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Make or break for Marja militia

Khalil Rahman Omaid
The transition of security duties is ongoing across Afghanistan, and some of the burden at district level has been passed to Afghan Local Police units, reincarnated forms of the traditional arbakai local militias.…
4.11.2012  |  Helmand
An ALP officer on patrol in Marja. But who will pay him and hundreds more like him after the drawdown of international forces is not clear. (Photos: Omaid)
An ALP officer on patrol in Marja. But who will pay him and hundreds more like him after the drawdown of international forces is not clear. (Photos: Omaid)

Amid the complex transition of security duties from international to Afghan forces, Marja, a trophy district for NATO in Helmand Province, is managing to fend off insurgent activity with the help of a locally raised milita. For now, at least.

An insurgent stronghold before being cleared in a giant military operation in early 2010, Marja today displays a surprising degree of stability, largely thanks to units of the Afghan Local Police, which were formed two years ago and are armed and paid by the US military.

However, training for the 16,000 strong force across the country was suspended in September in response to 'insider killings' of foreign troops by its members. And criminal behaviour by some ALP created deep doubts about the reliability of the force. In Marja, though, it seems to be holding its ground and its good reputation in tact.

Because of the local militia, now Marja is Marja. Otherwise, Marja was a nest of killing and terror. People, who might have come to Laskargah once, were not able to come to Marja.))

"Marja used to be a nest of killing and terror," said Ali Shah Khan Mazloomyar, a local elder who praises the achievements of the force. "Because of the militia, Marja is now itself again."

Mazloomyar lives in Lashkar Gah but owns land and works in Marja. He says he is again able to commute to his fields because of improved security. But he also worries about cracks appearing. “Anti government elements have infiltrated the local militia forces, and some of the members are addicted to narcotics. I want the government to investigate them,” he added.   

Controversial project

“No one protects their home like a homeowner,” US General David Petraeus, the founder of the ALP, argued in July 2011. Petraeus imported the idea of local militias on the model of the 'awakening councils' that were first established in Iraq and then instituted in Afghanistan. 

“My best friend is this small, black gun because it can save my life at any moment." Commander Mirza.

At the time, President Hamid Karzai, the Afghan government and international stakeholders expressed concerns that creating the new force would cause disruption within the regular Afghan National Police and Army. But work went ahead, and arbakai, de facto local militias that had sprung up, were formalised as ALP from Kunduz in the north, to Kandarhar and Helmand.

In some areas, like the Chardara District of Kunduz, things went wrong - rogue ALP units were terrorising local inhabitants and had to be disbanded. In Marja, their inception was hailed as an invaluable resource after the ouster of Taliban forces during Operation Moshtarak, a combined assault by 15,000 international and Afghan troops. 

The Marja challenge

Major financing was ploughed into this large farming region to rebuild the market, schools and roads and install street lighting. Yet displaced residents were afraid to return to their homes as Taliban intimidation persisted.

Local elders and former Mujahedin commanders then successfully lobbied to have the right to defend Marja against insurgent re-occupation. The arbakai were reformed as ALP.  Exact numbers of personnel are hard to obtain, but it is estimated that 400 ALP serve alongside ANP and ANA forces in Marja, with another 200 informal militiamen contracted and paid for by US forces until they too can be inducted as ALP.

At the ready

A local businessman in Marja, Helmand ProvinceVested interest: A storekeeper who also serves in the local militia to keep the area safe and trade alive.

During a recent trip to Marja, an Afghanistan Today reporter visited a checkpoint operated by one Commander Mirza. Despite irregular payment of salaries, his men still stand guard at the post, listening to music to pass the time, but ready to fight back. 

“My best friend is this small, black gun because it can save my life at any moment," said Mirza, leaning against the gate, one eye on the surrounding land as he talked about his unit's work. This work carries a grave risk of retribution: The commander and his men can no longer live a normal life and can hardly leave the village unarmed, he says.

According to Mirza, from the day he started working in this capacity his economic situation has deteriorated. He admits that he occasionally wonders if it would have been better to sit at home and not confront the old masters of Marja. But, "securing the area from the Taliban is better than this," he concludes. 

Looming collapse?

Asef Khan, who commands another group that has yet to be formally transformed as ALP, is confident that the people - if not probable scenarios ahead - are on his side: “The people of Marja have witnessed the cruelty of the Taliban and they will never forget it. These people will never want the Taliban ruling them again," he says.

Nonetheless, there are signs of growing unease and disatisfaction among Marja's grass-roots defence force.

"It is disappointing when I see our economic situation getting worse by the day," said Baz Gul, another senior local commander. "When Marja was unstable, they [American and Afghan forces] helped our militias. We want them to maintain this support as they did in the past."

Baz Gul, a local commander. Commander Baz Gul demands guarantees of continued funding by the US military and Afghan government.

The hard-won security can be eroded by other factors too. Regeneration of the area has slowed as Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan wind down, causing some projects to wither on the vine.

At the administration level, Marja District chief Abdul Mutalib is acutely aware that without US funding, which could disappear at at any moment, the force and the peace it guards could easily be disbanded.

“The district does not have the facilities and funds to support the salaries of the local militias,” says Mutalib. ”But we still try to help as much as we can." 

Meanwhile, there is a growing concern that disbanding the ALP and arbakai can create a ready force of guns for hire by other factions, Taliban included. And that applies not just in Marja but in many other parts of the country.

After its liberation from Taliban control, an optimistic US source called Marja “safer than Detroit”. By contrast, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) General Stanley McChrystal called Marja “a wound shedding blood”. And if the plug is pulled on its local defence force, this wound can open beyond the point of healing.