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Arbakai Aim to Protect Their Villages in Afghanistan

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by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
National Public Radio (NPR)

Morning Edition, February 7, 2008 · Finding a way to stem the growing insecurity in Afghanistan is a difficult task. It’s one Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials believe must be handled by the country’s army and fledgling national police force.

But in eastern Afghanistan — the scene of some of the worst violence — tribal elders and local leaders claim the Afghan police and army are simply not up to the task.

They are demanding that Karzai — with American help — take another, more traditional approach, by paying local villagers to take up arms.

Protecting the Village

Cocking his well-worn Kalashnikov, Ehsanullah heads out on patrol of his snow-covered village of Paktia at a determined gait. He’s what people here in eastern Afghanistan call an “arbakai” — a revered volunteer answering the call of his tribal elders to protect their village.

Ehsanullah says he takes the job seriously.

He looks for anyone acting suspiciously. Or strangers stopped on the road who might be planting a mine. He’s one of some 100 arbakai in this district called Ahmadabad, volunteering each day to do what locals say the 15 national police officers assigned here cannot — keep Ahmadabad’s 70,000 residents safe.

Claims of Corruption

Among critics of the police is tribal elder Mohammed Rahim. He claims the overwhelmed, underpaid Afghan police officers in his province are prone to corruption. He and others accuse officers of working with criminals and the Taliban, rather than arresting them.

Rahim says that’s something an arbakai would never do. He says an arbakai’s reputation must be spotless because it is up to him to defend his tribe’s honor. He says only the best and bravest men in a tribe are asked to serve in the centuries-old, homebred militias that are unique to this part of Afghanistan.

“The government in Kabul wants to apply a Western model of law enforcement on us,” Rahim says. “They should instead apply our own, Afghan formula — and that way, we’ll have peace and security.”

Rahim says that formula — at least in Paktia and two neighboring provinces — is to expand and empower the arbakai; to get the Afghan government to formally turn over law enforcement in their region to the armed men who answer to their tribes; and to get the American military, which is responsible for security in this area, to pay for it.

Concerns over the Proposal

Rahim and other tribal elders and local officials from this volatile region bordering on Pakistan say they presented the proposal to U.S. officials two months ago. But it did not go over well with Karzai’s government, which argues that arbakai are illegal. American officials don’t seem too keen on the proposal, either.

“In all of this we have to remember all of the problems this country has had with local armed groups and be very careful not to re-create something like that,” says Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.

U.S. Col. Martin Schweitzer, who heads the 82nd Airborne Division’s force brigade combat team, put it more bluntly by phone from Khost province.

“You have these groups that are now armed — then what do you do with them? Well, what’s the next step in their evolution? And in time and time again, it has worked against the central government,” he says.

So Schweitzer says they’ve tried a different tack — coaxing the arbakai to join the Afghan national police or army.

Issues with Payment

Back in Ahmadabad district, a few dozen arbakai did so last year. They signed up as auxiliary police officers in exchange for a uniform, a couple of weeks of training and a salary of $70 a month.

But tribal elder Rahim says the program can hardly be called a success. A recent visit to the district police center shows why.

The lone remaining arbakai-turned-auxiliary police officer, Darikhan, shovels snow off the roof of the police building on a recent afternoon.

Darikhan says there were problems with the list of volunteers the tribal elders gave the police chief, and that led his colleagues to quit. He said that some police salaries were being paid to tribal elders for arbakai who existed only on paper, and that others who did show up to serve as auxiliary police officers weren’t paid at all.

Nevertheless, he believes that if Karzai and the U.S. military make more of an effort to recruit arbakai into the national police or army, it would go a long way toward improving security, and toward curbing corruption within those forces serving in far-flung districts like his own.

Elite fighters like himself, Darikhan says, are a lot better at spotting the bad guys. He says that, unlike national police officers trucked in from other parts of Afghanistan, arbakai have a vested interest in keeping their communities safe.


Written by afghandevnews

February 10, 2008 at 1:36 am

Posted in Security

2 Responses

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  1. […] Just found this.  Food for thought.  Arbakai Aim to Protect Their Villages in Afghanistan.  Source is NPR, but it seemed to me to worthwhile.  Arbakai won’t work everywhere.  […]

  2. […] @ [My] State Failure Blog Arbakai Aim to Protect Their Villages in Afghanistan @ Development News from […]

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