Afghans Fear Return of the Warlords as Anti-Taliban Militias Clash
David Petraeus-backed defence programme put on hold in Helmand as governor warns militia leaders in former Taliban stronghold
The dramatic build up of a controversial anti-Taliban militia that many Afghans fear could revive the country's detested warlords has had to be suspended in a key district of Helmand amid outbreaks of fighting between different groups.
The local defence programme, which is similar to others that have been heavily promoted by US supreme commander David Petraeus as essential to beating the Taliban, has also been put on hold amid concern that the informal police force, with 800 men, is already bigger than the official police and could threaten government authority.
US marines in the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah say they are using the same approach they successfully employed with "awakening" councils during the Iraq war. But problems are starting to show: the district governor, Abdul Mutalib, last week called in leaders of the 30 groups of up to 50 gunmen to make them sign up to stricter rules of behaviour.
"Around the country these groups are earning the hatred of the people," the governor told the assembled men, many of whom led armed mujahideen groups against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
"The same must not happen in Marjah," the governor warned. Rogue militias in Marjah would be problem at a time when similar programmes are under scrutiny.
Marjah has great political significance in Washington where it is seen as a test of Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan last year.
Marjah was the first destination for many of those troops exactly a year ago. Despite a publicity blitz that ramped up expectations for a quick success, the troops soon got bogged down in the face of resilient Taliban forces.
A year on, the security situation is much improved, with one senior marine in Helmand claiming the lush agricultural zone is now "safer than Detroit". In large part this is because of the 30 so-called ISCI groups responsible for "interim security for critical infrastructure" although the generally good security situation in the centre of the district deteriorates towards the peripheries, where marines regularly encounter homemade bombs and "shoot and scoot" ambushes by the Taliban.
Dave Hudspeth, the lieutenant colonel in charge of one of the two 1,000-strong marine battalions in the area, says the great advantage of locally recruited forces is that they can spot insurgents far more easily than outsiders.
They are also essential to plans to have one security force member (including US marines and Afghan soldiers) for every 22 members of the population – a ratio regarded as essential for stamping out insurgency while also allowing the marines to push further into areas where the Taliban are still strong.
Consequently, the marines have been on an extraordinary hiring binge, with 500 recruited in 30 days. The marines' massive spending power has been critical to attracting recruits – they spend about $500,000 (£312,300) every 10 days on discretionary development programmes and ISCI salaries.
Each fighter receives $150 a month, while the group's leader gets $180 and a "startup" fund of $5,000 to buy weapons. That means the so-called block leaders, who collect the salaries, can get their hands on thousands of dollars every month.
Despite a rigorous vetting process, the ISCI scheme has been hit by problems in Marjah with armed groups fighting against each other, the Afghan security forces and the marines.
In a case regarded as particularly disturbing by local authorities, a commander illegally arrested and beat a man who had stolen a motorbike. The man's female relatives alleged that they had been mistreated. When police investigated, a fight ensued in which a 15-year-old boy was shot in the head and two ISCI commanders were wounded.
In another case, a drug-fuelled brawl between two ISCI members arguing over a woman led to one man being stabbed with a bayonet and the other shot dead. The killer fled without paying compensation to the dead man's family, leaving two neighbouring groups in a state of simmering antagonism.
There are also fears that Taliban sympathisers have infiltrated some groups, not least after marines were this month engaged in a lengthy firefight with gunmen who later revealed themselves as ISCI by the yellow armbands members have to wear in lieu of a uniform.
Mutalib is sufficiently unsure of the militias' loyalties that he was horrified when gun-toting ISCI guards turned up to a school opening last week attended by a delegation of US congressmen. Fearing their presence could have turned a photo opportunity into a mass slaughter of VIPs, Mutalib later told Hudspeth: "They are not to be trusted, this must not happen again".
The US marines say there is no risk of the local police turning to warlordism in the long run as the ISCIs will be absorbed into the formal police forces or into an official auxiliary programme known as Afghan Local Police (ALP), while others will be trained to work in various crafts, including carpentry and tailoring.
But the ambitions of the marines are out of kilter with President Hamid Karzai's government, which has made no secret of its deep reservations over informal policing, fearing recruits could eventually turn on the people they are supposed to be protecting, as many pro- and anti-Soviet militias did in the past.
While Hudspeth said he would ideally like to increase the number of ISCI members to 1,600, the government has allowed for an ALP of just 300 in Marjah, although the marines are organising a local lobbying campaign to persuade the government to raise the cap.
The massive expansion of ISCI forces, beyond what the government has approved, contradicts assurances by Petraeus that such schemes would be of modest size and only gradually built up.
Hudspeth says the recruitment pause has been helpful to "make absolutely sure that the leaders themselves involved in this process were not going to delve into the previous warlordism and be a competitor against uniformed Afghan National Security Forces."
At the meeting last week, among the commitments the ISCIs signed up to – or, in many cases, marked with an inky thumbprint – was to attend regular training sessions each week and to defer to the authority of the local police.
Another big risk to Petraeus's priority project will come in the spring when the "fighting season" begins in earnest and the lightly armed militias will become soft targets for Taliban reprisals.
Elders have been alarmed at a recording that has circulated, apparently of a call to prayer broadcast from mosques in the Pakistani city of Quetta, a Taliban sanctuary, calling for jihad against the Marjah arbikai,the traditional tribal defence forces.
Hudspeth fully expects the insurgents to make every effort to assassinate some of the more influential ISCI leaders, as well as to try to mount spectacular attacks on US and Afghan troops, probably with suicide bombers.
"That is a risk we are prepared to take," said Matthew Lesnowicz, a captain who oversees the ISCI forces. "This is a relatively cheap process for us and the pay-off is potentially huge."
The woman at the heart of the militia
There can be few more unlikely standard bearers of David Petraeus's push for local people to defend themselves against the Taliban than Haji Yani Abeda.
Not only is the community elder well beyond the prime fighting age, she is a woman living in the heart of Afghanistan's deeply conservative south where most women barely leave the house.
But that did not stop her turning up to a meeting of ISCI leaders in Marjah last week, her face uncovered, and seating herself in a suitable prominent place on the floor next to the district governor.
One ISCI commander, Haji Mir Afzal, said she could do whatever she wanted because of her exceptionally unusual history as a resistance commander during the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
"We don't even think of her as a woman when she comes to these meetings," he said.
When the Guardian asked how many fighters she had under her command, she raised a bemused eyebrow. "These are all my fighters," she said, waving at the tent full of men who collectively control one of the biggest militias to be set up with US cash in Afghanistan.
"I had more than 200 men under me during the jihad, and they still follow me today," she said.