President Obama recently announced a course correction relative to the U.S. troop reduction in Afghanistan. He is now convinced that the woes of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are far from over. In addition to recommendations from the commanders on the ground, the brazen takeover last month (albeit temporary) of the fifth largest Afghan city Kunduz undoubtedly influenced his reversal. There is also the issue of a repeat of what happened in Iraq. Many fault the president's decision to completely withdraw from Iraq as reason for the emergence of ISIS. While that decision may have played a small role, ISIS was in the making for some time. President Obama does not want a similar situation in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, the Afghan government has signed the Bilateral Security Agreement last year making it possible for our troops to be in Afghanistan indefinitely.
One element of the ANSF is the Afghan Local Police (ALP) manned by local militias to defend the villages where they live against encroaching Taliban. This idea was tried in 1989 in Afghanistan and failed. As the Soviet troops withdrew, the then communist Afghan leader Najibullah, using Soviet money, hired tens of thousands of militias to deny territory to the advancing the so-called mujahedeen trying to topple him. The undisciplined militias took the money, could not fight very effectively and eventually switched sides.
In 2010 we pushed hard for the formation of the ALP as a first line of defense against an ever increasing resurgent Taliban insurgency. Local Afghan warlords were also in favor of this project as they saw the formation of an ALP funded by the U.S. as a source of revenue and power. As a political director of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, I held many meetings with local warlords who pushed very hard for creating the ALP. As I and others, including Afghan government officials, feared then the ALP has not been a very successful program. It goes against the effort to politically make ANSF a more cohesive force, there is no accountability leading to abuse, and it makes the societal fissures wider.
As reported by The New York Times, now the Afghan government is trying to recruit thousands more militias to expand the ALP. This move comes in the aftermath of the disastrous performance of the Afghan National Army and police in Kunduz. One of the key initiatives for Ashraf Ghani was to do away with the militias and ALP in favor of empowering and strengthening ANSF. This reversal in policy speaks volumes about the security concerns every party has, but the outcome is uncertain. The rationale behind hiring more militia is that an expanded ALP will free up the army and the police from the districts to defend the provinces. The ALP is funded by the U.S. The European members of the Resolute Support Mission will not provide any funding for the ALP expansion.
Concurrently, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) released a damning report about the waste of U.S. funds for ALP. It notes that despite $470 million spent on the program, the ALP lacks logistics support and oversight. ALP supplies are often diverted to other units, are of inferior quality and heavily pilfered. ALP personnel are used inappropriately as bodyguards for Afghan officials. The report states that unless this practice is stopped, the ALP will be of limited efficacy as a village security force.
In light of the SIGAR and other reports, increasing the number of ALP militias will not only not solve the endemic problems, it could very well magnify them to the detriment of both Afghanistan and U.S. taxpayer funds. I am not a proponent of sudden disengagement from Afghanistan, but we need to make our continued support of its dysfunctional government contingent upon them making a better effort. The Afghan government wants us to be there because they know their very survival is at stake. But without meaningful changes their security woes will continue to snowball. Under current circumstances, the U.S. should brace itself to have a strong presence in Afghanistan for a long time. The longest American war seems to be headed toward an endless engagement.