Is an ‘Afghan Awakening’ the solution?

The latest wave in arming Afghan citizens has come under the name of popular uprisings.

Afghan National Army soldiers perform during their graduation ceremony in Herat, Afghanistan [EPA]
Many former fighters were integrated into the national army, writes Malikyar [EPA]

With an intensified, geographically expanded, and increasingly polycephalic insurgency throughout Afghanistan, calls to arm are being issued by some marginalised politicians.

The latest, coming from Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, threatened that if the government does not organise the public against the armed opposition, he will do it.

Afghanistan’s Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum concluded his military campaign in the northern Faryab and Sar-e Pol provinces three weeks ago, declaring it a ravishing success.

It is said that he took the opportunity to re-mobilise over 2,000 of his former militiamen to complement the National Security Forces present in the area.

The general’s men, however, are purported to abuse their regained power. Some outraged Faryab residents have accused the militia of looting, torturing, extortion, abducting, and even dishonouring their girls.

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Politico-military pedigree

Following the trend, last week, the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Noor, donned his military uniform to personally lead a clearing operation in northern provinces.

With a colourful personality and many human rights violation accusations to his name, Dostum can be considered a pioneer in forming militia forces in Afghanistan’s recent history.

He first rose to prominence in the late 1980s, by establishing a pro-communist regime mercenary force and fighting against the mujahideen, only to switch sides in 1992 and help precipitate the fall of his former employer.

His militias participated in the ensuing bloody internecine war, which pitted the victors against each other and divided the nation along ethnic and sectarian lines.

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Atta’s warrior roots also go back to the days of mujahideen infighting, as does the politico-military pedigree of many former mujahideen commanders.

From protecting the US and NATO convoys to serving as personal bodyguards for influential politicians, ministers, governors and parliamentarians, the human fighting machines morphed into benign men in arms.


Although post-2001 international efforts to disarm and reintegrate various fighting forces in Afghanistan were rather ineffective, still, the re-establishment of state institutions, especially the national army, gradually sidelined armed groups.

Many former fighters were integrated into the national army while others found jobs as security guards in the lucrative private security business. From protecting the US and NATO convoys to serving as personal bodyguards for influential politicians, ministers, governors and parliamentarians, the human fighting machines morphed into benign men in arms.

Their former bosses, too, gradually lost their ferocity and became entangled in making money and playing Kabul politics.

De facto militia forces 

Meanwhile, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) began to take shape. As the most expensive endeavour of the international community in Afghanistan, ANSF is funded primarily by the US.

Despite many errors and setbacks, by the start of the US and NATO military withdrawal in 2013, the ANSF had risen to some 350,000 strong. International donors have pledged to continue paying most of the annual $4.1bn for the maintenance of the ANSF.

Additionally, in anticipation of their military withdrawal, the Americans decided to create de facto militia forces in areas where there was little or no presence of formal security forces. They dubbed it Afghan Local Police (ALP). Today, there are over 28,000 ALP members spread in 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

While in some areas the ALP has done well in keeping insurgents at bay, in many cases, they have abused their power and have become a source of insecurity for the locals.

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According to a recent United Nations report on the protection of civilians, some ALP forces have been responsible for summary executions, tortures, rapes, extortions and abductions of the very populations they are meant to protect. Moreover, the UN has found serious gaps in oversight and accountability on the part of the interior ministry.

The ALP project was first billed as akin to Arbaki, the traditional Pashtun tribal protection forces. But, while the government is responsible for vetting, financing and controlling ALP groups, traditional Arbakis were selected by local elders, were self-financed, and bound by tribal codes of honour. It was a volunteer community watch scheme.


In northern provinces, the privilege of forming militia forces under the sobriquet of ALP has mainly been bestowed upon notorious former jihadi commanders of either Jamiyyat Islami (mostly Tajik ethnics) or Hizb-i-Islami (mostly Pashtun ethnics). The two jihadi groups have a decades-long history of rivalry in northern Afghanistan. The third irregular forces in the area belong to Dostum and are mostly Uzbeks.

‘Popular uprisings’

The latest wave of arming citizens has come under the name of “popular uprisings”. A number of genuine and spontaneous local uprisings occurred recently in several provinces. In the absence of ANSF, the locals had no choice but to rise in self-defense against Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Now, politicians and former commanders who were left out of the ALP project are trying to seize the opportunity and convince Kabul and Washington to fund and arm villagers, especially in northern provinces.

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This summer, representatives of Badakhshan province informed the Parliament of an on-going distribution of weapons to villagers by “particular circles”. Since, other interest groups have also entered the game of popular armament.

During its inception, the ALP was likened to the “Sons of Iraq” or the Sunni “Awakening” forces that were created to counter the Iraqi Shia resistance to the US invasion. Now, the popular uprisings are explained as the “Afghan Awakening”. The utter failure and backlash of the Iraqi experiment should suffice to stop any arming and financing of people outside of the formal ANSF.

Donors and the Afghan government must concentrate on enhancing the ANSF capacity and management. Mobilising militias is counter-intuitive to state building and threatens to take Afghanistan back to the anarchy of the early 1990s.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.