For a Handful of Bolani: Kunduz’s New Problem with Illegal Militias

posted: 08-10-2012 by: Gran Hewad

One month ago, at around the same time when it was reported that Taleban attacked what was termed a ‘dancing party’ and killed its participants in the far north of Helmand province, a ‘freelance’ militia group invaded the village of Loy Kanam in Kunduz province and killed 12 people, including a number of innocent civilians. While the Helmand incident sparked worldwide media coverage, the Loy Kanam incident generated much less attention. Another earlier clash between two unofficial militia groups in the Kobayi area, close to Kanam, that led to 13 deaths with three more people injured, still remains unreported.(1) AAN’s researcher Gran Hewad travelled to Kunduz where he learned how the presence of pro-government but unofficial militias affects ordinary people’s lives and, in fact, in some places, is perceived as an even greater danger than that posed by the insurgents.

On 2 September a group of militiamen led by commander Qadirak attacked Loy Kanam, a village mainly inhabited by Pashtuns, some 15 kilometres northeast of Kunduz city, to avenge the death of one of their comrades, Jalil Chunta. Jalil, an Uzbek and cousin of Qadirak who is Aymaq, Sujiani by tribe, had been abducted by unknown persons in Hazrat Sultan, a couple of kilometres from Loy Kanam, the previous afternoon. His dead body was found in Loy Kanam where villagers say they picked it up to keep it safe and called Jalil’s father who lives in nearby Achin.

According to local reports, the attack on Loy Kanam village began with the early morning arrival of hundreds of fighters from militia groups who had been called in from Khanabad, Aqtash, Kobayi and Quchi. First, the fighters randomly fired rockets into the village, before they entered it and dragged sleeping villagers out of their beds. During the attack, which lasted two to three hours, 12 villagers were killed, eight wounded and more than 20 others beaten up, often in front of family members. According to eyewitnesses interviewed by AAN, among those killed were three brothers from one family and a man who was shot dead together with his wife, who had thrown herself on him to protect him, while their daughter, who had tried to protect her mother, was wounded.

Local elders claim that hours before the incident, realising that militia fighters were gathering near the village, they had informed provincial security officials, who had failed to respond. Haji Mirza Ali, a tribal elder of Loy Kanam, told AAN:

‘I called the deputy provincial police commander and informed him about the intention of the militias to attack our village. I kept calling security officials to ask them to be prepared to prevent this from happening. I then called the local NDS staff and the provincial police commander at around seven o’clock in the morning and finally, made a call to the governor. Almost eight hours passed, but the police did not do anything. Though the village is no more than 15 kilometres away from the police headquarters, police reached here around 10 o’clock in the morning, only when the perpetrators had done what they wanted and escaped.’

Haji Mirza Ali also said that he has submitted a written statement to the provincial authorities, including the phone numbers of the police officials and the governor whom he had contacted before the incident. The no-show of the police triggered demonstrations by Loy Kanam’s people in the provincial capital.(1).

When the incident first made it into the media, a spokesman for the provincial governor claimed that the clash involved insurgents (as attackers) and local residents (as the attacked), while local eyewitnesses said that the attackers belonged to an Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit. According to the New York Times, which published the only extensive international report on the incident, Kunduz governor Anwar Jegdalak described the attackers as ‘irresponsible (ghair-e mas’ul) armed militias’ but also accused the villagers ‘of cooperating with the Taleban and sheltering them’. Village elders from Loy Kanam claim that the attack was ordered by former Jehadi commander Amir Mir Alam, a Tajik from Jamiat-e Islami. ‘Mir Alam ordered other militia commanders, namely Nezam and Sayed Hussain who are his juniors, to join Qadirak and attack the village’, a member of a local tribal council of Loy Kanam told AAN in Kunduz city(2), referring to ‘people who we know in their ranks’ as the source of his information.

Indeed, the number and different types of militias in Kunduz are various and confusing. From 2008, and encouraged by international forces, militias were recruited by the National Directorate for Security (NDS) – under its then director Amrullah Saleh, now an opposition politician - to fight the growing insurgency; they were mainly composed of former mujahedin. After two years, President Karzai ordered the programme to be shut down, but the mobilised militiamen did not go away. Some joined the Afghan Local Police (ALP) programme, the latest militia programme that was initiated in 2010 with the support and encouragement of US forces. Officially, the ALP is under the Afghan interior ministry. It was initially to be limited to 10,000 personnel countrywide and its units were to be mentored (and controlled) by US special forces. This target number has since been increased by the Afghan Ministry of Interior to 30,000, with some units apparently operating without foreign mentoring.(3)

A smaller sidekick to this mobilisation was the Critical Infrastructure Protection Programme (CIPP), jointly set up by the German and the US military and ultimately numbering 1,800 militia fighters. According to German sources, the CIPP was officially ended on 30 September this year with some, but not all of its members being integrated into the ALP, as had been some of the NDS militiamen at an earlier stage.(4)

The remnants of these ‘official’ militias – namely those who did not make it through the vetting process for the ALP - are now feeding the ‘unofficial’ ones, like Qadirak’s group. And their numbers are still growing, since they are joined by others who hope to enter the ‘official’ and government-paid militias at some point in time. Afghans use the term ‘ghair-e qanuni’ (‘illegal’) for these groups – in contrast to the officially sanctioned ones – or just call them arbaki, a term also used in the New York Times report.

These illegal militias have no disciplined command, are not under the Afghan government like the ALP, do not receive a regular salary or wear a uniform that would distinguish them from any insurgent group or robber band, but they continue to fight insurgents of their own accord. Local journalists and other observers claim that they finance their operations through the smuggling of drugs, the collection of ransom money from kidnappings, and the illegal extraction of religious tax (ushr) from the local population (for example see one report here). The control of fertile agricultural lands such as those around Loy Kanam where wheat, rice and vegetables are grown, is therefore an attractive incentive to militia activity.

The provincial authorities turn a blind eye to the reality of illegal ‘tax collection’. This neglect of duty can be explained by two facts. Firstly, the commanders of illegal militias like Mir Alam belong to the same tanzim (mujahedin party) networks that dominate the provincial administration. Secondly, the administration and the police forces (mainly Aymak and Tajiks) perceive the Pashtun villagers to be pro-Taleban. ‘The Taleban have their own targets, we are not concerned about them’, a villager from Loy Kanam told AAN. ‘We feel the major security threat now comes from these militias, not from the Taleban.’

This situation is leading to a further escalation. ‘If the government remains partial, in favour of its proxy militias, then we should be prepared to defend ourselves’, said the same villager. Against the potential threat from militias, ordinary villagers have already begun buying arms on the black market.

Illegal militias have also started to clash with each other. In Kunduz, AAN was told about such an incident involving two Uzbek militia groups and resulting in the deaths of 13 people. This case has not yet been reported even in the Afghan media.

On 22 or 23 July, during the month of Ramazan, Qari Aziz, a member of commander Nezam’s militia (which was involved in the Loy Kanam incident), asked a teenage girl in Kobayi, around 18 kilometers east of Kunduz city, who was selling home-cooked bolani (fried pastry) on the main bridge in the village market, to sell her food a bit over the bridge ‘to be safer’. When the girl resisted, Qari Aziz slapped her. An unarmed militiaman belonging to Ma’awen (‘Deputy’) Pir Muhammad’s group defended the girl and argued with Qari who, in response, shot him dead. Pir Mohammad, deputy to Amir Mir Alam during the anti-Soviet jihad, and some tribal elders complained to the local government and, when they did not respond, to the Ministry of Interior.

Some ten days later, the police started a search for commander Nezam and Qari Aziz. During their escape, Nezam and his men accidentally ran into Pir Muhammad’s militia in the village of Dewana Qeshlaq, which is located in the Kobayi area. Their confrontation resulted in the killing of Qari and two of his comrades. Later the same day, in a tit-for tat move, Nezam’s militia attacked the village, Upper Kobayi, where Pir Muhammad and his militiamen reside, burning four houses and looting two shops. Nine fighters from both sides were killed and three more wounded. ‘We have sought refuge in the city and cannot go back to our village’, a villager whose house had been burnt, told AAN by phone. ‘The militias are everywhere, collecting ushr by force from the farmers. We are not sure whether we will be able even to collect our harvest’.

The Kobayi incident is another example of the fragile security situation in Kunduz. While the Loy Kanam incident had an ethnic dimension, in the Kobayi case, both sides involved are from the same non-Pashtun ethnic group and are former mujahedin, anti-Taleban and unofficial pro-government militias. This indicates that Kunduz’s current problem is foremost one with militias like the network led by Mir Alam, to which Qadirak’s group belongs, with ethnic divisions secondary in this context.

Despite written complaints by Kanam villagers and visits by two delegations, one from parliament and the other from the government under a military attorney and including a member of parliament as well as NDS officials, to investigate the incident, there has been no clear attempt to bring the perpetrators to account as of yet, which would have thereby convinced the victims of the 2 September attack that the government cares about them and their future security. In the Kobayi case, people told AAN that Amir Mir Alam forced the two sides to reconcile and to end their conflict, but since he was also a party in the incident, grudges will remain.

The pattern of these two conflicts can easily be duplicated elsewhere in Kunduz or in the broader northeast, with its proliferating militias and ethnic diversity. As the Loy Kanam incident shows, larger numbers of militias can easily be mobilised to join - and escalate - a minor local clash along tanzim or ethnic lines. The growth of illegal militias has also raised concerns in parliament with MPs calling them ‘a major threat for the security of Afghanistan’. Gholam Mujtaba Patang, Afghanistan’s new interior minister, indirectly confirmed the extent of the problem when he announced that in order to ‘prevent [the] opposition from gaining influence among [the] local police, they are being trained with improved cultural and religious awareness and to better recognize basic human rights. […] Armed individuals who harass people under [the] local police[‘s] name will be searched and disarmed’.

(1) A third, similar but smaller incident, with three people killed was reported from Parwan province on 4 September.

(2) The author has been warned to go to Loy Kanam directly because the militia were still controlling the access and did not welcome ‘journalists’ and talked to interlocutors in Kunduz instead.

(3) In late September this year, the Afghan Ministry of Interior stated that ALP units now exist in 31 provinces. According to the Los Angeles Times, in August 2012, ALP numbered 16,000. In the same article, the newspaper reports that the US government ‘plans to double the size of a rural police force in Afghanistan and arm it with heavier weapons to fight insurgents as U.S. troops withdraw, despite Pentagon and Afghan government concern about the village self-defense units becoming predatory criminal gangs or defecting to the Taliban. […] U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of the NATO military force in Afghanistan, has ordered the 16,000-strong rural police force to be increased to 30,000 officers over the next two years, and then possibly expanded further’ [emphasis added].

(4) The CIPP story is symptomatic for Afghanistan’s militia problem and who has the last word on it. Established and paid for by the US and positively evaluated by local German military, the Afghan government decided to dissolve it after, in December 2001, President Karzai had professed, in an interview with the German magazine Spiegel (not online), that he had never heard of it. Still, in February, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine  reported about CIPP units continuing to exist in Kunduz province.

Photo: ALP roadblock -- by Afghanistan Today