The poor performance of militiamen-turned-cops from the Afghan Local Police was a major factor in the fall of Kunduz in September. Now a top Washington watchdog is questioning the ALP’s overall effectiveness.
On Oct. 26, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released an audit of the rural police force. SIGAR investigators described the ALP as a black hole for American aid, with equipment routinely going missing and cops going without pay.
With such little oversight, local politicians had turned the units into personal bodyguards and otherwise abused the force.
“The ALP is the first line of defense for many villages across Afghanistan, but supplies ordered for the ALP are often diverted, delayed, of inferior quality or heavily pilfered,” the inspectors wrote in the audit’s executive summary. “Unreliable logistics and lack of supplies … increase the likelihood of attrition.”
Formed in 2010, the ALP now has nearly 30,000 members spread across the country. While nominally under the control of the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, American and Afghan officials specifically envisioned the force as providing security in remote areas where the government had limited influence.
To bulk up the force, the Pentagon let various militias and even former Taliban sign up for the program in exchange for money, gear and at least some semblance of loyalty to the central government. But few — if any — groups appeared to give up their local agendas in the process, which bred distrust between the organization and authorities in Kabul.
“Senior Afghan officials were reluctant to endorse community-based units, in part because they circumvented central government authority,” a June 2015 report from the non-profit International Crisis Group stated. “They resembled militias that had contributed to the civil wars of the 1990s.”
This could help explain why supplies are slow to reach ALP compounds, if they get there at all. SIGAR found that the Ministry of Interior was only sending out one supply convoy every month to deliver critical items to some units. The Pentagon found “that although there may be plenty of weapons and ammunition in the supply system, district and provincial requests go unfilled,” according to SIGAR’s review.
The problems extend to the ALP’s payroll. The cops will need more than $100 million annually, according to Pentagon estimates. As of April 2015, the United States had already set aside nearly $500 million to keep the program running.
And yet, in five years of ALP operations, SIGAR found that no American officials had ever tried to figure out if all that money was getting to the right places. The Pentagon’s organization in charge of training Afghan security forces, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, actually cancelled its audit after learning the watchdog had started its review.
“Coalition sources noted that when they visited villages and checkpoints, and asked ALP personnel what their salaries were, they consistently received answers indicating that ALP personnel were either paid above or below the pay rate stipulated by the ALP Establishment Procedures,” SIGAR explained.
This means that — somewhere along the line — there are ALP officials likely stealing or diverting paychecks into their own pockets. SIGAR investigators found instances where commanders received salaries for police officers no longer on duty and where cops had received double and triple payments.
Outside groups are also stealing funds. The watchdog reported instances where the “trusted agents” charged with handing out the cash were skimming or outright taking ALP funds. “Some ALP personnel believed they received a pay raise of 30 percent when their district was switched from trusted agent to electronic funds transfer due to the fact that they were receiving their full pay for the first time,” SIGAR stated.
The lack of pay has caused a series of cascading problems throughout the whole, loose-knit organization. There’s morale problems. Local commanders have also illegally “taxed” and otherwise stolen from their communities to supplement their meager incomes. The Taliban, even for all its brutality and religious fundamentalism, can present itself as a relief to local populations the ALP abuses.
Of course, the ALP hasn’t done its public image any favors. A year after its creation, the top American commander in Afghanistan launched a formal investigation into reports of human rights abuses by ALP units. The investigators had trouble confirming many of the allegations and suggested that the problems were not necessarily widespread.
“[The ALP] appears to be largely in compliance with internal directives regarding its actions related to alleged human rights abuses,” the official report stated. But “ALP efforts to comply were sometimes hampered by competing government elements or local powerbrokers influencing the system.”
However, SIGAR and various independent monitoring groups continue to find abuses and fraud to be rampant throughout the organization. Most of these activities violate Afghan law, the ALP’s own procedures, or both.
In an almost complete reversal of the program’s intent, Washington’s investigators found that a number of local political actors — often former warlords themselves — were using the local cops as their own private militias.
In one instance, a politician specifically requested a 50-man ALP force for his area and then turned around and used it as his personal bodyguard.
“According to SOJTF-A, misuse of the ALP is the strongest indicator of larger problems within a district, such as collusion with insurgents, human rights violations or other illegal actions,” SIGAR’s staff reported, using the acronym for the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, America’s top commando headquarters in the country.
Often operating with virtual impunity, the rural police forces have been accused of kidnapping, murder and sexual assault, particularly of young boys.
Especially in northern Afghanistan, militia commanders participate in bacha bazi — a phrase originally from Farsi that literally translates as “boy play” — where young boys are coerced into cross-dressing and dancing for groups of older men and then raped.
Backlash against the ALP and other government-sanctioned militias was a key factor in the Taliban’s recent takeover of Kunduz. “The pro-government militias and Afghan Local Police have behaved so badly as to make the state look unattractive,” Borhan Osman wrote in his dissection of the situation for the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
And it’s not only civilians caught up in the abuses who have misgivings about the ALP. In the 2015 documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, filmmakers Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy watch as a Afghan National Army soldiers confront and threaten members of the ALP.
The troops accuse the cops of attacking them. In a stirring scene, one of the first things the ANA commander Capt. Jalaluddin does is establish that the men are local rather than national police. Speaking Dari while one of the militiamen — who looks young enough to be a child soldier — translates to his commander, Jalaluddin says his soldiers won’t be very “nice” if they have to come back again.
“Tell him,” Jalaluddin tells the boy. “He says if it happens again, they’re gonna come back and roll us all up and throw our bodies in the canal,” the young man explains to the ALP officer in charge.
SIGAR says that the interior ministry doesn’t even have a plan for the program’s future. Without any funding after 2018, Kabul might have to disband the force or try to roll it into the country’s national police.
Both of these options could lead to additional problems. If the central government doesn’t have firm control over large swaths of the countryside in the next two or three years, the disbanded ALP units could simply go back to operating as independent militants.
And if the ALP continues to be terrible in so many respects, it might not be feasible to turn the men into regular, uniformed cops. SIGAR said that many local policemen don’t meet the literacy or even age requirements to join the national police.
Still, the watchdog insists the rural police are an important piece of Afghanistan’s security puzzle. But without significant improvements, the militiamen could also be one of the country’s greatest liabilities.