Cover: Locals Rule

Locals Rule

Historical Lessons for Creating Local Defense Forces for Afghanistan and Beyond

Published Sep 18, 2012

by Austin Long, Stephanie Pezard, Bryce Loidolt, Todd C. Helmus


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Research Questions

  1. What are the values and drawbacks of using local defense forces in counterinsurgency?
  2. How should local defense forces be managed?
  3. What lessons learned from historical examples of local defense force use can be applied in Afghanistan?

Local defense forces have played a key role in counterinsurgencies throughout the 20th century. With the recent development of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) as a major part of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, lessons learned from earlier efforts to build local defense have become increasingly salient. This study examines eight cases of local defense forces used in the context of counterinsurgency in Indochina, Algeria, South Vietnam, Oman, El Salvador, Southern Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It covers an extensive time period (from 1945 to the present) and geographic scope, as well as a wide range of intervening countries and regimes, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and the Soviet Union. The authors compare the lessons learned from these eight cases and apply them to the current development of the ALP, in order to outline potential challenges and to suggest a way forward that takes into account the historical experience.

Key Findings

The Greatest Value of Local Defense Forces Lies in Intelligence Rather Than Manpower or Combat Ability

  • The synergy between U.S. combat capability and local defender intelligence is highly effective against insurgents.
  • Security force coordination is crucial to ensuring that the intelligence gathered by local defense forces is properly exploited.

The Effectiveness of Local Defense May Be Limited in Several Ways

  • Locals may be highly skeptical of government-affiliated paramilitaries if the behavior of these units was negative in the past.
  • Friction between the U.S., the host nation, and local defense forces can make the local defense effort ineffective.
  • Misuse of local defense forces as semi-conventional offensive forces can greatly reduce their effectiveness.

When Supporting Local Defense, the United States Must Carefully Manage the Relationship Between Itself, the Host Nation Government, and Local Defense Forces

  • Politics is paramount in local defense operations.
  • U.S. efforts to build local defense often require more than military support, such as help from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
  • The transition of local defense forces into formal government security apparatus or demobilization must be made slowly and carefully.

The U.S. Has Tried to Dissociate the Afghan Local Police (ALP) from Militias

  • The ALP are subject to the same restrictions as the Afghan National Police, including the use of force.
  • There is concern that rapid expansion of the ALP could begin to weaken the current relative harmony between U.S. special operations forces, local actors, and the Afghan government.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Special Operations Joint Task Force — Afghanistan. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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