Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst. She can be found on Twitter @SuzanneSueS57, and on Tumblr. She is currently working on a long-term project on school poisonings in Afghanistan and has previously written for War on the Rocks. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Date Originally Written: November 27, 2017.
Date Originally Published: December 25, 2017.
Summary: A new plan is under consideration by the Afghan Government to transform the Afghan Local Police into an Afghan Territorial Army. While this transformation contributes to the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, without proper oversight, the Afghan Territorial Army could be co-opted by regional strong men.
Text: The number of U.S. and North American Treaty Organization troops currently in Afghanistan is insufficient to carry out U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy. This strategy has multiple parts involving an increased use of air power, employing Special Operations Forces in more ambitious ways, and a constant fight to reverse Taliban gains and prevent the Taliban from securing additional territory. Additionally, there is a counter-terrorism part of the U.S. mission, which unilaterally focuses on containing/defeating the Islamic State-Khorasan Province.
On November 19, 2017, The Guardian newspaper reported that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is currently considering a U.S. proposal to restructure the Afghan Local Police into the Afghan Territorial Army, modeled after the Indian Territorial Army. The Guardian also reported that the proposal would start with 1,000 men, and possibly reach 20,000, over two years. This proposal has raised numerous concerns with human rights groups, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, that fear any new iteration of the militia system will revive the serious abuses that the militias have been accused of in the past ranging from child sexual abuse to extra judicial killings. As global attention shifts away from Afghanistan, increased misuses of power are a concern.
If one types the word “arbakis,“ the Pashto world that generally means militias, into the search field on the Taliban’s alemarah website the result is 81 pages where the term is used. Despite the deceptions and exaggerations that often appear in Taliban propaganda, the negative opinions regarding militias allow the Taliban to gain political capital by exploiting the distrust of these groups based on their records of abusive practices towards civilians. If this anti-militia narrative did not produce some benefit for the Taliban, it is doubtful they would continue to adhere to it so closely.
The plans to form an Afghan Territorial Army are an attempt to provide a second-line defense against Taliban gains. The Taliban understand that repeated attacks on military and police targets accomplish the goal of psychological intimidation. For anyone who may be considering joining the Afghan National Security Forces, the awareness of how often security forces are targeted is a strong deterrent. Taliban attacks on police and military targets have become increasingly ambitious, complex, and deadly.
The war in Afghanistan is both regionally strategic, and a micro-level conflict driven by local concerns. All regional players have their own motives for involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan, whether related to security concerns (containing the Islamic State for both Russia and Iran, as an example), or economic opportunities, as in the case with India and the People’s Republic of China. Also involved are the ever-complex machinations of Pakistan and its security services. Concurrently, there are numerous local competitions for resources, favors, development projects, drugs, and all other commodities. These conditions have allowed local powerbrokers, most of whom have connections to the Afghan National Unity Government, to consolidate their power and establish local fealties, policed by militias. The idea that an Afghan Territorial Army would not be co-opted in some fashion by regional strong men seems dangerously naïve. Afghan Territorial Army units might also be used as conduits for influence from other regional actors. There is no reason why Russia, who already assists the Taliban with small arms and a fuel supply scheme, wouldn’t seek to co-opt the Afghan Territorial Army. Any establishment of an Afghan Territorial Army must also take into account the shifting of alliances, which have been so characteristic of this conflict.
A critical part of the counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan includes the avoidance of another civil war, such as the devastating one that followed the Soviet departure in 1989. While the continuation of Western aid would seem to prevent this outcome, it’s still a danger that existing conditions can be worsened by sectarianism, social inequality, and the ever-present corruption, that is too entrenched to be effectively combated. The establishment of an Afghan Territorial Army that is unregulated and operates outside of an accountability structure, would further fuel declining social and political cohesion. Combined with abuses, and little or no means of redress, Afghan hostilities may be directed at the Afghan National Unity Government, which ironically is greatly lacking in “unity.” The inability of Afghans to redress the actions of an unregulated Afghan Territorial Army would ensure the Taliban gains support. One way to preempt this inability of redress is to truly model the Afghan Territorial Army after the Indian Territorial Army, which is subordinated to the Indian Army to ensure proper oversight.
An Afghan Territorial Army with sufficient oversight, including maintaining an accurate inventory of its weapons and equipment, could contribute towards the U.S. strategic goal of recapturing territory from the Taliban (80% back in Afghan government control, after two years), and sufficiently degrading Taliban capabilities to make negotiations seem a reasonable option. While this strategic goal is lofty, a narrower tactical goal could be an Afghan Territorial Army that succeeds in addressing the localized nature of the conflict and offsets the high level of desertions, among other problems that plague the Afghan National Army.
Any future development of the Afghan Territorial Army will require a functioning, sustainable system of oversight, and an awareness of consequences that could potentially damage U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, thus strengthening support for the Taliban. If the U.S. is invested the creation of an Afghan Territorial Army, then Afghan partners must be willing to adhere to mutually agreed upon guidelines for its employment and oversight, and due care must be taken to evaluate both the potential successes and failures of this type of program throughout its life.
 Author interview, with The Guardian’s Kabul correspondent, Sune Engel Rasmussen, September 11, 2017.
 Rasmussen, S. E. (2017, November 19). UN concerned by controversial US plan to revive Afghan militias. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/19/afghanistan-militias-us-un-diplomats
 Loyd, A. (2017, November 11). Afghanistan: the war that never ends. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/afghanistan-the-war-that-never-ends-mchjpgphh
 Stewart, P., Ali, I. (2017, November 20). U.S. General Sets Two-Year Goal for Driving Back Afghan Taliban. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-11-20/us-general-sets-two-year-goal-for-driving-back-afghan-taliban