Bilal Bacha leads a group of men who have long hair, wear non-traditional military clothing, and drive white trucks around eastern Afghanistan.
The men look just like the militants they have promised to fight.
Bacha is the commander of the Afghan Local Police, or ALP, in the district of Achin. The area was once a base of operations for the self-declared Islamic State group, also known as IS.
Most of Achin has been cleared of IS fighters. But the day Bacha spoke to VOA, military airplanes were dropping bombs on the surrounding mountains. It was clear that the conflict was continuing.
People living in Achin described Bacha and his men as some of the fiercest fighters against IS militants. They have good reason to be: their families were among the victims of IS attacks.
“We’ve picked up these guns to protect our women and children,” Bacha said. “We are not doing this for money. The $100 or $150 we get per month is nothing. We can earn that doing anything else.”
Bacha’s ALP force in Achin is part of a project started in 2010 with American money and support from U.S. Special Operations Forces. The plan was to create, train and arm local units that could defend their own communities against the Taliban and other militant groups. The idea was these units would be especially useful in areas where the Afghan government’s security efforts were weak.
Many people, including the then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai, resisted the idea at first. They argued that local military units without the authority of the central government would be similar to the militias of the past. These militias helped start Afghanistan’s civil wars of the 1990s.
But in the end, Karzai accepted the proposal to create a 10,000 member temporary force. Under the plan, the force would either break up or join with traditional Afghan security forces in a few years.
Since then, the ALP has grown three times its original size. And it now operates in 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The U.S. Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction described the strengths of the ALP in one of his reports. The report noted that one strength was the ability to know the difference between local residents and resistance fighters. Also, it said, the ALP’s members have greater knowledge of villages, and local residents consider them to be more trustworthy than outside forces.
However, what makes the ALP strong in some communities is exactly what makes them a problem in others. Having local contacts made the men more invested in the security of the local communities. But it also made them more likely to react to pressure from local influences, including powerful leaders.
In several cases, local leaders have used the ALP as a way to employ their followers. This has helped those leaders extend their control over the population.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network is an independent group of researchers. They reported evidence of abusive behavior from the ALP, and the capture of units by local strongmen and the older militias, known as “tanzims.”
The group also noted that, “political connections between ALP and figures in central government often [makes] control of abusive forces impossible.”
The rights group Human Rights Watch released a statement on the ALP in September. It noted that, “In many localities, these forces have been responsible for … abuses against civilians, as well as … executions of captured combatants and other violations of international humanitarian law.”
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission is the country’s own human rights organization. It reported that the ALP does not always follow the rules when recruiting members. Criminals, members of illegal armed groups, even the Taliban in some cases, have been able to find their way in.
The Afghan government has reacted to these criticisms. It said its Afghan Local Police Directorate would require the ALP to better explain its actions. The United States has also said it would only continue to support the ALP if it made reforms to its system. Currently, all of the money for the force comes from the U.S. government.
Even with the reported problems, almost everyone seems to agree that breaking up the ALP quickly is not a good idea. There is general agreement that this would weaken security and likely help the Taliban. That is why many observers suggest carefully combining the ALP with the traditional security forces, or returning the men to civilian life.
While the government considers these ideas, Bilal Bacha’s men care for the trees they have planted near their shelter. The men are hoping to watch the trees grow and someday enjoy their fruit.
I’m Susan Shand. And I'm Pete Musto.
Ayesha Tanzeem reported this for VOA News. Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. How should the Afghan and American governments deal with the ALP? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
district – n. an area or section of a country, city, or town
authority – n. the power or right to direct or control someone or something
original – adj. happening or existing first or at the beginning
province(s) – n. any one of the large parts that some countries are divided into
resident(s) – n. someone who lives in a particular place
figure(s) – n. a person who has a specified status or who is regarded in a specified way
combatant(s) – n. a person, group, or country that fights in a war or battle
humanitarian – adj. concerned with or seeking to promote human life and happiness
recruit(ing) – v. to find people and get them to join a company, an organization, or the armed forces