Government could roll out the program across the country and use it against the Taliban
An Afghan spy agency is recruiting villagers for militias to hold back Islamic State fighters seeking to expand their foothold in this opium heartland in eastern Afghanistan.
The program, which one top official says the government hopes to roll out across the country and may later use against the Taliban, is President Ashraf Ghani ’s riskiest attempt to defend rural villages—and also a part of his much larger counterinsurgency strategy.
The government has closely guarded the program, and news of it essentially hasn’t been reported since its establishment in August 2015. Details of the program came from Afghan government officials, local village leaders and Western officials who have been monitoring its progress.
The militia groups that are part of the pilot project, known as the People’s Uprising Program, are being called on to hold territory the army has recaptured from Islamic State in three districts.
More than a thousand men, mostly village farmers who turned against the extremist group’s harsh rule in areas it seized in the past year, are on the payroll of the spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, which receives funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. So far, the militias in Kot, with the backing of the army and police, have repelled six Islamic State attacks.
“We use these uprising people to protect their villages, and their outposts are installed once the areas are cleared by our forces,” said an Afghan security official working with militias enrolled in the program. “The real fighting is done by army and police.”
The formation of an anti-Islamic State militia program underscores the limits of Afghanistan’s capabilities to prevent extremist groups from expanding. U.S. and coalition officials say the drawdown of foreign troops and intelligence assets—and Afghan security forces’ inability to maintain control over its territory—are major reasons the country is once again at risk from international terrorists.
A budgetary squeeze that has curbed training national military forces is leading Mr. Ghani to back the program despite the poor record of previous militia groups that failed to pacify restive areas and, in fact, inflamed tribal rivalries.
The idea for the latest militia program arose after the villagers revolted against Islamic State’s harsh rule. Residents initially saw them as the latest armed force to fight over their land, and they were hoping to be left alone. But the extremist group, which has expanded its presence in other war-torn countries, began preaching about a global caliphate, hunted down men with ties to the government and staged public executions.
“When they started beheading people, they lost their popular support,” said Haji Hayat Khan, a tribal elder from Kot who has become the coordinator for several militias in the province. “Their savagery provoked us to stand up against them.”
The village militias are active in Kot, Achin and Nazian districts in the province of Nangarhar, and are already being considered for 140 districts in 32 provinces, according to Abdul Qayum Rahimi, the director of the People’s Uprising Program at the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, a ministerial-level body that oversees provincial governments.
“People want to free themselves,” said Mr. Rahimi, an appointee of President Ghani. “The government is helping them.”
The NDS spy agency was brought in to help recruit and pay new militia members—who must be between 18 and 50 and own a Kalashnikov—and to build outposts. The army and police equip the units with ammunition and heavy weapons, like machines guns and rockets to defend their positions and hold on to territory, according to officials familiar with the program. They also carry walkie talkies to call for help from local police and army units in case of an attack.
The CIA pays most of the Afghan intelligence agency’s bills, according to Afghan security officials who work in intelligence and are familiar with its operations. But the NDS has discretion over how the funds are spent.
Mr. Rahimi and other Afghan officials declined to discuss any CIA role in the anti-Islamic State militia program. Mr. Rahimi said the program was looking for additional funding from foreign donors.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the militia program and whether the CIA was partly funding it. The CIA declined to comment.
“If we look at the challenges [Afghan security forces] are facing today, being stretched and being too thinly distributed is something they need an answer to,” said Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s envoy to Afghanistan. The People’s Uprising Program, he adds, “is partly their answer.”
The People’s Uprising Program mirrors a previous nationwide effort to arm village groups. Community-based units, known as the Afghan Local Police, were formed to keep insurgents at bay. But human-rights groups and analysts over the years have criticized them for abuses, including extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and extortion.
Under the PUP, the spy agency is involved for the first time. Officials say the village militias will ultimately be either integrated into the Afghan Local Police or disbanded.
Mr. Rahimi, the program’s director, acknowledges that arming untrained villagers is a delicate task: “If we do not manage this properly, it will be a mess. People with guns can do anything.”
Islamic State emerged in Afghanistan as foreign troops were winding down combat operations in 2014 and took control of six or seven districts in the country’s east. The group faced little opposition until the U.S. this year launched a campaign of airstrikes that accompanied Afghan ground operations to push the group out of its stronghold in Achin and Kot districts toward the mountainous border with Pakistan.
Islamic State controlled Kot through most of 2015, forcing villagers to obey strict edicts that required men to wear long beards and banned women from leaving the home without a male chaperone.
The increasingly harsh rule prompted many to flee, including tribal elder Mr. Khan and others who turned to the government for help.
“They claimed to be establishing a caliphate all over the world,” said Mr. Khan. “They were using savagery to intimidate people to pledge allegiance to their group.”
On the outskirts of villages near the front line, militia members scan for signs of enemy activity with AK-47s slung over their shoulders and pistols in their pockets. Older men with grizzled beards and limbs missing from past conflicts stand guard along muddy tracks in the lush valley, clutching World War II-era rifles.
“We patrol these villages on foot. We have the support of local population,” said Shakir, one of the militia’s commanders. “Whenever they observe Daesh activities they tip us and we go after them,” he said, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.
The extremist group isn’t the only group vying for control of the lucrative opium fields in Kot and surrounding districts. The Taliban are fighting to regain their former territory from both Islamic State and the government. Another anti-Islamic State militia group is also operating in Kot—under the control of a prominent Afghan politician.
His men recently came under fire from the government for leaving the decapitated heads of Islamic State fighters by the side of the road as a warning.
Local officials say the government’s focus, for now, is on Islamic State and that worrying about local strongmen could worsen the conflict.
“The government is already dealing with a lot of issues and doesn’t want to create more problems,” said Attaullah Khogyanai, a spokesman for Nangarhar province. “This is a time-consuming process. We will deal with them when the time comes.”