There is no shortage of bad news from Afghanistan. One new piece appeared in today’s New York Times. President Karzai has decided to abolish a northern militia currently paid for by NATO. This is a problem.
The above photo is not of members of the Afghan National Army. It is of Panjshiri militiamen in 2006, guarding the headquarters of the Panjshir provinicial reconstruction team. (In unrelated news, the Panjshir PRT was recently attacked by Taliban suicide bombers.) Afghanistan is loaded with armed militia, including the ones that make up the anti-government forces collectively referred to as the “Taliban.”
One strategy for establishing peace in a wartorn country is to bind armed militia to the state. You basically bribe people not to fight you, the government, or each other. In the process, you hope that you create lasting institutions that can create, over time, a legitimate chain of command that can permanently integrate (and subordinate) the formerly warring factions into the state. It is slow, it is painful, it can undercut other nation-building goals, but it is nonetheless vital to get it right. We botched it badly in Iraq, and paid quite a price. Of course, if you are going to bribe people not to fight ... sorry, integrate armed men into state institutions ... then you have to make sure that they stay bribed. That means that you (be it the local government or foreign overlords) have to make a credible commitment that the flow of benefits will continue as long as the militia obeys orders. By cutting off the flow of NATO money, Karzai has simultaneously undercut NATO’s ability to strike bargains and his own status as a credible partner.
There are reasons for President Karzai’s decision. Members of the Critical Infrastructure program (and the “Afghan Local Police” more generally, as the integrated militia are called) have been known to extort the citizenry, and they are not inside the chain of command of the Afghan National Police. The problem? Taking them off the NATO payroll is not going to get them to stop extorting the citizenry, or bring them under government control. Quite the reverse, actually. It is a dumb decision, and it bodes ill for other places in Afghanistan (like Panjshir) where independent militia have been de facto bought off.
It isn’t all bad. Karzai has (under pressure!) agreed to allow the Taliban to set up an office in Qatar from which peace negotiations can be conducted. But the President of Afghanistan isn’t exactly showing himself to be steadfast negotiating partner, and the decision to defund the Critical Infrastructure program bodes ill for the country’s post-American future.
POSTSCRIPT: There is some evidence that NATO was botching the integration programs, at least in the north. (The programs I saw in Panjshir in 2006 were well-run, but Panjshir is a special case on multiple levels.) Some salaries have not been paid. (This was a huge problem for the Afghan National Police in Nangarhar province back in ‘06; we dealt with it using a system much like the one that doesn’t seem to be working for the Afghan Local Police in Kunduz province.) The German government is worried about the lack of the long-term program to integrate the militias into the state’s chain of command. (The report to the German legislature can be found here.) Finally, here is the U.S. military’s investigation (written, surprisingly, by a one-star!) into allegations of human rights abuses by the Afghan Local Police, with recommendations for increasing American “command, control, and influence” over them. Of course, if the program is disbanded by the Afghan national government, then any hope of getting the militia under control goes out the window ...