Petraeus Tie to Afghan Local Police Program Hits NYTimes One Day After ALP Role in Revenge Killings Noted

On Saturday, we learned that US Special Operations forces have suspended training of Afghan Local Police while a re-screening of the backgrounds of those already in the force is carried out. I noted then that only Reuters dared to connect the ALP program to David Petraeus, who put it in place, presumably because the news on the program was not good. Yesterday, the New York Times also linked Petraeus to the program, and, remarkably, this came only one day after running an article exposing further problems with the ALP program.

Sunday’s article on problems with the Afghan Local Police program informs us that a number of atrocities have been linked to groups some claim have been enabled by the ALP program:

It was the second time in a month that one of the controversial militia groups, known as arbakai, had carried out reprisal killings of people believed to be Taliban sympathizers.

In both cases, residents complained that the groups received support and protection from American Special Operations forces, which the United States military has denied. The Special Operations units train arbakai militiamen only when they are enrolled in official programs for recruits of the Afghan Local Police, American officials insist.

Although the term “reprisal killing” has a specific definition in International Humanitarian Law (see this comment by joanneleon), the article linked by the Times when they used the term discusses what looks like a case of revenge killing fueled by ethnic hatred:

At least nine Afghans and perhaps many more were forced out of their homes in rural Afghanistan and executed in what Afghan officials called an act of revenge by one ethnic group against another, underscoring the long shadow cast by the country’s ethnic hatreds.

So, while at least some of the atrocities attributed to the ALP may be due to ethnic tensions, what seems clear is that in many cases these groups claim a relationship to US Special Operations forces that the US sometimes disputes. From this same early August article:

Two Afghan officials, including a member of Parliament, asserted that the man who is accused of leading the executions has had a relationship with American Special Operations forces — an assertion that an American spokesman denied. The other Afghan official, the provincial police chief, said the authorities in the area had tried to have the man arrested on past accusations of killing civilians, but that “foreigners” provided refuge for him.

The spokesman for the Special Operations Command, Lt. Col. Todd Harrell, said there were no Special Operations forces in the area and emphasized that it remained unclear if those who were killed were civilians or Taliban.

That is a very interesting dual-level denial by Harrell. First, he denies a link to the leader of the group carrying out the executions, but, just in case that claim later becomes non-operational, he throws in the suggestion that those killed may have been Taliban, presumably making the fact that they were executed okay.

The article goes on to state that perhaps some ALP units have direct links to Special Operations forces rather than operating under Afghan control. Complicating matters further, it appears that although the ALP program got a large push under Petraeus’ command, the practice of buying off militia groups has been going on from the beginning of our presence in Afghanistan and may go beyond Special Operations:

There seemed to be widespread confusion among Afghan officials about Commander Shujayee’s affiliations, with some suggesting he worked for the Afghan Local Police, who receive a three-week training course from American Special Operations forces and are then deployed to their own villages; they fall under the Interior Ministry’s control. Others suggest that he had ties directly to Special Operations units and worked with them rather than with the Afghans. The lack of clarity was a reminder of the number of unofficial groups that operate across Afghanistan and are sometimes confused with the Afghan Local Police.

Making matters more confusing for ordinary Afghans, some of the militias have been hired over the 11-year war by more shadowy arms of the American government, including the C.I.A., to help track down insurgents and have retained an image of invulnerability because of those allegiances. Those too are sometimes described as linked  to Special Operations forces although they may not be. Those who suggested Commander Shujayee had ties to Special Operations forces blamed them for allowing what they called a dangerous man to operate freely.

The problem now becomes whether the militias committing atrocities have been through the training program for ALP or not. Sunday’s article in the Times suggests that some groups form and then hope to receive the training (and financial support):

The status of arbakai militiamen is a delicate issue. The term refers to unpaid militiamen who have organized themselves, sometimes as former insurgents, sometimes as armed robbers, but in other cases as a self-defense force and vigilantes. Many of them in Kunduz and other areas have begun to receive arms and other support from government officials, even before they have been officially trained.

Many of the arbakai say they hope to be trained as Afghan Local Police recruits by American Special Operations teams, who also are supposed to vet the Afghans to make sure they have really committed to the government side and are not involved in criminal activity. They then are issued equipment and paid. But the training program has recently been suspended to allow the American trainers to re-examine existing recruits and root out any who pose a risk.

There is, of course, a huge problem inherent in arming groups that operate along ethnic divisions. From Sunday’s article:

Human rights groups have raised concerns that the arming of Afghan militia groups increases the danger that Afghanistan will return to the multisided civil war, which pitted many Afghan ethnic groups against one another and destroyed the country in the 1990s, setting the stage for a Taliban takeover.

Monday’s article, though, breaks through two major taboos on reporting on Afghanistan. First, we have this in the description of ALP training:

But even before the escalation of insider killings by Afghan forces, the Afghan Local Police program had been a singular cause of concern.

American Special Operations forces, who are in charge of the effort to train and arm local police militias to resist the Taliban in remote areas, have long grappled with problems within the local police program, from petty thievery and bullying to extortion rackets and murder, one American official in Washington said. Human rights workers have raised alarms about abuses by the Afghan force members for years, and President Hamid Karzai was wary about a program with the potential to set up a whole new system of unaccountable militias.

Bad behavior by members of the Afghan Local Police, roughly 16,000 nationwide, “goes back to recruitment and vetting,” the American official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program is officially regarded as a success. “The process is broken, or maybe it never completely was working. If you recruit the young tough guys in a village, they go out and act like young tough guys with power.”

Besides being a very succinct description of the problems inherent in the whole militia concept, the Times explains that their source for this comment on problems with the program must remain anonymous because “the program is officially regarded as a success”. It appears then that no “official” statements can be offered if the program is to be described in a bad light. For those statements, only anonymous tips are allowed.

The Times does eventually get around to breaking another taboo by linking David Petraeus to the ALP program, but only in the process of bringing out Jack Keane to deflect blame from Petraeus onto Afghan officials on whom he had to rely for vetting of the Afghan recruits:

Jack Keane, a former Army general and a mentor to David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Afghanistan when the program began, said that “the brilliance of the program is also the vulnerability” because recruits are selected by elders, not by Americans. Although there has always been some form of NATO vetting, “we’re totally dependent on their judgment as to who they’ve selected.”

Shorter Times, via Keane: “Don’t blame Petraeus for the vulnerability of the program, only give him praise for its brilliance.”

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
10 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    Wow, there is a lot to think about with this whole situation and the articles about it. Thanks for your follow up and for your focus on this issue and the green-on-blue killings (which is something I am preoccupied with and always in search of ways to get some kind of understanding of what is going on).

    I think it’s interesting that the media used the term “reprisal killings” and I wonder if we inadvertently stumbled onto something by pointing the term out for definition. I wonder who was the first person to use that term. Was it an official source or a journalist’s choice of terms. If it is a term historically used in legal definition of war crimes, is somebody worrying about defending against accusations of war crimes here?

    Anyway, lots to think about. I can’t help but wonder about the massacre in the villages (I can’t remember the names of the villages at the moment, the massacres Sgt. Bales was charged with). There was talk about how those were revenge killings. It was a remote area and involved a FOB base where Special Ops troops were located along with Bales and his unit, right? From the information that we had it seemed like a different kind of revenge but, I don’t know, I can’t help but wonder since there were so many inconsistencies about who was involved and whether there was more than one killer. “Afghan villagers say massacre was retaliation“. Maybe there are no dots to be connected though. After all, wars are all about retaliation and retaliation for that retaliation and neverending retaliation.

  2. peasantparty says:


    I haven’t been able to keep up with all the small details lately. One thing really stands out and glares about this and I hope you can clarify for me a little.

    I know the story has long been that we are still there to train and equip Afghan troops to protect themselves. Now this puts the pointer on Local Policing and that seems a large broad jump from the purposes we were given. Can you give me some idea of when the police training from military special ops of the US began?

    It really speaks volumes to the type of local police they intend to install. Not your regular peace keeper type of city cops going on there, right?

  3. Jim White says:

    @peasantparty: The push for Special Ops to train the Afghan Local Police began in 2010. This is not a very big program. The estimates I’ve seen vary somewhat, but the press seems to be settling on 16,000 that have been trained. Keep in mind that this is totally separate from the program that trains the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Those two groups together number about 350,000. Re-vetting for them has been underway for a while, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan to stop training while the re-vetting takes place. That is most likely because they have to maintain a large inflow into this program because they also have a very high loss rate from desertion.

    The training of the ALP appears to have been aimed at places where there was little to no presence of ANP. And yes, the types of folks they seem to be getting to fill the program leave a bit to be desired. (Unless that was the plan all along. We have been known to buy off militias that would be attacking us–see the “awakening” movement in Iraq.)

  4. Garrett says:

    When I squint moderately hard at the Oppel one, I see a story that they are considering scrapping the whole damn program.

    2 years four months left.

    To ward off the coming disaster, scrapping that particular program would be one of the best things they could possibly do.

  5. CTuttle says:

    Jim, get a load of this steaming pile of Wapoo that Ignatius just served up…! Obama’s Signal to Iran…

    Some key facts need to be pointed out: 1) 120 nations just Unanimously agreed that Iran has a right to the entire Nuclear Cycle,

    2) Erdogan is rapidly losing public support…

    …A Turkish public opinion survey was conducted between 22 and 27 August 2012 by means of in-depth interviews with 3,251 people in 21 provinces in Turkey. On the question of the government’s handling of the Syria affair, only 18% of the interviewees took a positive view of how the Turkish government is handling it; 67% took a negative view; and 15% had no opinion. The survey also showed a significant swing in public opinion against the ruling AKP party’s governance in general, relative to opinion at the time of the parliamentary elections last year on 12 Jun 2011…

    And, 3) When has Iran last attacked any neighbor…? *gah*

  6. Garrett says:

    Nangarhar Then and Now

    November 2009

    The first phase of the Afghan plan, now being carried out by American Special Forces soldiers, is to set up or expand the militias in areas with a population of about a million people. Special Forces soldiers have been fanning out across the countryside, descending from helicopters into valleys where the residents have taken up arms against the Taliban and offering their help.

    “We are trying to reach out to these groups that have organized themselves,” Col. Christopher Kolenda said in Kabul.

    Afghan and American officials say they plan to use the militias as tripwires for Taliban incursions, enabling them to call the army or the police if things get out of hand.

    New York Times

    May 2010

    “It really stirred things up,” said one State Department official in Kabul, referring to George’s approach. “They were basically paying the Shinwaris to do nothing: ‘Congratulations, you get a pony.’ Now other tribes are saying, ‘Why don’t I get a pony?’ ”

    Washington Post

    January 2011

    The leaders of one of the largest Pashtun tribes in a Taliban stronghold said Wednesday that they had agreed to support the American-backed government, battle insurgents and burn down the home of any Afghan who harbored Taliban guerrillas.

    Elders from the Shinwari tribe, which represents about 400,000 people in eastern Afghanistan, also pledged to send at least one military-age male in each family to the Afghan Army or the police in the event of a Taliban attack.

    In exchange for their support, American commanders agreed to channel $1 million in development projects directly to the tribal leaders and bypass the local Afghan government, which is widely seen as corrupt.

    New York Times

    October 2011

    The conflict originates from the dispute over a desert tract of land of approximately 5,000 to 8,000 jerib (that is between 10-15 square kilometres) in the northern part of Achin, on the border with Shinwar district, situated roughly between the territory of the Sepai sub-tribe in upper Achin (Spin Ghar mountains) to the south and that of the Alisherkhel in neighbouring Shinwar to the north.

    Afghanistan Analysts Network

    September 2012

    A suicide bomber killed at least 25 people and wounded dozens at a funeral in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, officials said, the latest large-scale attack on civilians.

    A local district chief and dozens of his relatives were at the ceremony in the Dur Baba district of Nangarhar province, near the Pakistan border, when a man detonated a vest he was wearing packed with explosives, the officials said.

    They said Dur Baba district chief Haji Hamesha Gul, who was wounded in the attack, was probably the main target.


    With the Special Forces in conjunction with local militia stuff, and the $1 million to one tribe stuff, and the like, it sure looks like we managed to inflame tribal tensions in the corner of the province down around Shinwar.

  7. joanneleon says:

    Jim, you might be interested in a few new details from this article about the drone strike in Yemen.

    Yemen probes civilian deaths in apparent US drone strike
    The suspected drone fired two rockets, one of which missed the vehicle carrying Dahab and the second of which hit a following minibus killing all those inside.

    Angry relatives of the dead blocked the main road linking Radaa to the town of Dhammar and the capital beyond.

    Jahmi said his delegation had received an undertaking to reopen the highway in return for a promise of 20 million rials (nearly 100,000 dollars) in compensation.

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