The arbakis, or civilian militias, are as much a part of Afghan history as the wars that have been raging for more than 30 years. Since 2002, the international community has been trying to systematically disarm the Afghan militias. With the help of costly programs, the men were to return to a normal life as farmers, market vendors or craftsmen. A UN report from last year proudly concludes: "Excellent progress was (...) seen in disbanding illegal armed groups (IAGs)."
The disarmament of Afghanistan is a noble objective, but the reality is a different story. Last year, more than 2,400 civilians were shot, hung, beheaded or blown up. Two-thirds of these victims were murdered by the insurgents.
Militiamen are a rough bunch. They make their own laws, steal, drink and take girls and little boys, say the people in Kunduz. Nevertheless, many villages are now seeking to provide their own security with local militias. Men with Kalashnikovs thrown casually over their shoulders and bazookas strapped to their backs are suddenly welcome again in Kunduz, as well as in the country's south and southeast -- everywhere there is heavy fighting.
Militias fill the vacuum that the weak state allows to develop and that 100,000-odd Western soldiers are not filling. It is a precarious development that could be tolerable as a temporary solution, provided a strong Afghan state really develops in the foreseeable future. If it doesn't, the militias will quickly lead to armed rivalries between individual villages and a bloody gang culture. In that case, the arbakis would only be the forerunners of a civil war.
In the Kunduz district of Khan Abad, the militias that were jointly fighting the Taliban in November are already at odds. "It'll be every man for himself soon," predicts Abdul Mohammed from the village of Aqtash, who sells pots and plastic jugs in the local bazaar.
The Americans, however, also see opportunities in the new developments. Local government representatives are even outfitting the militias with weapons and ammunition, as part of a program the US military calls the "Community Defense Initiative." General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of ISAF, sees the village militias as potentially strong allies in the fight against the Taliban.
Before coming to Kabul, McChrystal carefully analyzed what went wrong in the invasion of Iraq and what tools eventually brought about a fragile peace. They included the "Sons of Iraq," Sunni militias that began, after three years of war, to rise up against al-Qaida terrorists in August 2006, eventually driving them from their stronghold in Anbar province. These men knew every corner of their neighborhood, a quality that, when combined with the technical superiority of the Americans, produced the desired results.
In Afghanistan, the plan is to incorporate the arbakis into the Western alliance as a kind of loosely organized band of foot soldiers. Thousands of these armed men will then defend their own villages. "The idea is to convince people to take responsibility for their security," says an American colonel on McChrystal's staff in Kabul. His special forces are now working closely with the militia commanders, and in Kunduz the two forces are already hunting down the Taliban together.