Afghan and Pakistani local forces

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There has been a tradition, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, of local forces, raised by a local tribal structure in response to a specific need. While the term akarbai has been used interchangeably with lashkar, the two are not identical. While lashkar also may refer to hired militia, the latter is considered less honorable. Arbakai is a tribal based community policing system grounded in volunteer grassroots initiatives. They differ from lashkar that form in response to cheghar, or a need to defend against a common threat, and certainly from hired militias. [1]

Making use of akarbai would be a specific, traditional approach to using clans to enforce peace. It is an open question if this would work with the religious extremism now present. [2] Local leaders said a failed attempt, in 2004, to build a Kabul-Kandahar road could have been mediated by tribal leadership, who were not consulted. In some cases, the tribes took on a responsibility on their own, as the creation, by the Mangal tribe of Khost Province, of an arbakai for election security. The tribes, however, will look to their own interests, and cannot be coerced into an arbitrary national policy.

There is also a challenge in the interaction of warlords funded by outside powers, and the traditional tribal structure. Military figures often broke the local collaborative system. [3]

On the pro-communist side, President Najibullah used local militias against the Taliban between 1989 and 1992. As has been the case in a number of wars, not in Afghanistan alone, they were undisciplined, prone to switch sides, and could be corrupt and brutal.[4]

Again in other wars, there have been more successful experiences, but usually with professional leadership, such as the Firqa irregulars in Iran in the 1970s, or an assortment of groups in South Vietnam, usually led by United States Army Special Forces. More recently, it has worked with Sunni local fighters in al-Anbar Province of Iraq

There has not been much success with stable militia in Afghanistan. One prerequisite appears to be a strong tribal structure, coupled with a homogeneous population, so there are no inter-tribal fights, It was first attempted in eastern Afghanistan, where government has always been weak.

During the Afghanistan War (1978-1992), this was a common way for the Taliban to raise infantry for local combat; which they called lashkar; they are paid only by the local authority if at all. Specialists, who gained skills under the Communists such as tank and aircraft crews, were more mercenaries. [5]

Arbakai vs. Lashkar

Arbakai differ from those in militia or hired by private security companies. They have greater support and are embedded within the community. In Pashto the derivation of the word Arbakai is messenger. The same basic idea has different names in different areas: The Arbakai in different ara with different names, such as , in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas it is called Salwishti or Shalgoon and in Kandahar Province it is known as Paltanai.

However, with reference to the security system, it is used in the broader context of security enforcement. Arbakai has been defined in many ways. According to the International Legal Foundation, Arbakai are the traditional enforcers of the decisions of Pashtun jirga councils. "The men responsible for the enforcement and implementation of the Jirga decisions are known as Arbakai. In ancient Aryan tribes, the Arbakai led groups of warriors in wartime and maintained law and order in peacetime. Today, they take orders from a commander. They are given considerable immunity in their communities and cannot be harmed or disobeyed. Those who flout these rules are subject to the punishments set by the Arbakai organization." [6]

Arbakai are (usually) unpaid; they are part of the community structure rather than being hired by a person, government, or company. Arkabai are sufficiently part of the pashtunwali honor code to be distinct from ad hoc community armed groups. "In Southeast Afghanistan, people are very clear about the distinction: being an Arbakai member is considered an honour while belonging to a militia is considered shameful. As Kakar states, honour is one of the Pashtunwali principles. The responsibility of any specific Arbakai differs from one tribe to another though they do have common tasks and duties. These are as follows:

  • To implement the Jirga’s decisions;
  • To maintain law and order;
  • To protect and defend borders and boundaries of the tribe or community.

Any of these three general categories may have various subcategories related to what is accepted or recognised as a ‘common good’ or as a ‘threat or challenge for overall security’"[7]

Regional experience

Eastern Afghanistan

In Kunar Province, a system based on the traditions of the Shinwari, Mohmand, and Khogyani tribes was reestablished by the Governor in 2004. It was financed financed by the government through the Jirga and not through direct payment to the Arbakai members when serving as, for example, militia. The money given by the government was not intended to be used as a salary, but was to cover the expenditures of the Arbakai. The system was influenced by that practiced by the neighbouring tribes of Muhmand, Shinwari and Khogyani.[8] This was potentially weakened due to government financing, but channeling it through the jirga seemed to legitimize it.

In Gardez Province, even though arbakai of the area were incorporated into the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, a central government police reserve, they still consider themselves "Ahmadzai arbakai". The Ahmadzai arbakai are Pashtuns in Gardez. According to a local elder, "Each sub-tribe takes its turn to be arbakai and they serve 10 days at a time... The arbakai only works in the area of its own tribe. The tribe will discipline them if they do anything wrong to the people....They recognise the local people. That is why they are better than the national police or the army."[4]

Kabul area

Less successful was a program tried in Tagab district of Kapisa province, located north of Kabul. In its formation those who attended were not real representatives of the sub-tribes living in the district. Instead, the "were excombatants related to the jihadist parties and were included because of their political



was not established using proper procedure, and indeed was implemented through a top-down approach, against the core principles of the Arbakai. It was based on implicit political goals by some local officials and was not embedded in the social fabric of the area, and thus lacked trust and support. Individuals joined it for financial reasons, not to serve their communities. It was not an impartial system and had no autonomy, and finally there was no history of the use of the Arbakai in the area. The Arbakai system needs to be separated from the political and economic objectives of influential individuals and government authorities. It must be controlled by a representative

group that will make collective decisions on the basis of equal and inclusive participation[9]

Refugee camps

An arkabai system was set up to maintain law and order in some Afghan refugee camps, including those the "Haripur area of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. It is worth noting that the people who lived in these camps were not only people from the south-east. Indeed, the majority of people living in these camps were from other regions of the country, particularly from the northern and north-eastern regions. "

After informal measures failed, elders, teachers and religious scholars agreed to establish a committee called the ‘Reformation Committee or Council’ and under the supervision of this committee they established an Arbakai system. There were twenty five Arbakai from twenty five mosques who would attend daily to perform their duties under the committee." There was no other law enforcement in the camp.[10]

Southern Afghanistan

Britain, in particular, is exploring the use of village defence forces in southern Helmand Province. Speaking to the British parliament on 12 December, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the British Parliament said that Britain advocated a shift in strategy that would favour "hard-headed realism" and work "with the grain of Afghan tradition". "One way forward is to increase our support for community defence initiatives, where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modelled on traditional Afghan arbakai," he said.

Speaking to the British parliament on 12 December, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the British Parliament said that Britain advocated a shift in strategy that would favour "hard-headed realism" and work "with the grain of Afghan tradition". "One way forward is to increase our support for community defence initiatives, where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modelled on traditional Afghan 'arbakai'," he said.

The Helmand police chief Gen Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, in southern Afghanistan, disapproves. "I am speaking for myself, not my government here - but as far as Afghanistan is concerned in three decades of war there is not any example of a militia having done anything for the benefit of Afghanistan...If you use the name of militia or of arbakai, people will be shocked. They had a very bad reputation and just look after the interests of their own tribe. The British have not contacted me on this issue, but I will always tell them to focus on the national police, not militias."[4]

South Waziristan

In the Pakistani tribal tradition, a lashkar is formed in response to a specific incident. In this case, it is being organized by a tribal leader, known as Maulvi Naziror or Mullah Nazir, after the collapse of the conciliatory “Waziristan Accord” negotiated by regional governor Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai in September 2006. Orakzai resigned on January 6, after two separate rocket attacks. The first, in the regional capital of Wana, killed three; the Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility. [11] The second attack hit the office of Maulvi Khanan—a close aide of Maulvi Nazir—in nearby Shakai.

A former Taliban commander believed to have connections to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Nazir has publicly accused Baitullah Mehsud for the killings. "It would be a mistake to see Maulvi Nazir as either pro-Washington or pro-Islamabad. Nazir acts in his own interest, those of his clan and those of his tribe and will ally himself with anyone he perceives may further those interests. His extended family owns property on both side of the Afghan-Pakistani border and he travels freely between the two without interference from the Afghan Taliban. The apparently impending explosion of violence in the Waziristan frontier region will only create further instability that can be exploited by the Taliban and al-Qaeda."[12]

Role in regional and national security

Akarbai, at least, may need to be seen as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, police and other official security organizations. The presence of a working jirga is essential.

As with the Taliban, there may be a separate role for lashkar, but these will not have the self-discipline and community control of akarbai.

When Tariq, in 2007, asked a chief of police on how arbakai could help, he initially said "we want Arbakai to join us as soon as possible because without Arbakai involvement security will not be established in the province." He did not, however, have a clear idea how this would work, originally suggesting, but rejecting, having them under the police. He then proposed they include at least one policeman, as a deputy for their leader. It is also unclear how some tribal traditions, such as blood debt, could fit into a system governed by general principles of human rights.

A nationally oriented attempt, in 1992, established temporary peace but did not provide a long-term solution. "...Tribal leaders from Loya Paktia made the decision to establish a buffer between warring parties and attempted to end the conflict. The peacekeeping action was successful, but the tribal leaders’ attempt to solve the conflict failed. This failure was due to various reasons. First, there was little financial support for this mission. Second, some of the tribal leaders or tribesmen were committed to one of the warring parties and sabotaged the process. Third, the tribal leaders failed to take Waak (statements of position) from the leaders of the warring parties, which is a major mistake according to tribal conflict resolution rules and regulations. Finally, there was no UN or international community support to these efforts. This is the conclusion of Mohammad Daud, currently Member of Parliament from the Paktia Province and an Ameer of the Arbakai during that mission. If the Arbakai are tasked with stopping the fighting and allowing the start of peace negotiations, this must be supported by all sides including those at national level and in the local private sector. It must receive political and financial support from organisations such as the OIC and the UN."[13]


  1. Mohammed Osman Tariq (December 2008), Tribal Security System (Arbakai) in Southeast Afghanistan, Crisis States Research Centre, Occasional Paper no. 7
  2. Scott Baldauf (June 24, 2004), "Key to governing Afghans: the clans", Christian Science Monitor
  3. Ana Pejcinova (2007), Chapter 3: The Afghan Cultural Model, Afghanistan: Creation of a Warlord Democracy
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Tom Coghlan (December 26, 2007), Can tribes take on the Taleban?
  5. Ahmed Rashid (2000), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300089023, pp. 99-100
  6. The Customary Laws of Afghanistan, International Legal Foundation, 2004, p. 10
  7. Tariq, p. 3
  8. Tariq, p. 9
  9. Tariq, pp. 9-10
  10. Tariq, pp. 8-9
  11. Saleem Shahid (January 6, 2006), Boy dies in Mach rocket attack
  12. Andrew McGregor (January 14, 2008), "South Waziri Tribesmen Organize Counterinsurgency Lashkar", Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation
  13. Tarik, pp. 11-12