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Afghanistan Dispatch: Why the Plan to Arm Local Militias Is Bound to Backfire

Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan—It’s all so familiar. The chafing of seven pounds of steel and wood of a Kalashnikov against Khoda Qul’s bony right hip. The blanched desert that unfurls through the gunsight. And the enemy: Taliban forces advancing across a country so parched its desiccated alluvium has sun-baked into pottery.

Fourteen years ago, Khoda Qul picked up a gun and joined a band of sandaled irregulars that, eventually, in 2001, helped drive the Taliban out of Shahraq, his village of oblique mud-slapped homes in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province. This spring, the resurgent Taliban returned, and Khoda Qul once again strapped a Kalashnikov over his shoulder to defend his droughty tomato and melon fields and almond orchards. A score of other Shahraqans did the same. So did a dozen men in Shingilabad. And two dozen in Karaghuzhlah. And still more in Darabad and Khairabad. As the Taliban claim sovereignty over one Bactrian village after the next, hundreds of villagers across these millennial battlefields are arming themselves to repel the insurgency.

The United States and NATO, desperate to stop the Taliban’s advance at any cost, have given their official blessing to the mobilization of these untrained minutemen, known among Afghans as arbaki and customary to southeastern Afghanistan. But in the volatile north, where land feuds, ethnic strife, invasions, and insurrections snarl into mega-conflicts that bleed one into the next for centuries, untold hundreds of men newly armed—even in self-defense—inevitably advance the familiar cycle of fratricidal warfare.

NO ONE KNOWS where the arbaki’s allegiances lie. Most vigilantes are former foot soldiers of the Northern Alliance—a motley coalition of rival warlords and their militias that fought against the Taliban from 1996 until 2001. Their fidelity tends to mimic the ethnic fissures that, over centuries, have bespattered the Khorasan’s explosive demographics with fratricidal blood. Some men, like Khoda Qul and the leader of the Shahraqi arbaki, Aziz, belong to Junbish-e-Milli-e-Islami; others count themselves among Jamiat-e-Islami—two powerful militias-turned-political parties that fought viciously for control over northern and central Afghanistan in the 1990s, pillaging their way through each other’s territories, leveling parts of Kabul, and essentially paving the way for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The arbaki commander in Karaghuzhlah, a former mujaheddin who had once fought against the Taliban, told me last winter that he would join the Taliban in protest over a nighttime raid on his village by American troops. And in Kunduz province, Balkh’s neighbor to the east, some 4,000 arbaki have been reported to be robbing villagers, raping women and girls, and clashing over territory.

No one in Balkh province, including the top police officials, can tell how many men here have joined the vigilantes. Nor does anyone know how many weapons they have. Scores of Afghans have told me, in private, that they had defied the 2006 order to surrender their weapons and had secretly kept their rifles stashed within easy reach: in shallow pits in their backyards; beneath some boards in the earthen floors of their houses; behind knotty rafters holding up clay roofs. Afghanistan is a country at war, they say. It is foolish to face war unarmed. “When there’s fighting,” one village elder in Balkh told me, “there’s no law. The law is your Kalashnikov. Wherever you shoot, there you rule.”

Given the vigilantes’ past, that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. “When you see who is playing the role of arbaki, you see no light in the future of this country,” said Farid Mutaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e-Sharif. “They are former mujaheddin, warlords, militiamen. They don’t feel safe if one of them has weapons and the other one doesn’t. We will have another civil war because of the arbaki, I am afraid.”

Of course, the villagers have little choice, argues Aziz, the leader of Shahraq’s militia. Aziz and I met beneath a corrugated metal awning of a relative’s compound in Mazar-e-Sharif. Twice, at night, the Taliban had launched rockets at his house in Shahraq, and even during the day, he said, his village of 800 or so families was too dangerous to receive visitors. No police or Afghan soldiers guard the village, nor do NATO troops patrol the narrow dun streets that meander past compounds in which the villagers, mostly ethnic Turkmen, now live in dread of the next Taliban raid. For the past two months, Taliban riders on motorcycles have been making rounds of Shahraq’s two dozen tiny factories that bake uneven pale bricks in funnel-shaped ovens, demanding monthly donations of about $2,000 per factory to fund the insurgency. “Do they pay? I asked Aziz. “They have to,” he replied. “People are afraid that, if they refuse to pay, they will be killed.”

Even the vigilante teams have not prevented Taliban collectors from returning to the brick factories, day in and day out. “The weapons we have compared to their PK [machine guns] and rocket-propelled grenade launchers are weak,” Aziz explained. “I want you to convey my words to NATO and the foreign governments. In order to stop the war in our village, we need more weapons.”

As Aziz spoke, Khoda Qul stood by, fingering his Kalashnikov. He had bought it on the black market for $1,000 a few weeks ago, he explained, to replace his old gun, which had broken. This Kalashnikov, too, was not new. Its wooden stock was worn silken like the herders’ footpaths that sickle the plains of Balkh. The chroming on the barrel was blemished, chipped. The dark-brown magazine of ABS thermoplastic dated the weapon to the 1980s.

Who has fired this gun, and at whom? In which of the invasions and fratricides that have scarred this land? And how will this gun, and hundreds of still more weapons, yet unfired, alter the course of Afghanistan’s never-ending war?

Anna Badkhen is the author of Peace Meals and Waiting for the Taliban. She is writing a book about timelessness. Her reporting from Afghanistan is made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.