Counterinsurgency, Local Militias, and Statebuilding in Afghanistan

30 May 2014

Afghan police force trains to serve, courtesy of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/flickr
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With an ongoing insurgency and the pending departure of ISAF forces, will the Afghan Local Police (ALP) have a positive impact the country’s politics and security? Jonathan Goodhand and Aziz Hakimi aren’t optimistic. They worry that the force may fragment into competing militias.

By Jonathan Goodhand and Aziz Hakim for United States Institute of Peace (USIP)

This report was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace on 18 December 2013.


In the context of the Afghan security transition of 2014, when the bulk of foreign military forces are due to withdraw, policy debates have focused on the role and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).[1] Much effort has been devoted to building up and bureaucratizing the means of violence in Afghanistan with a view to establishing a legitimate monopoly over the means of coercion. Yet this has been paralleled by a series of government and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) experiments in arming local defense forces, including local militias under the ALP, to fight the insurgency and provide security at the local level. Frequently, notions of Afghan ownership, local solutions, and cost-effectiveness are invoked to justify such programs. This strategy is not without controversy, however. It has prompted concerns about the efficacy and impact of such interventions on the Afghan state’s capacity to rein in armed groups, impose a monopoly over the means of violence, improve security, balance civil-military relations, enforce the rule of law, create political stability, and end the internal conflict. These debates on the role of irregular forces tend to be driven by agency interests and based on limited or disputed evidence.

This report attempts to provide an empirically based and independent analysis of the ALP program.[2] It aims to show how the program and its previous iterations evolved and its impacts at the local and national levels. The research addresses the roles and impacts of the ALP program on security and political dynamics in the context of ongoing counterinsurgency and stabilization operations and the transition of security responsibilities from Western forces to Afghan security forces.[3]


International intervention in Afghanistan has been driven and shaped by different (and competing) logics, justifications, and modalities. [4] Although it is often claimed that all good things come together, in practice, major contradictions and trade-offs are involved in pursuing multiple objectives simultaneously.[5] The most fundamental contradiction is attempting to build peace while fighting a war (Suhrke 2011). This contradiction manifests itself in the sphere of policing in the form of tension between a U.S. focus on paramilitary policing to pursue the war and a European focus on civil policing to consolidate the peace. [6]

In addition to a complex range of often contradictory interests, the international response has shifted over time. Intervention began as a relatively minimalist endeavor involving a limited presence of U.S. ground forces fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban through local proxies. [7] This changed over time to a more expansive, top-down form of statebuilding—encompassing all the transformative ambitions and recognized deficiencies of what is generally called liberal peacebuilding—radical institution building, good governance, reconstruction, security sector reform, rule of law, and so forth.[8] This was followed by a third phase, returning in some respects to a modified version of the first phase, in response to the intensification of the insurgency and the evident failures of statebuilding. The terminology, if not always the practices, changed to incorporate what are known as more bottom-up, Afghan-led, culturally appropriate, quick-impact stabilization measures. This approach was influenced by wider trends in military doctrine, shifts in personnel—particularly the arrival of General Stanley McChrystal as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—and imperatives from the field. This was paralleled by a massive surge in international troops and financial resources aimed at turning the situation around. Thomas Barfield (2012) nicely captures the shift in how the international community defined and responded to the ‘Afghan problem’: In 2002, the absence of a strong centralized state was viewed as the driver of insecurity and terrorism, yet by 2011, a corrupt, illegitimate central state was considered the core of the problem. A fourth and most recent phase has been transition, the drawdown of foreign troops by 2014 and the handover of ownership to the Afghan government, including responsibility for fighting the Taliban and providing security for the population. This latest phase has involved a further and hasty redefinition of the problem and the criteria for success—leading to a search for pragmatic solutions—and the ALP can perhaps be understood as one manifestation of this shift toward expediency. This phase has also been marked by the surfacing of long-standing tensions between the Afghan government and international actors, particularly the United States. President Hamid Karzai has openly distanced himself from the U.S. war agenda and emphasized Afghan sovereignty and independence.

Shifting Security and Policing Environment

International intervention at the end of 2001 marked the mutation of thirty years of conflict into a new phase rather than the beginning of a transition from war to peace. The preceding war years had seen the growing decentralization of the means of violence, associated with the emergence of a new class of military entrepreneurs and a political economy shaped by military patrimonialism. The collapse of the Najibullah regime was followed by a demodernization of the army, in which, over time, fragments of the regular army in the north gradually assumed the character of militias, similar to other military forces in the rest of the country (Giustozzi 2009a).[9] The Taliban regime to some extent centralized the means of violence, including through an effective disarmament campaign, a process that was reversed by internationally promoted regime change, leading to the further fragmentation of the political-military landscape.

International military intervention, the exclusive elite pact forged in Bonn in 2001,[10] the failures of statebuilding, and the absence of meaningful reconciliation efforts galvanized the insurgency, which over time intensified and spread geographically. Although patchy attempts at disarmament were attempted in the north and less so in the south, as the insurgency intensified, the U.S. military embarked on arming Pashtun rivals of the Taliban in the south. If war is, as Ariel Ahram suggests, “an effective auditor of institutional performance” (2011, 16), the growing insurgency exposed deficiencies in the capacity and legitimacy of the Afghan state.

Western efforts to regulate what was in effect a security market have been contradictory and often ill considered. On the one hand, interventions were directed toward bureaucratizing coercion by building up a monopoly on the means of violence through security sector reform, which was defined as the five related pillars of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and ANP; judicial reform; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR); and counternarcotics. On the other hand, foreign forces continued to support and fund local power brokers, creating militias and deploying private security companies, who operated either above or below the law.[11] Unsurprisingly, given the continued high levels of insecurity and the absence of real socioeconomic opportunities to encourage the reintegration of fighters, DDR programs were a failure. Warlord democratization by absorbing jihadi factions into key ministries succeeded in relation to some of the senior figures within the northern alliance. However, many provincial strongmen resisted the extension of centralized state power into the periphery, while mid- to low-level fighters had few options beyond military-patrimonial networks or engagement in the drug economy. The underlying structural conditions that explain the continued persistence of illegal militias, far from being transformed, have intensified over time. Programs that attempted to centralize the means of coercion and establish effective policing were a threat to the interests of many, both within and outside the state (Giustozzi and Isaqzadeh 2013).

Efforts to invest in policing reflect and have contributed to this security environment. Initially, investment in policing was limited and muddled (Giustozzi and Isaqzadeh 2013; Wilder 2007), though in 2006, the Afghanistan Compact[12] stated that by the end of 2010 there would be a fully constituted, professional, functional, and ethnically balanced ANP and Afghan Border Police (ABP) with a combined force of up to 62,000 that had the ability to meet the security needs of the country and be increasingly fiscally sustainable. The ANP’s growth targets expanded, paralleling the increase in size of the ANSF more generally, and the ANP numbered some 148,500 personnel in February 2013 (Planty and Perito 2013, 1). [13] Between 2001 and 2011, the international community spent more than $15 billion on Afghanistan’s police. The focus for the United States, however, was primarily on the paramilitary dimensions of policing rather than on building an institution to enforce the rule of law.[14] As the United States became more involved in funding and organizing policing, the strategic goal was increasingly to fight off organized challenges to state power.[15] This emphasis on training and using the police in offensive counterinsurgency roles reflected the institutional preferences of the U.S. Department of Defense, which has had primary responsibility for police assistance in Afghanistan since 2005 (Rosenau 2008, 10; Perito 2009, 5). Between 2005 and February 2013, the United States, the largest donor in this sector, spent some $14 billion to train and equip the ANP (Planty and Perito 2013). Efforts directed at restructuring and training the police achieved mixed success, and even by 2011, the uniformed police “was still more like a fragmented coterie of militias than either a paramilitary police or a civilian police force” (Giustozzi and Isaqzadeh 2011, 18).

This combination of protracted conflict and invasive international intervention has led to a militarized and volatile security landscape inseparable from the wider regional conflict system, given that both Afghanistan and Pakistan use asymmetrical warfare to pursue statebuilding goals.

The decentralization of violence and remobilization has arguably accelerated in the run-up to the transition deadline. When General David Petraeus took over for McChrystal in 2010, the rules of engagement shifted from counterinsurgency back to counterterrorism. This shift was reflected in an increased reliance on night raids, aerial bombardment, and drones. Some argue that Afghanistan has increasingly become a dirty war whose brutality has increased insecurity, which in turn has been used to justify the arming of communities by U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOFs), the Afghan state, or regional strongmen (Boone 2011). A negative spiral is in evidence as concerns about a chaotic post-2014 scenario contribute to a spontaneous rearmament by communities and militias.

Read the full report.

[1] The ANSF are composed of the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police (ANP), and National Directorate of Security (NDS). The total project strength of the armed forces is currently at 352,000, but plans are to reduce it by 100,000 after 2014.

[2] Research for this paper was funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kabul and the United States Institute of Peace. The authors would also like to acknowledge the invaluable feedback provided on an early draft of this paper by Antonio Giustozzi, Mark Sedra, Astri Suhrke, and Torunn Wimpelmann.

[3] These findings are based on a structured, focused comparison of provincial case studies in Wardak, Baghlan, and Kunduz, complemented by interviews in Kabul and a review of the secondary literature. Provincial and Kabul-level field work was conducted from September 2011 through July 2012 by Aziz Hakimi. This was followed up by a field visit to Kabul in November 2012 by both authors. A total of 160 interviews were conducted with a range of key informants, including Afghan officials in Kabul; provincial governors and police chiefs; local elders; provincial council members; ANA, ANP, and NDS personnel; serving and former ministers; International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. special operations force (SOF) officers; journalists; and civil society activists. Research of this nature faces significant challenges in relation to security, ethics, and methodology. We have attempted to mitigate these challenges through a range of strategies including mixing methods, triangulation of data, careful deliberation over research ethics, collaborating closely with local partners, and drawing on long-standing relationships in the field.

[4] The various stated goals of the interveners have included: counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, statebuilding, development, democratization, counternarcotics, human rights, and gender equity. Other factors that were less openly acknowledged include: reorienting the NATO alliance, strengthening diplomatic ties between Western allies, countering the influence of enemies, responding to pressures from domestic voters, and accessing resources or trying to protect existing policy investments.

[5] For a critical account of international statebuilding and peacebuilding efforts during the post–Cold War period, see Mayall and de Oliviera (2011).

[6] This contradiction essentially boils down to different conceptions of the police force as either a gendarmerie or a civilian police force (Rosenau 2008; Giustozzi and Isaqzadeh 2013).

[7] So, for example, the United States resisted the expansion of ISAF forces beyond Kabul, wanting to maintain a light footprint and to prioritize the war on terror over peacekeeping (Maley 2006; Rubin 2005).

[8] For a useful overview of the antecedents and emergence of the liberal peace, see Paris (2004). For a critique of the liberal peace as a policy paradigm, see Chandler (2010).

[9] Interestingly, in the light of current debates on militias, it was Dostum’s “army of the north,” originally a militia which mostly retained its character for some time as a regular army.

[10] The Bonn Agreement (officially the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions) was signed on December 22, 2001. Among its provisions were the establishment of an Afghan Interim Authority, an Afghan Constitution Commission, and a NATO-led ISAF.

[11] In both Iraq and Afghanistan, use of private and irregular security forces has been extensive. In March 2011, roughly 174,000 contractors were active in Afghanistan and Iraq.

[12] The Afghanistan Compact was adopted in January of 2006, when the transition process set out in the Bonn Agreement had been formally completed. The compact lay out a set of political, economic, and security benchmarks agreed between the international community and the Afghan government to be met in the succeeding five years.

[13] The ANP is composed of the following sections: the Afghan Uniform Police, 90,500 members responsible for core policing functions; the Afghan National Civil Order Police, an elite constabulary of 14,400 personnel; the Afghan Border Police (ABP), 20,000 personnel responsible for security at airports, land entry points, and border security zones; and the Afghan Anti-Crime Police, 3,400 personnel responsible for the investigative and intelligence capacities of the ANP nationwide (Planty and Perito, 2013, 4).

[14] One illustration of this bias is the content of the focused district development training program provided by U.S. police mentoring teams. The program included seven weeks of instruction in military tactics, weapons use, survival strategies, and counterinsurgency operations and one week of training in basic police skills.

[15] “Creating paramilitary police forces is a relatively straightforward endeavour, as it requires little or no culturally specific instruction, and can be carried out by rapidly deployable military advisors. Establishing professional, accountable, public-safety oriented police is another matter altogether” (Rosenau 2008, 15).


Jonathan Goodhand is a professor of conflict and development studies in the Development Studies department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. His research interests include the political economy of aid, conflict, and postwar reconstruction, with a particular focus on Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Aziz Hakimi is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. His dissertation focuses on the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in relation to Afghan statebuilding.


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