Anti-Taliban tribal militias come with baggage

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The morning raid caught members of the tribal militia by surprise. By the end of the attack on the camp on a patch of desert scrub in eastern Afghanistan, 12 fighters of a group that had dared to take on the Taliban were dead.

But their attackers were not Taliban militants. They were fellow Shinwari tribesmen, incensed that the militia had commandeered a swath of their land.

The incident this year highlights the pitfalls of establishing militias in Afghanistan, a country marked by tribal rivalries, age-old feuds and warlords.

In principle, the concept makes sense. Even as the United States sends tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, its forces cannot police every patch of a country about the size of Texas. The Afghan army and police remain a work in progress.

Tribal militias represent a ready-made answer. In a society where firearms are prevalent, members are already well-armed. And they have an intimate knowledge of the lands they patrol.

But as anti-Taliban militias have surfaced here in Nangarhar province and several other areas of the country, they have been accompanied by a wide array of troubles, from armed robbery to an alleged gang-rape.

Some experts and Afghan lawmakers believe a reliance on tribal militias to help combat an insurgency is the wrong approach, especially if governmental monitoring is scant or nonexistent.

“These militias are becoming their own sources of insecurity in the country,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, deputy chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “They’re not bound by any law and are not following any clear guidelines.”

The program is not quite the same as the U.S. effort in Iraq in which former insurgents and Sunni Arag tribal leaders were paid to form paramilitary forces against Al Qaeda-linked militants, an initiative widely regarded as key to the success of the troop buildup that helped calm the civil war.

In Afghanistan, the tribes targeted by the initiative are not former Taliban. And, unlike the so-called Awakening program in Iraq, cash payments are not being made directly to militia groups. Instead, the incentive comes in the form of indirect assistance to their communities, funding the construction of roads, schools and other development projects.

Although the U.S. military is promoting the militias, it is trying to coordinate its efforts with the Afghan government and wants oversight of the initiative to ultimately be in Afghan hands. So far, the government has expressed wariness, preferring to see tribal militias folded into the police force. The militias are not armed by the U.S. and rely on their own weapons.

U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for international forces in Afghanistan, called the initiative “more of a Neighborhood Watch situation. It’s beneficial for them, and it’s beneficial for us.... We’re working with the Afghan government to provide security, and that takes a variety of different means. If local people can help in that security, as long as their effort is tied to the government, we see that as a positive step.”

Twice in the last two months, militia members in the central province of Daikundi have repelled Taliban attacks, including one at a 10-man police check post by 50 insurgents spraying gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Elsewhere, however, militia initiatives have veered off track. In the northern province of Kunduz, a woman said she had been raped by three members of her village’s anti-Taliban militia in April. Though the woman has taken the unusual step of speaking out publicly about the attack on Afghan television, police have yet to make any arrests, Nadery said. Authorities in Kunduz would not return phone calls.

This month in Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, authorities believe residents may have paid a steep price for forming a militia. At a wedding celebration in which many of the guests, including the groom, were members of the local militia, a young suicide bomber killed more than 40 people and injured 80.

“This is a very dangerous game,” said Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a lawmaker and head of a party that backs President Hamid Karzai. “Who is responsible for these militias? Who will save them if the Taliban attack them? It’s a nice dream, but I think these militias are a failed formula.”

Here in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, tribesmen fed up with assassinations and roadside bombings carried out by the Taliban formed a militia in self-defense. For a while, the show of defiance worked. The Taliban backed off.

In return, the Achin community received $200,000 from the U.S. to help build roads, schools and small factories to generate jobs.

“We were preventing the Taliban from causing problems in our area,” said Shinwari tribal elder Malik Usman, whose brother was killed by a roadside bomb in 2009.

As is often the case in Afghan society, tribal grudges and rivalries eventually took hold.

Usman’s militia, largely made up of members of the Shobli clan within the Shinwari tribe, believed that a rival clan, the Ali Sher Khel, had been building settlements on their land. They set up a cluster of about 100 tents along a six-mile stretch of grazing land the Ali Sher Khel clan claimed was theirs.

“This land belongs to us, and has for many years,” said Haji Akhtar Mohammed Shinwari, an Ali Sher Khel elder. “We won’t let anyone take over our land.”

The dispute boiled over Feb. 27, when Ali Sher Khel tribesmen raided the militia camp, said Mueen Shah, a top Nangarhar provincial official who conducted his own investigation.

Shah blames the militia for provoking the violence by wresting away land that wasn’t theirs. If anything, he said, the episode illustrates the risk of relying on untrained, unsupervised militias to help shoulder the burden of battling the insurgency.

“These militias aren’t useful,” Shah said. “These aren’t trained people. In the name of bringing peace to the region, they’re misusing their authority for their own gain.”