Afghanistan
12:01 am
Fri January 13, 2012

In Afghanistan, Some Former Taliban Become Police

Originally published on Fri January 13, 2012 11:50 am

NATO officials say they have reversed a disturbing trend in northern Afghanistan.

In 2009 and 2010, Taliban insurgents made inroads across the north of the country, which had been secure for years. NATO says that last year it brought the north back under control, but Afghan officials say it's thanks to one of the most controversial American tactics here: the use of ad hoc local militias.

American officials say they intend to triple the number of local "police" teams in the coming years and put all the groups under Afghan government control. But some residents complain that the militias are not much different from the insurgents they're supposed to be fighting.

Advantage Of An Insider

A hilltop police station in the northern province of Sari Pul would command a view of the town of Sayat, if the whole valley weren't cloaked in a dense cloud that threatens snow at any moment.

The approach road to the outpost is steep and thick with mud that clings to the flimsy boots and sneakers police wear. A few Afghan Local Police, or ALP, stand shivering at the gate.

They're not fully trained police officers or soldiers, but graduates of a cram-course in counteracting the Taliban. Despite the limited training, some do have one key advantage for performing the job: They were Taliban fighters until last year.

Inside the station, Col. Ghafur, head of police in Sayat, is feeding logs into what appears to be the only woodstove on the hill. Ghafur, who uses only one name, is with the national police, but he says it's the ALP that turned security around in Sari Pul.

One year ago, it was bad here, Ghafur says, but then the ALP was created and it defeated the Taliban. Ghafur says the men are from the communities, so they can tell much better than an outsider when a Taliban infiltrator arrives.

That's especially true for those who were previously with the Taliban, Ghafur says. He invites half a dozen former Taliban members into his office, where they eagerly crowd around the oil-drum woodstove.

Mir Ahmad has gray stubble covering his face; he says he's 46. A few years ago, he says, he was falsely accused of being with the insurgents. He fled his village and felt he had no where to turn but the Taliban. At the time, it was easy to join, since the insurgents controlled the district.

But Ahmad says he saw the Taliban abusing civilians, and he stopped believing in their claims of holy war.

Local Concerns

As might be expected, all the men swear they were never really committed to the Taliban cause. That may be true, but it leaves some residents wondering how committed they are to any cause.

Residents of another northern community are asking the same thing. At the twice-weekly market in Char Bolak, in Balkh province, villagers come from miles around to sell everything from winter coats to livestock. Residents say the Taliban controlled this town a year ago.

Now it's guarded by another auxiliary police program called the Critical Infrastructure Police, or CIP. In fact, there have been at least half a dozen different programs like this set up in the past six years, mostly run directly by the American military.

Shop owners at the market say there are no more Taliban in town, but claim the CIP is almost as bad.

They know no one will arrest them, so they rob whomever they want, says Mir Alam, who is selling wheat in one stall. He says ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban, are often singled out by these police, and they have sometimes squeezed protection money out of entire villages. Last month, complaints reached President Hamid Karzai's office, and he called for the CIP to disband.

After The International Troops Leave

U.S. military commanders say they are in the process of vetting all of the different police militias and folding them into the ALP, which will be under direct Afghan control. They also plan to triple the number of ALP. That plan is worrying to monitors, like Rachel Reid, who researched the ALP for Human Rights Watch.

"You've got now a series of effectively rival militias lined up against each another. They may be calm now, but when we come to a situation where ... the Americans have left, the money's running out, what do those groups do then?" she says.

"Who are they loyal to? Do they stay calm then? Do they fight for their nation? Do they fight for their community? Do they fight for their commander? That's what Afghans are most concerned about," she says.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's report next on the war in Afghanistan. It's the kind of place where even the good news can sometimes be bad. NATO has been pushing to reclaim territory from the Taliban. And in the last year, NATO established firmer control of the northern part of the country.

The trouble for some is that the U.S. and its allies made progress by employing local militias. American officials say they intend to triple the number of what they call local police teams in the coming years. Some residents complain these militias are not much different from the insurgents they're supposed to fight.

Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: This hilltop police station in the northern province of Sari Pul would command a view of the town of Sayat, if the whole valley weren't cloaked in a dense cloud that threatens snow at any moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LAWRENCE: The approach road to the outpost is steep and thick with mud that clings to the flimsy boots and sneakers that the cops wear. A few Afghan Local Police, or ALP, stand shivering at the gate. They're not fully trained policemen or soldiers, but graduates of a cram-course in counteracting the Taliban. And there they have an advantage, because some of them were Taliban fighters until last year.

COLONEL GHAFUR: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Inside the station, Colonel Ghafur, head of police in Sayat, is feeding logs into what appears to be the only woodstove on the hill. Ghafur, who uses only one name, is with the national police. But he says it's the ALP that have turned security around in Sari Pul.

GHAFUR: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: One year ago, it was bad here, says Ghafur. But then we created the ALP and they defeated the Taliban. Ghafur says the men are from the communities, and so they can tell much better than an outsider when a Taliban infiltrator arrives, especially those who were previously with the Taliban, says Ghafur. He invites half a dozen of the former Talibs into his office, where they eagerly crowd around the oil-drum woodstove.

MIR AHMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Mir Ahmad has gray stubble covering his face. He says he's 46. Ahmad says a few years ago he was falsely accused of being with the insurgents. He fled his village and felt he had no where to turn but the Taliban. At the time, it was easy to join, since the insurgents controlled the district. But Ahmad says he saw the Taliban abusing civilians and he stopped believing in their claims of holy war.

As might be expected, all of the men swear that they were never really committed to the Taliban cause. That may be true, but it leaves some locals wondering how committed they are to any cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE)

LAWRENCE: That's the question residents of another northern community are asking. At the twice weekly market in Char Bolak, Balkh province, villagers come from miles around to sell everything from winter coats to livestock. Residents say the Taliban also controlled this town one year ago. Now it's guarded by another auxiliary police program called the Critical Infrastructure Police, or CIP.

In fact, there have been at least half a dozen different programs like this set up in the past six years, mostly run directly by the American military. Shop owners at the market say there are no more Taliban in town, but the CIP are almost as bad.

MIR ALAM: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: They know no one will arrest them, so they rob whomever they want, says Mir Alam, who is selling wheat in one stall. He says ethnic Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Taliban, are often singled out by these police and they have sometimes squeezed protection money out of entire villages.

Last month, complaints reached President Hamid Karzai's office and he called for the CIP to disband. U.S. military commanders say they are in the process of vetting all of the different police militias and folding them into the ALP, which will be under direct Afghan control. They also plan to triple the number of ALP.

That plan is worrying to monitors like Rachel Reid who researched the ALP for Human Rights Watch.

RACHEL REID: You've got now a series of effectively rival militias lined up against each another. They may be calm now, but when the American have left, the money is running out. What do those groups do then? Who are they loyal to? Do they stay calm then? Do they fight for the nation? Do they fight for their community? Do they fight for their commander? That's what Afghans are most concerned about.

LAWRENCE: That seems a fair question to ask Lal Muhammad Ornega, the commander of 300 CIP in Char Bolak.

LAL MUHAMMAD ORNEGA: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Ornega lists off all the different, rival, Afghan factions he's carried a gun for over the years.

ORNEGA: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: And when the Taliban were here, he says, I fought for the Taliban.

Quil Lawrence, NPR news.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And here's another example of Afghan news that starts out sounding good. A new report by the United Nations tracks a sharp rise in economic activity. The trouble is, the activity is opium production.

GREENE: In deed, opium revenue more than doubled to $1.4 billion last year. Now, a plant disease had destroyed a lot of the opium poppy crop in 2010. But thanks to the law of supply and demand, that just raised the price of the opium that remained. Prices have stayed high even as production increased again.

INSKEEP: Efforts to get Afghan farmers to grow alternatives don't work very well, as long as opium remains so lucrative.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.