

After the Soviet withdrawal, and without any serious intervention by by international forces, many resistance groups turned against each other.

Image caption Afghan police have struggled to cope with the insurgents

As a result, Afghanistan was divided into personal fiefdoms of the commanders, with several parallel competing militias.

The holy war or jihad was forgotten and a destructive power struggle began.

Anarchy prevailed and major Afghan cities, which were safe until the Soviet withdrawal, were destroyed.

Multiple currencies were forcibly brought into circulation by different power brokers, which saw people carrying several currencies when travelling from one region to another.

Kabul was one of the most charming cities in South Asia, but it became a ghost town in this desperate struggle for power.

Various militias controlled different parts of the city, while others bombed it to the Stone Age.

In one instance, more than 400 rockets were fired on Kabul, killing hundreds of innocent civilians within an hour.

Parallel structures

The chaos and lawlessness helped enable the Taliban to prevail and in a very short period they controlled a significant area of country.

One of the key reasons they succeeded was due to the fact that they ended up having a near monopoly on force, unlike today's government.

Frankly, the US did not come to Afghanistan to make things right for the Afghans or learn from the lessons that emerged from the 1980s when Afghanistan was abandoned.

Instead, their key purpose and objective was revenge against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

As a consequence, state building was never a key priority.

This approach was not what Afghans expected and unfortunately resulted in the empowerment of the same people who had initially created the foundations from which the Taliban initially emerged.

Various donors tried, half-heartedly, to establish different sectors of the Afghan security sector.

In particular, the Afghan National Police was never given the necessary resources or the leadership which was desperately needed to succeed.

Since problems emerged at the outset with the police, creative ideas of parallel structures surfaced.

Image caption Anti-Taliban militia have had little impact in neighbouring Pakistan

Several local defence programmes have been tried but sadly their impact has been insignificant.

The Afghan National Auxiliary Police was established in 2006, but after two years, it was quietly brought to an end.

After that, the Afghan Public Protection Programme (APP) was established in Wardak province, but, according to senior officials, it is not being replicated anywhere else - a clear sign of disappointment.

Thirdly, in mid-2009 US Special Forces created a "Local Defence Initiative", now known as the "Village Stability Programme" that plans to "secure local communities through development so they no longer provide support to the insurgents".

The objective of "the programme" is to work with the community and not individuals separate from the community.

'Quick fixes'

While each of the above programmes was designed differently, in the end they run into serious challenges of vetting, command and control and most important of all secured only questionable loyalty.

Image caption The Taliban have proved to be formidbale opponents

Many of the same problems have emerged because the West has not been able to treat the disease and instead has always found quick fixes for the symptoms.

The objectives of the US are very clear to Afghans: to disrupt, dismantle and destroy al-Qaeda.

However, the only way to achieve this is to strengthen Afghan security institutions that will make sure the country does not once again become the hub of international terrorism.

In conclusion, the village force that is being debated must be part of a broader long-term stability programme.

Otherwise it will undermine the military effort in Afghanistan and will further perpetuate the culture of lawlessness.

Hekmat Karzai is director of the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies and a cousin of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

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