Tag Archives: conflict

Peace in Afghanistan? Watch the militias

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This text first appeared on The New Humanitarian, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Astri Suhrke is a political scientist and Senior Researcher Emerita at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway. Antonio De Lauri is a Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway.

An Afghan National Directorate of Security police stands guard in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan on 6 November 2012. Photo: Erik De Castro/REUTERS

The prospects of direct talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban have raised cautious hopes after decades of conflict. But if there is to be a durable peace, then Afghanistan’s CIA-supported paramilitary forces must also be disbanded.

In February, the United States and the Taliban inked an agreement calling for US forces to withdraw, and for the Taliban not to support international terrorism. This treaty paves the way for the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement, though this process has stalled for weeks.

Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance. The US-Taliban agreement does not include the activities of the CIA in Afghanistan. But the future of these militias – and their involvement in conflict, targeted killings, and political violence – cannot be left out of the conversation.

The agency has a long, torrid history in Afghanistan. As outlined in a recent report for the Costs of War Project, which researches and analyses the toll of post-9/11 wars, the CIA played a key role in the 1980s in American efforts to assist Afghan rebels known as mujahideen, who invoked the duty of holy warriors to fight Soviet forces and the Afghan communist government. Assistance included organising a mule-and-truck trade in arms and opium. 

The CIA took a lower profile in the country during the 1990s when the mujahideen and the Taliban fought for power, but a well-established local infrastructure enabled the agency to rapidly spring into action after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Operatives equipped with mobile phones and large bundles of dollar bills entered the country on a mission to mobilise Afghan militias. 

“Afghanistan has been cursed with foreign-financed militias, and the units supported and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency are of special significance.”

Since then, the CIA has financed, trained, and worked closely with militias and special forces of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security, or NDS. These units function like death squads in secretive night raids often labelled simply as search operations.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, found at least 278 civilians were killed and dozens more injured in search operations last year – about three quarters of these were caused by NDS or other forces trained by the CIA.

This adds up to about six percent of recorded civilian deaths attributed to any side last year. But even these numbers are conservative; they include only cases the UN could document and do not include civilian casualties from airstrikes launched in support of search operations. 

Rights groups and journalists have also extensively documented targeted killings of civilians by CIA-supported units. For example, in October 2018, Human Rights Watch found evidence that an Afghan paramilitary unit raided a home in Rodat district of Nangarhar province, killing five members of one family, including an elderly woman and child. Similarly, at least four civilians were executed during a July 2019 raid on a medical clinic in Wardak province; HRW attributed the strike to an NDS unit.

The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.

Since 2001, the fragmentation of military power has been a main reason for the country’s limited progress in rebuilding and strengthening the central state. Apart from the human rights issues, a peace agreement that allows CIA-supported paramilitary forces to continue operating outside the control of the state and the chain of command of its armed forces – as these units have been doing – would gravely undermine the prospects for a sustainable peace. Shielded from accountability by powerful foreign backers and protected by the country’s forbidding geography and complex social and political environment, the units could run a prolonged, under-the-radar dirty war, setting off a new spiral of violence. 

“The humanitarian toll is clear. But the very existence of these paramilitary squads has also contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability.”

Models for a good peace agreement that address this problem are readily available. Over the past three decades, almost all armed conflicts that ended in a compromise settlement have included agreements for the demobilisation and restructuring of armed forces – including paramilitary units and militias. The 1992 Chapultepec Agreement, which ended more than a decade of civil war in El Salvador, is one of the clearest examples: an entire section in the treaty’s first chapter deals with paramilitary bodies that were infamous for human rights violations. In unambiguous language, the treaty stipulates that paramilitary forces have no place in a state governed by the rule of law.

This was also the case in Afghanistan after 2001 when the UN launched an ambitious programme aimed at disarming armed groups or integrating them into regular armed forces. However, under pressure from renewed conflict, the programme folded soon after it began. 

This time around, disarming the CIA’s forces may be more difficult, even if the issue is covered in an eventual peace agreement. The CIA paramilitaries constitute a formidable set of actors in their own right. Given their highly paid and somewhat privileged status, they are unlikely to welcome a drastic reduction in pay that would accompany demobilisation or integration. If violence continues, which seems likely, the militias will be in high demand in the political marketplace. Well trained and well equipped, they may be reborn as private armies or “security guards” in the service of powerful individuals, or operate autonomously to prey on civilians and commercial sources by taxing local businesses and trade. Either possibility is in line with patterns of political violence in modern Afghan history.

The path forward is not simple. But the lessons from history – in Afghanistan and beyond – are clear. To attain a sustainable peace, externally supported paramilitary forces must be dealt with. The proper instruments are iron-clad formal obligations that are vigorously implemented.

Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies: 2019 in review

Thanks to fresh new funding from the Norwegian Research Council’s NORGLOBAL program in early 2019 to establish a Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, it has truly been an exciting year for NCHS. Through connecting and engaging with academics, students and practitioners of humanitarianism in Norway and beyond, NCHS has been able to serve its purpose as a platform for debate and exchange.

Top 3 most read NCHS blog posts 2019

1. Sørbø, Gunnar. “Europe’s new border guards”.
2. Reid-Henry, Simon. “Do you speak humanitarian?”.
3. Sandvik, Kristin. “Safeguarding: good intentions, difficult process”.

Looking back at 2019, three thematic areas stand out as having shaped the work of the Centre, as well as humanitarian agendas more broadly speaking. The themes migration, humanitarianism in conflict, and technologization of aid are likely to continue creating debate in humanitarian forums in the new year.

Displacement and migration

The UN OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 lays out how a record number of people are currently displaced, and displacement typically lasts for longer periods of time. In early 2019, 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced, and twenty-eight of the 50 countries with the highest numbers of new displacements faced both conflict and disaster-induced displacement.

Migration policies in Europe and its neighboring regions has continued to be a hot topic of discussion in 2019, and NCHS associates have contributed to the debate by scrutinizing the securitization of migration and relatedly humanitarian aid, and the concept of humanitarian containment. The latter reflects on humanitarian actors restricting the movement of refugees and other migrants through provision of certain services in a geographically restricted area, as explored by the CMI-led project SuperCamp. In Norway, the Norwegian-registered rescue vessel Ocean Viking operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée  reignited the migration debate, as explored in this blog post by NCHS Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert on whether search-and-rescue (SAR) operations encourage people to attempt crossing the Mediterranean. A public event co-organized by NCHS, with PRIO and the University of Oslo, at Litteraturhuset, gathered academics, humanitarians and Norwegian politicians from various political parties to discuss whether there is any validity to the claim that SAR in the Mediterranean act as a pull factor. The topic clearly engages, being amongst our most highly attended events in 2019.Taking a step back from air-conditioned conference rooms in a sobering reflection on migrant deaths at sea after attending a funeral ceremony at Lampedusa, NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri reminded us all of the immense human tragedy which lays the foundation for this politicized debate. In his words, “A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make it, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it”.

It is not only European migration policies and refugee protection means that have been put under and analytical lens this past year. In 2019, NCHS associates have debated Turkey’s Syria policy in light of the refugee question, historical perspectives from South America in light of Venezuelan displacement, outsourcing of border control to militia groups in the Sahel, and the Cartagena Declaration and refugee protection in Latin America.

As large movements of people are likely to continue shaping policies, humanitarian response and academic debates also in 2020, we remain committed to gather different types of interlocutors to learn from each other’s experiences.

The triple nexus and humanitarianism in conflict.

Initiated at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the triple nexus refers to the need to coordinate humanitarian, development and (at times appropriate) peacebuilding efforts to more effectively reach those most in need. While the concept is by no means without criticism (e.g. Louise Redver’s report on what implementing the nexus looks like from the field, or Kristoffer Lidén’s argument against merging humanitarianism with development and security post the 2016 WHS), the years following the World Humanitarian Summit has seen a push for policies attempting to enhance synergies between emergency and longer-term relief efforts, as an effort to bridge the gap between humanitarianism, development and security. Yet, we are very much still in the implementation phase in terms of nexus-programming. From an analytical point of view, the concept opens interesting trajectories in terms of where ‘the humanitarian’ ends and where other disciplines and fields of practice begin. Further, when placed in highly politicized contexts of insecurity and peacebuilding efforts, how does the upholding of the fundamental humanitarian principles fare?

The political role of humanitarian aid and the relationship between security, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts was the main thematic focus of the NCHS Research Network mid-year meeting at NUPI in August 2019. Gathering researchers from various disciplines with different entry-points to what ‘humanitarianism’ means, in particular when applied in a situation of conflict, we were able to engage in a rich debate about concepts, definitions, and their interpretations by various actors. Amongst these, an important point of view is how policies developed by actors external to the country where the conflict takes place are interpreted by local populations, as highlighted by the seminar on the EU’s engagement in external conflicts in the Sahel led by Morten Bøås.

The politics of humanitarian action was also the topic of a special issue of Disasters on humanitarian governance, edited by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. Sandvik and Dijkzeul have later written two blog posts based on the introduction to the special issue, titled “Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced”, and “New Directors in Humanitarian Governance: Technology, Juridification and Criminalization”. Amongst the authors contributing to the special issue were several NCHS associates, analyzing humanitarian policy making as a form of governance from different entry points. Kristoffer Lidén’s article titled “The Protection of Civilians and ethics of humanitarian governance: beyond intervention and resilience” explores how the principle of Protection of Civilians in conflict has ethnical repercussions in actions undertaken by states and international organizations related to humanitarian, development and security practices. Jacob Høigilt’s article titled “The futility of rights-based humanitarian aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories” argues that the Occupied Palestinian territories provides an example suggesting that rights-based approaches in humanitarianism might be futile if not backed by political power.

Humanitarian assistance has traditionally been delivered in situations characterized by instability and insecurity. In order to reach vulnerable populations, humanitarians have thus had to establish lines of communication with local, regional and national actors. Importantly, how these relationships are formed and maintained risk affecting the way the humanitarians are perceived in terms of upholding the principles of neutrality and impartiality. This balance, including the concept of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ and whether independent humanitarian assistance is possible in today’s conflict, were discussed at length during the NCHS annual meeting at CMI in November 2019. NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri brought up some of the same themes when he gave the NMBU Annual Lecture in Global Development in December 2019, titled “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Militarization, Diplomacy, Compromise”.

As violent conflicts continue to cause an immense need for humanitarian assistance, and reforms on reducing silos and enhancing cooperation between humanitarian, development and security efforts continue to play an important role in humanitarian policy, so too will we continue to focus on analysis on what the implications of the interlinkages may mean theoretically and in practice.

Data and ‘the digital’.

Technological developments have shaped all corners of society over the past decades, including humanitarianism and the delivery and governance of humanitarian aid. Yet, uncritical application of new technologies in the humanitarian field risk unintended negative consequences that may be harmful to local populations and aid workers alike. In 2019, NCHS associates have continued examining the effects of emerging technologies in the humanitarian field. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s paper on technologizing the fight against sexual violence is a good example, where Sandvik asks critical questions about the turn towards technology in humanitarian aid, and the rise of ‘digital bodies’. In 2019, Sandvik has contributed to developing the concept of ‘digital bodies’ further, including related to children’s rights, and ‘humanitarian wearables’ at a lecture at Oxford University.

However, the relationship between the humanitarian sector and technology does not have to be one sided. In a blog post, Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry in terms of data governance, with the caveat of the latter being willing to learn from the former’s century of experience in building organizational structures. As technological developments continue to make its way into humanitarian operations, our main encouragement to academics and practitioners alike is to make thorough ethical considerations to help avoid misuse and potential negative implications.

Top 3 highly attended events co-organized by NCHS in 2019 (click on link to access seminar recording)

1. “Assisting and protecting refugees in Europe and the Middle East – politics, law, and humanitarian practices”. 19 September 2019, at PRIO, Oslo.
2. Humanitarian lunch seminar: SYRIA”. 7 October 2019, at the Norwegian Red Cross, Oslo.
3. “Redningsoperasjoner i Middelhavet: en pull-faktor?”. 25 November 2019, at Litteraturhuset, Oslo.

Looking towards the new year.

Although 2019 has without doubt been a successful first year for the NCHS Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, we see no reason to rest on our laurels. In late 2019, The Research Council of Norway awarded several projects related to humanitarianism with funding starting from 2020, four of which are led by colleagues associated with NCHS. This year, we vow to continue engaging with academics, practitioners, policy makers and the broader public on questions related to humanitarianism. As stated above, we believe migration, the triple nexus and technological developments will continue to shape the humanitarian agenda in 2020, but these are by no means the only topics on which we will focus our efforts. As the year progress, we hope to engage with actors involved in the field of humanitarian studies on all topics of interest that may arise, and bridge practical and analytical knowledge by connecting research conducted on specific crises with practitioners’ own experience. Stay tuned and follow our web page and social media channels on Facebook and Twitter for more news.

Wishing you all the best for 2020.

Andrea Silkoset

Coordinator Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies