Recent violence allegedly sparked by the behaviour of local police and militia groups in northern Afghanistan has raised fears that the planned withdrawal of international forces could lead to renewed violence even in the generally more peaceful north.
“Violence has been increasing. Since the Karzai government has been in power we have not seen such high levels of violence here,” said Nadira Geya, head of the Directorate of Women’s Affairs in the northern province of Kunduz. “Before, we didn’t have cases of militia killing women - not even once a year. This year we have already seen several cases.”
The drawdown and handover of power, which has started, will see the Afghan military take over from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by 2014, but NGOs say the situation in the north is tricky, with rising violence against civilians, growing internal displacement, and increasing protection concerns.
Violence has increased in the north since the drawdown got under way, according to local journalist Matin Sarfraz. “When the US and NGOs were here, these old mujahedin commanders - now ALP [Afghan Local Police] - felt if they did anything wrong they would be held accountable. When they were going to commit a crime, they would think twice. But now they know that every issue ends with the Afghan government and courts, and many of them have strong links with top government officials, so they feel they can do anything they want.”
Making matters worse is the fact that people are re-arming in the north, said Sarfraz. “If the international community is no longer there, many of the commanders and militia think they will have to be responsible for everything and everyone by themselves. There are many feuds in the villages. It’s not uncommon for two commanders from separate villages to have problems with each other. Now that they are re-arming it is easy for them to target each other without anyone overseeing them or holding them responsible.”
Human rights groups have raised concerns over the US-backed ALP programme, in which locals are hired to keep the Taliban out of remote areas where Afghan National Police and ISAF have little or no presence.
In a recent report entitled From `Arbaki’ to Local Police: Today’s Challenges and Tomorrow’s Concerns, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) highlighted three areas of major concern as a result of the local police assuming more power: the weakening of the state’s national sovereignty, an increase in violence and insecurity in communities, and growing crime and human rights violations by local police.
Aid workers say questions regarding ALP’s capability to serve local communities, and their awareness of (and ability to comply with) the law, have been raised since the group’s formation in 2010. Now, as they assume more responsibility with fewer oversight mechanisms in place, what human rights groups predicted would happen, is happening: they and other militia groups are committing crimes and escaping punishment.
In Chardara District, Kunduz Province, at least three people have been killed in the past year due to infighting between two rival militia groups. Another district, Khanabad, has seen similar incidents. Villagers from Chardara say militia arrested in connection with the recent murders were released from prison.
“I saw them right back in the village,” one villager told IRIN. “Why is the US looking for Taliban; why are they not capturing this commander that has committed crimes?”
In the most recent high-profile case, some policemen led by one of the province’s first commanders to undergo the US special forces ALP programme, were accused of kidnapping an 18-year-old woman, holding her hostage for five days and repeatedly raping her. Afghan officials initially denied the claim, only later admitting the ALP’s involvement after local and international media highlighted the incident. The commander has still not been arrested. Observers say the case highlights the militia’s impunity.
“When these guys were under the presence of US special forces, 100 percent they did really well,” said Sarfraz. “People told me they were happy with [the commander accused of kidnapping and rape] when the US special forces were here. But since the [US] forces have left, this is the second time [he] has been involved in a rape case. Today, if you ask the people how the situation is they will tell you they are very unhappy. There is no one to keep an eye on him.”
“We know the situation is bad,” said one government official who asked not to be named, “but, the militia are the only way to keep the Taliban out, so what can we do?”
A human rights worker said while they do not specifically track families leaving villages due to ALP and other militia-related conflict, it is “highly likely” that growing abuses on the part of the police and militia are adding to rising numbers of internally displaced persons.
IRIN asked Abdul Mohammad, a driver and farmer from Umar Khel village in Kunduz Province’s Ali Abad District, how he felt about a post-NATO Afghanistan: “Honestly we feel nervous about it… We are afraid, because the people here have arms - everyone has not been disarmed by the government yet, so we’re scared that a war will begin again.”