Rogue Power Emergence of Anti-Taliban Militias a Cause for Concern
To make up for a lack of manpower in the fight against the Taliban, the Afghan government has encouraged the formation of armed militias in Kunduz Province. But German soldiers fighting in the area are unsure how to deal with these roving bands of guerillas fighters.
Gachi Nabi thought his days as "Commander Nabi" were behind him. "My military jacket had been hanging in the closet for years," says the 49-year-old Turkmen, as he straightens out the fake-fur collar on his camouflaged parka. "Even my Kalashnikov was pretty dusty." Gachi moved out of Kunduz seven years ago, when the US military drove the Taliban out. Instead of leading a group of mujahadeen against the Taliban, he became the manager of a fish restaurant. "We made good money," he said. "At the end of the day, we'd have about $300 in the till. Life was better than it was during war."
But, several weeks ago, Gachi became Commander Nabi once again. Together with about 60 fighters, most of whom are youths from the surrounding area, Gachi patrols the Qalay-I-Zal district in the northern part of Kunduz Province around the clock. The former mujahadeen describes the group as something like a neighborhood watch organization. In reality, however, it is a heavily armed -- and, by Afghan law, illegal -- militia that formed before Afghanistan's Aug. 20 parliamentary elections. Gachi says people from the region called and told him of the atrocities the Taliban was committing. They begged him to help drive the militants away.
'Most People Have an AK-47'
So, Gachi says, he returned to Qalay-I-Zal a few days before the elections were held. With regional elders, he went from village to village to recruit his fighters. Training proved largely unnecessary. "Almost everyone knows how to use a weapon," he says. "Plus, most people have an AK-47 lying around the house. So, it went pretty quickly."
Over the next few nights, Gachi had his soldiers simply waited on several streets for the Taliban to show up. When they did, they engaged them. There were losses on both sides; on the first night, Gachi lost five men. But, in the end, his militia succeeded in convincing the Taliban to withdraw.
The Afghan government had originally intended for several local militia units, including Gachi's, to be used as a temporary solution for increasing security during the time surrounding the presidential election. They were meant to fill the gaps left by shortages in soldiers and police. Since then, though, they have taken on a life of their own. Now these militias are an established element of the security architecture of Kunduz, such as it is in this provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, where Germany's soldiers are stationed.
Where the Police Fear to Tread
No one really knows how many of these militias have sprung up in the mean time. As Police Chief Abdul Razak Yakubi stands in his lavishly furnished office and points with a baton at the locations of individual groups on a map of Kunduz Province, it's easy to lose sight of the overall picture. Yakubi, who is usually referred to as just General Razak and is well-respected by the German forces in the area, is very enthusiastic about the guerrilla groups. "Kabul won't give me any more police officers for Kunduz," he says. So he'll take all the fighters he can get. "For now, they are just militias," he says. "But maybe we will be able to make real policemen out of them in the next few years."
There are many in Kunduz who want a moment of Commander Nabi's time. On Tuesday, he was seated alongside some village elders from Qalay-I-Zal with the head of the intelligence services in Kunduz. There wasn't a free seat in the massive, sofa-filled room. Other militia leaders came in groups of three and four from Khanabad in the southeast, from Aliabad even further south or from Imam Saheb in the north. Such place names are familiar in Germany because they are where German soldiers often come under attack -- or prefer to avoid altogether for their own safety. There is little in the way of a police force and the Taliban rules. Increasingly, they are also the places witnessing the emergence of private armies, like that of Commander Nabi.
The authorities welcome the presence of the militias. The head of the intelligence services asked the leaders one by one what they needed. The answer was always the same: weapons, radios, cars. He then asked if the militiamen had any information about the location of Taliban leaders. One by one, the men came forward, including some who bear the marks of having fought as mujahedeen for years. They provided the names of Taliban leaders and details of where they might be hidden. Commander Nabi knows his enemy well; he is called Mullah Selba. He says they haven't seen the leader since they have been fighting the Taliban. But if he reappears, "we'll settle it our way," Nabi says, in a tone that pleases the intelligence chief.
Arming the Disarmed
Still, the German soldiers stationed there are not completely comfortable with the idea of private armies battling the Taliban. Officers estimate that there are roughly 200-400 such armed groups patrolling the area around Kunduz. But no one knows for sure. Indeed, from time to time, German patrols have found themselves in tricky situations with the militias. "From a distance," says one German officer, "all we see is that there are armed men. But how are we to know whether they are Taliban or other criminals -- or whether they will attack us?"
The discussion about the militias is as old as the war in Afghanistan itself. Again and again, the idea of using guerrilla groups for targeted purposes has been discussed. And, as the US hammers out its new Afghanistan strategy, it will certainly be an issue on the table once again. When they have been used, there has only been partial success. When it goes bad, though, former allies can quickly become the enemy. The United States, which now has a large camp in Kunduz, is indirectly involved in arming the militias -- often without consulting the Germans fighting there.
Working with these militias creates a host of practical problems. But one of the bitterest aspects of the arrangement -- at least for those few who still believe in the lofty goals of the Afghanistan mission -- is rearmament. In a bid to reduce the overall number of weapons in Afghanistan, the West has paid out millions to persuade Afghans to surrender their Kalashnikovs in return for $100 (67). Now the Germans can only stand back and watch as people with faces they recognize from the disarmament process are outfitted with new rifles and rocket launchers.
Today's Friend, Tomorrow's Enemy
The Germans think that there might be even more serious problems somewhere down the road. At the moment, the militias are still mostly deployed against the Taliban. But what will happen, officers ask, if the groups that have been armed and gained battle experience go their own way and start pursuing their own agenda? Though the Afghan government sorely needed the guerrillas during the election, their former allies could quickly stand up to the weak state and defend their territory with their weapons -- and not only from the clutches of the Taliban.
Indeed, many skeptics fear that the current fostering of private armies could spell the beginning of a new process of disintegration in Afghanistan. They believe that various clans are already discussing their fiefdoms with the militias. Such fears were fuelled by the fact that, in a recent meeting of Kunduz's provincial council focused on reducing the province's number of districts, the new borders that were proposed just happended to be roughly identical to those defining the areas of influence of the various militias.
In fact, most of the discussion focused on Qalay-I-Zal, the area in which Commander Nabi and his men exert power. But Gachi insists that he knows nothing about the discussion.
Then his men get back aboard the white Toyota pickup truck, strap on their weapons and wrap scarves around their faces to protect themselves from sand. If it weren't for their beloved sunglasses, you could easily mistake them for Taliban fighters.