Minimalist International Interventions

For Afghan and Other Local Defense Forces, History Holds Warnings

By Austin Long

Austin Long is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

From Afghanistan to Mali, current efforts to build local defense forces in the context of counterinsurgency have made the lessons learned from prior efforts especially salient. An examination of eight efforts from 1945 to the present shows that the greatest value of local defense forces lies in intelligence, not combat, and that the misuse of such defensive forces — that is, as offensive ones — can greatly reduce their effectiveness. For Afghanistan specifically, the historical record also suggests that rapid expansion of the Afghan Local Police today could weaken the relative harmony among U.S. Special Operations Forces, local forces, and the Afghan government.

Traditionally, counterinsurgents have relied on local defense forces for many reasons. These units act as force multipliers for regular armies that must cover large swaths of territory. The units have unmatched knowledge of the local terrain and populations. Local defense forces may be more motivated to fight than many regulars, because they directly see the results of security improvements on their families and communities. Employing local defense forces also depletes the potential recruiting pool of insurgents while providing the central government some sense of perceived, if not actual, popular support.

The use of local defense forces is not, however, devoid of risks. Militias often represent parochial interests that may, if unchecked, promote lawlessness, increase insecurity, and undermine the state. Lacking the discipline and training usually expected from regular troops, such militias may attempt to settle scores against other local groups, leading to an escalation of violence and political fragmentation. They may engage in corruption and predatory behavior against their own populations. And the proximity with insurgents that makes these militias a precious source of intelligence may also lead them to defect to the enemy, sometimes with the arms provided by their protectors.

Utilizing local defense forces in counterinsurgency can thus be a high-reward but high-risk strategy, making it particularly critical to identify the factors that seem to increase or mitigate the risks — especially given the currently widespread use of the strategy. With the expansion of the Afghan Local Police as a major part of the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the lessons learned from earlier efforts are needed more than ever.

  • A soldier with the Indochinese Union forces carries a portable radio set, while a French officer signals their position in Vietminh territory.
  • Afghan Local Police officers attend their graduation ceremony east of Kabul, Afghanistan.
  • Algerians at a military barrack in Paris, France, prepare to leave for their homeland.

AP IMAGES/RAHMAT GUL (AFGHANISTAN)

Left to right: A native soldier with the Indochinese Union forces carries a portable radio set strapped to his back, while a French officer signals their position in Vietminh territory in southern Vietnam on August 12, 1951. Afghan Local Police officers attend their graduation ceremony east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on November 7, 2012. Horrified by a massacre in their home village, Algerians at a military barrack in Paris, France, prepare to leave for their homeland on June 5, 1957, to fight with French troops in North Africa.

With the expansion of the Afghan Local Police, the lessons learned from earlier efforts are needed more than ever.

From World War II to Today

The eight case studies are Indochina, Algeria, South Vietnam, Oman, El Salvador, southern Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The cases involve a wide range of intervening countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and the Soviet Union. Although the cases differ widely in terms of their time frames, geographic locations, and intervening countries, they offer a number of strikingly similar lessons, suggesting that the past experiences can usefully inform current and future efforts.

The first lesson is that politics is paramount in local defense operations. Any intervening country must assiduously manage a trilateral relationship among itself, the host-nation government, and the local actors it wants to incorporate into local defense forces. There is frequently friction in this relationship that, if not carefully managed, can make the local defense effort ineffective. Of particular concern today in Afghanistan is the role of U.S. oversight in mitigating this friction. Rapid expansion of local forces can greatly increase the friction while oversight becomes strained. Finding the proper balance between speed of expansion and proper oversight is one of the central challenges of these programs.

Second, the real value of local defense forces lies in intelligence. The synergy between U.S. combat capability and local defender intelligence is devastating to insurgents, who face a choice between being defeated piecemeal by the local forces who can identify them or massing to confront the defenders, which makes the insurgents vulnerable to U.S. firepower. Misusing local defenders as offensive combat forces can debilitate them.

Third, local history can limit — or propel — the effectiveness of local defense. Where government-affiliated paramilitaries have existed before, locals may be highly skeptical of them if their behavior was negative. Conversely, insurgent behavior that antagonizes the local population can positively affect efforts to build local defense forces.

Fourth, these efforts often require more than U.S. military support. Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development have provided effective, sometimes critical, support to local defense. These agencies have unique authorities and skills for managing the often-fractious politics and economics of local defense. Integrating these agencies into future programs will likely be crucial to success.

Fifth, relationships should be maintained between local defense forces and the conventional military forces that actually secure and hold terrain. Local defense forces need flexibility and autonomy. But the support of conventional forces is crucial to ensuring that the intelligence gathered by local defense forces is properly exploited and that local defenders are protected from a massed enemy.

Sixth, it is important to avoid insurgent strongholds when building local defense forces. Local forces should be built in areas where the insurgency has been weakened, by either military action or insurgent defections.

Seventh, demobilization or transition of local defense forces into a formal government security force must be handled with great care. Executing such a transition correctly takes a lot of time, whereas it can be done wrong overnight. History shows that even successful cases of transition faced numerous challenges and took considerably longer than anticipated.

  • Trucial Oman Scouts conduct a traditional camel patrol in 1972.
  • A Montagnard mountain tribesman receives training to fight Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam in 1962.
  • A Malian soldier checks identity papers in Diabaly, Mali.

AP IMAGES/JEROME DELAY (MALI)

Left to right: Trucial Oman Scouts, trained by British officers, conduct a traditional camel patrol, with camels rented from local farmers, in February 1972. A Montagnard mountain tribesman receives training to fight Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam in 1962; the trainees wore loincloths, old French uniforms, or discarded European clothing. A Malian soldier checks identity papers in Diabaly, Mali, on January 21, 2013, days after the French military intervened to recapture the country from radical Islamists.

Applying the Lessons to Afghanistan

Afghanistan has a long and troubled history of militias. As a result, special operations forces have made strenuous (if not always successful) efforts to dissociate the Afghan Local Police from these militias. The local police are subject to all the same restrictions as the Afghan National Police, including the restrictions regarding the use of force, and are subject to extensive control and oversight.

Efforts have also been made to manage the relationship among the Afghan Local Police, the Afghan government, and the United States. By transforming what was once called the Local Defense Initiative into Village Stability Operations and then into the Afghan Local Police, the central government's concerns have been substantially reduced (though not eliminated). Ongoing engagements between U.S. and Afghan leaders have kept the program on track even as the numbers of the Afghan Local Police have rapidly expanded. In terms of appropriate tactical employment of the local force, U.S. Special Operations Forces also seem to be following the lessons learned. Although locals are frequently used for checkpoint security, this is often combined with patrolling and intelligence collection.

It is only when the local populace is motivated to support local defense for reasons internal to the community that lasting success is possible.

The relative success of the program has created substantial pressure to expand it quickly. But rapid expansion is seldom associated with long-term success and could undermine the current level of harmony among all participants involved in the effort. The central recommendation for those now overseeing the Afghan Local Police is to resist pressure to change the methodology of the program for the sake of expediency. Such deviation is likely to lead to trouble.

This is particularly important in terms of where the local units are established. Trying to establish a unit in a new location simply because of its strategic importance is unlikely to be successful. It is only when the local populace is motivated to support local defense for reasons internal to the community that lasting success is possible.

Numerical increases of the program raise additional oversight questions. At present, oversight comes from U.S. Special Operations Forces, but there are a finite number of special operations personnel. Inevitably, expanding the ranks of the Afghan Local Police would necessitate combining more conventional forces with less oversight. The latter could mean using a hub-and-spoke model, in which a special operations unit in a district center oversees multiple Afghan Local Police units. Managing this shift in oversight is likely to be the single greatest challenge the program faces over the medium term.

Maintaining the limited operational and geographic scope of the local forces will also be important. As U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan takes place, there may be pressures to increase the use of the local forces outside their home districts or in more offensively oriented ways. The case studies indicate that this is unlikely to be successful.

The future of the Afghan Local Police will hinge on continuing to manage relationships effectively. The trilateral relationship among coalition forces, the Afghan government, and the local communities must be sustained, which is hardly a given and will require extensive effort. Likewise, managing local politics across a wide variety of Afghan Local Police units and communities will require great effort. Without such management, all of the program's previous successes will likely be rendered irrelevant. square