Plan to arm civil­ians draws mixed re­sponses

Bangkok Post - - ASIA -

KABUL: Afghanistan is con­sid­er­ing train­ing and arm­ing 20,000 civil­ians to de­fend ter­ri­to­ries where Is­lamic mil­i­tants have been driven out, of­fi­cials say, spark­ing fears the lo­cal forces could be­come an­other thug­gish mili­tia.

The pro­posal for a gov­ern­ment-backed armed group that would pro­tect its own com­mu­ni­ties from the Tal­iban and the Is­lamic State group comes as Afghanistan’s se­cu­rity forces, de­mor­alised by killings and de­ser­tions, strug­gle to beat back a ram­pant in­sur­gency.

But the pro­posal has raised con­cerns that the lo­cal forces could be­come un­ruly and turn into yet an­other abu­sive mili­tia ter­ror­is­ing the peo­ple it is sup­posed to de­fend.

“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.

The New York-based group said West­ern diplo­mats in Kabul fa­mil­iar with the plan — mod­elled on the In­dian Ter­ri­to­rial Army that sup­ports the coun­try’s reg­u­lar forces — said Afghan of­fi­cials had ex­pressed con­cerns the mili­tia could be used by “pow­er­ful strong­men” or be­come “de­pen­dent on lo­cal pa­tron­age net­works”.

Amer­i­can and Afghan of­fi­cials said the fight­ers would come un­der the com­mand of the Afghanistan mil­i­tary and be bet­ter trained than the Afghan Lo­cal Po­lice — a vil­lage-level force set up by the United States in 2010 but which has been ac­cused of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.

“Right now we rely on com­man­dos and air strikes to re­take the lost ter­ri­to­ries but af­ter the com­man­dos leave we don’t have enough forces to hold on to the ter­ri­to­ries,” said a se­nior de­fence min­istry of­fi­cial who asked not to be named.

“The force will op­er­ate un­der an army corps and will be used to fill the gaps. They will be re­cruited from the lo­cals and will be num­bered around 20,000.”

De­fence min­istry spokesman Dawlat Waziri con­firmed hat a plan for “lo­cal forces” was be­ing dis­cussed.

“Peo­ple will be re­cruited from their ar­eas be­cause they know their re­gions and how to keep them,” Mr Waziri said, but added there was no guar­an­tee it would be im­ple­mented.

A spokesman for Nata’s Res­o­lute Sup­port train and as­sist mis­sion also con­firmed a pro­posal for an Afghan ter­ri­to­rial army was on the ta­ble.

But an­other Amer­i­can of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said the idea was still in “the brain­storm­ing phase”.

The Afghan gov­ern­ment and its for­eign back­ers have been cul­ti­vat­ing mili­tias to bol­ster the 330,000-strong Afghan Na­tional Se­cu­rity and De­fense Forces as they bat­tle to get the up­per hand in the grind­ing con­flict.

In Afghanistan, mili­tias — pri­vate armies and gov­ern­ment-backed armed groups — have a long and che­quered his­tory in the war-torn coun­try and many Afghans are wary of them.

Civil­ian ca­su­al­ties were at record highs in the first six months of 2017, a UN re­port showed, with forces loyal to the Afghan gov­ern­ment ac­count­ing for nearly 20 per­cent of the deaths and in­juries.

Since Nato ended its com­bat mis­sion in 2014 the Tal­iban has been gain­ing ground and Is­lamic State is ex­pand­ing its foot­print.

As of Fe­bru­ary only about 60% of Afghanistan’s 407 dis­tricts were re­ported to be un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol, ac­cord­ing to the US watch­dog agency Si­gar.

Ear­lier this year Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani or­dered a near dou­bling of the coun­try’s elite fight­ing force from 17,000 as part of a four-year roadmap that also aims to strengthen Afghanistan’s air force.

While US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s com­mit­ment to in­crease Amer­i­can troop num­bers and leave them there in­def­i­nitely has been wel­comed by Afghan au­thor­i­ties,

they know it will take time to im­prove the fight­ing abil­i­ties of their se­cu­rity forces.

With par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions planned in the next two years they want a se­cu­rity quick fix.

But crit­ics fear that rather than sup­port Afghanistan’s be­lea­guered se­cu­rity forces, the mili­tia could ag­gra­vate fac­tion­al­ism and push Afghanistan deeper into con­flict.

“It’s a tool that the US mil­i­tary and suc­ces­sive Afghan gov­ern­ments have reached for and it looks like a so­lu­tion to their prob­lems but ac­tu­ally the real so­lu­tion would be to have a func­tion­ing ANA [Afghan Na­tional Army] and ANP [Afghan Na­tional Po­lice],” Kate Clark, a se­nior an­a­lyst at Afghanistan An­a­lysts Net­work, said.

“It’s a danger­ous thing to play with, arm­ing your civil­ians.”

Armed Afghan fight­ers lis­ten to their com­man­der dur­ing a pa­trol against Tal­iban in­sur­gents at Jamshedi, on the out­skirts of north­ern Faryab prov­ince. Afghanistan is con­sid­er­ing train­ing and arm­ing 20,000 civil­ians to de­fend ter­ri­to­ries where Is­lamic mil­i­tants have been driven out.

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