Empowered Warlords, Power-Brokers And Tribal Elites: Privatized Security In Afghanistan – Analysis

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By Justin D. Wallestad and Dr. Theodore Karasik

As fighting in Afghanistan escalated in 2010 with civilian casualties at record highs, achieving a peaceful resolution between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Taliban rose as a top priority of the political agenda. Even with the addition of 30,000 United States Armed Forces increasing international forces to more than 150,000, it has become clear that as a weak state, the GIRoA has failed to fulfill certain fundamental functions associated with a sovereign nation, chiefly that of maintaining a monopoly over its use of armed force and affording its citizens with apt security from physical violence.

While the gradual withdrawal of U.S. Armed Forces was originally scheduled to begin July 2011, efforts to fill the gap with private militias and security companies in order to offset the Taliban resurgence are presently underway. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has adopted a strategy of addressing the nation’s growing security concerns through the establishment of decentralized forms of security at the district and provincial levels through the empowerment of warlords, power-brokers and tribal elites.


Aside from the outpouring of contracting firms such as Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, or DynCorp increasingly replacing those in uniform, as of January 2011, there were over 50 licensed Private Security Companies (PSC) operating in Afghanistan, many of which are signatories of the 2010 International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers aimed at mitigating Human Rights violations. The Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) in Afghanistan has also advanced district-level security measures through the facilitation of Village Stability Operations (VSO) and Local Police Forces (LPF); shifting the burden of the GIRoA from providing security, development, and governance to a more supportive and advisory role. Nevertheless, these commandos, militias, and ‘community watch’ teams at first glance stand in direct contradiction to the function of a state as frequently falling outside the jurisdiction of existing nationalized forces, namely the Afghan National Army and police, however, they may still provide the key to unlocking an exit strategy for NATO forces from Afghanistan.

Importance of Security: The Drawback of a Centralized Afghan Government

Theoretically, there are three major insurgent groups operating within Afghanistan—the Taliban, Hib-e-Islami, and the Haqqani Network—however, in reality, there remains a plethora of militant groups engaging in criminal activities, rivalry quarrels, and providing security for anyone willing to pay. While logically these outlaw groups are to blame for the rampant insecurity throughout Afghanistan, the populace and international community continue to demand for political resolution at the expense of an already short-handed government. The absence of national political order, however, does not also suggest an absence of all political order. In Afghanistan, authority still exists, fragmented and segmented, attained and employed by local leaders, elites and power-brokers that have monopolized force in specific areas lacking a strong presence from the GIRoA. Understandably, without security, all other worthwhile programs—development, social welfare and capacity—lose all meaning in the pursuit of successfully building Afghan trust and loyalty to their government.

Any reasonable prospect for achieving a strong centralized government in Afghanistan should reflect its present limited legitimacy and capacity that fails to effectively extend beyond the capital in Kabul. In order for a robust Afghan government to emerge it will require a more inclusive, flexible, and decentralized political arrangement that shares equal representation among the main ethnic and sectarian groups as well as aspects that draw support among Afghans over the insurgent agenda where elites outside of state bureaucracy retain significant power and independence. The current process of presidential appointments from provincial governors down to mid-level officials that stand in direct opposition to the will of the provincial majority not only undermines the socio-political sensitivities apparent throughout Afghanistan’s landscape but underscores the existence of suitable political alternatives.

Kabul may hold all policy, budgetary, and revenue generating authority, but it still lacks the capacity to enforce the rule of law in places which need it most. Nevertheless, warlords and power-brokers are increasingly being indoctrinated into the government structure in hopes of consolidating their influence, yet much of their reach extends far beyond the official structures of the state through the deliverance of parallel entities, such as security and social welfare services, provided for segments of the population otherwise neglected by the government.

Upon appointment as governor of Balkh province in 2004, Atta Mohammed Noor placed many of his militia commanders from his time as a Tajik militia commander in government positions and police ranks, effectively displacing potential rivals and safeguarding his allies in a capacity that maintains relative security in Balkh. Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar since 2005, co-opted tribal leaders during the most recent opium cultivation in order to gain political capital and legitimacy, enabling him to supply tribal elders with food, construction and discretionary funding otherwise absent from the GIRoA. Recent Oruzgan Provincial Police Chief appointee and prominent warlord, Matiullah Khan, has funded the construction of more than 70 mosques and schools all the while maintaining control over the Kandak Amniante Uruzgan (KAU), a private security organization responsible for contracted security in Southern Afghanistan.

The complexity of patrimonial structures—informal use of kin, tribal and political networks—in which warlords and power-brokers operate in the sustainment of the status quo is frequently overlooked as international emphasis continues to rest on how governance ought to function rather than accepting how it actually operates in weak and fragmented states.

Private Security Companies: Issues with Decentralized Security

Host Nation Trucking (HNT) drivers describe these primary private security subcontractors as “strongmen, commanders, and militia leaders who compete with the Afghan central government for power and authority.” U.S. supply chains depend on HNT contracts for convoy protection at the expense of millions annually; however, some rightfully suspect that payments only work to empower warlords with money and de facto legitimacy for their private armies, a risk between ensuring security and dissolving the legitimacy of the GIRoA.

It is difficult to ignore NATO/GIRoA support for men responsible for violent killings in the mid-90s who have returned to power in Afghanistan: Parliamentary member, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf; Chief of Staff and special envoy for northern Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum; former President and United National Front opposition leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani; and Defense Minister Muhammad Fahim. Yet, the growing concerns over the legality of PSCs that regularly fall outside the structural command of the Ministry of Defense and Interior are equally alarming.

Aside from the abundant failure to register weapons or document names of employees, little is done to prevent the spread of private militias, proliferation of weapons or the shifting of loyalties among government forces, insurgent networks and warlords. These PSCs largely remain unaccountable for their actions as independent actors of the state. Although warlords, like Matiullah Khan, nominally operate under licensed PSCs, they prosper from within the vacuum of political authority and are said to resist attempts made by the state to transition toward a more consolidated government dependent on a transparent electoral process out of fear that a strong centralized democracy would threaten their status, authority, and ability to profit from Afghan insecurities.

A Double-Edged Sword: Security At the Expense of Control

The strategy of hiring private security firms in Afghanistan, to include arming small district militias to resist Taliban resurgence, is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. Although Afghanistan’s severely fragmented population along ethnic, tribal and communal lines, accentuated and exaggerated by a thirty-year war reduce the likelihood of ever achieving a strong centralized government capable of sustaining a monopoly over the use of armed force, a decentralized government in Afghanistan, on the other hand, even if under the heavy-hand of warlords and power-brokers, often times provides social welfare and security otherwise absent under the present Afghan government. Additionally, these tribal elites are better positioned to navigate the ethnic sensitivities of their regions and offer an attractive alternative to foreign appointed officials and persuasive Taliban. By bringing their influence into the political process through personal reform and investment in Afghanistan’s political and economic future, NATO could successfully aim not at constructing a flawless Afghan state, but refurbishing the existing patrimonial order to its advantage. These men would still govern the country through a series of regional fiefdoms in the short-term, but their authority would eventually be absorbed into the accountability and stability of a functional-modernized Afghan state, especially as international forces gradually withdraw in support of the 2014 Afghan security handoff.

Justin D. Wallestad, INEGMA Fall 2011 Intern, Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director of Research and Consultancy, INEGMA


INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.

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